In the mid 1960s Social Psychology emerged from Sociology as an independent department – the precursor of today’s Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science. LSE Archivist, Sue Donnelly, looks at the career of Hilde Himmelweit who led the discipline through its formative years at LSE.
Hildegarde Therese Litthauer was born in Berlin on 20 February 1918. Her father, Dr Siegfried Litthauer, was a chemist and industrialist and she came from a highly educated Jewish family. From 1927-1934 she attended Furstin Bismarck Shule in Berlin and then spent the year 1934-1935 at Hayes Court School, Kent. In 1937 Hilde went to Newnham College, Cambridge and in 1938, following the death of Siegfried Litthauer, Hilde’s mother, Feodore Remak, moved to England. In 1938 Hilde took part one of the economics tripos but in 1940 gained a first in the medieval and modern languages tripos. In the same year she married Freddy Himmelweit, a virologist. They had one daughter, Susan.
Hilde’s first contact with LSE, then evacuated to Cambridge was in 1940 when she applied to undertake the Diploma in Psychology. However the Acting Registrar, Eve Evans, thought she had too little experience of psychology and her application was changed to the Social Science Certificate – however she withdrew in favour of studying for the Cambridge psychology degree. In 1942 she obtained a first class degree in psychology and then qualified as an education and clinical psychologist. Hilde studied for her PhD at the London Institute of Psychology with Hans Eysenck and completed her thesis The study of temperament of neurotic persons by means of aspiration tests in 1945. Between 1945-1946 Hilde worked at the Maudsley Hospital in London on a Rockefeller funded project developing temperament and personality tests.
In 1946 Hilde applied for an assistant lectureship in psychology at LSE. The post was full time but Hilde wanted to continue with her research post at the Maudsley alongside the assistant lectureship. The School agreed to the proposal and the arrangement continued until 1949 when Hilde was appointed to a permanent lectureship with recognition as a University of London teacher. In the early 1950s Hilde completely overhauled the syllabus for the Diploma in Psychology which was recognised by the Department of Science and Industrial Research for student scholarships. She was promoted to Reader in 1954 moving to the major scale of Readership in 1958.
In 1954 Hilde began a major piece of work which was to shape her career taking on the Directorship of the Nuffield Television Inquiry, an empirical study into the impact of television on children’s lives. Hilde was ambivalent about taking on the role but realised this was a final opportunity to undertake a study with a control group with no regular access to television. Television and the Child was published with A N Oppenheimer and P Vince. The report established Hilde’s reputation in Europe and America and led to some heated debates with television personalities.
By the early 1960s the School was deliberating on the future of psychology at LSE including considering the creation of a professorship and a separate Department of Social Psychology. These discussions raised the question of Hilde’s appointment to a professorship and her suitability as a head of department. When the School decided to advertise the posts externally Hilde, believing the School would not appoint her, decided not to apply. The School Secretary, Harry Kidd, persuaded her to reconsider and after interviews for three candidates Hilde was appointed to the position of professor on the grounds of her research and contribution to the development of Social Psychology and her skill as a teacher. On 26 October 1964 Hilde received a letter from the Director, Sydney Caine, congratulating her on her appointment as professor. She spent the next 20 years developing the Department of Social Psychology (now the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science).
Hilde Himmelweit was also active in the wider academic world. In 1967 she joined the planning committee of the Open University and from 1969-1974 chaired its academic advisory committee. The Open University awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1976. From 1974-1977 Hilde returned to the influence of television serving on the Annan Committee on the Future of Television which considered both funding and the development of technology. The committee recommended the continuation of the license fee and the introduction of a new channel – later leading to the establishment of Channel 4. She was also Vice President of the International Society for Social Psychology.
In 1981 she published How voters decide: a longitudinal study of political attitudes and voting extending over fifteen years the results of a 15 year project with a team of collaborators, which followed 176 men through their voting choices in six general elections beginning in 1959. In the same year she won the Nevitt Sanford award for achievement from the International Society of Political Psychology.
Hilde Himmelweit retired in 1983 becoming Emeritus Professor. She died of cancer in 1989. Today the Hilde Himmelweit scholarship is awarded to a student studying for the MSc in Social and Cultural Psychology.
Contributed by Sue Donnelly (LSE Archivist)
Interested in women’s history? See Women at LSE