The book project

Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash

Once upon a time, a person that we both know set out to write a book. 

 It started out as an idea—a random, what-if, out-there sort of idea that the person happened to think up one day, and then…as time wore on…became accustomed to. 

After all, lots of people have written books. Why not this person? This person knew some things. They had a perspective to provide. And besides, they liked to write. 

And so…outlines were drafted. Notes compiled. Words typed. Pages paginated. 

It wasn’t long before the book began to dominate the person’s thoughts and even how they were feeling on a given day. On days when they could work on the book non-stop, they’d feel satisfaction and, if things were going particularly well, exhilaration. If a day or two slid by with no progress, they’d feel frustration and guilt.

It goes without saying that the book became their go-to answer when someone asked them how they were doing. 

As the years rolled by, the topic of the book became a little embarrassing. After all, a person can only talk about the book they’re writing for so long without there being, well, an actual book to point to. 

That’s why, in 1937, I’m sure St. Clair Switzer was feeling the heat. By then, he’d been talking about his book for nearly three years with nothing to show for it.

Oh, wait. Did you think I was talking about my book? Nah…we’re talking about Doc Switzer’s book. Mine is…you know…still in the works.

Switzer had started talking about writing a book since at least September 1934, shortly after he’d earned his Ph.D. under psychologist Clark Hull. He’d already had some experience in book publishing, having assisted Hull with Hypnosis and Suggestibility: An Experimental Approach, which had been published in 1933. 

The page-turner Switzer envisioned would focus on the topic of conditioned reflexes. After all, the title of Switzer’s dissertation was “The Modifiability of the Conditioned Reactions,” and it yielded publications such as thisthis, and oh yeah this one too in scientific journals. His master’s degree had something to do with eyelids and the blinking of said eyelids upon the presentation of some sort of stimulus. So he had the requisite expertise to write about conditioning—forward conditioning, backward conditioning, all the different directions of conditioning. 

What are forward and backward conditioning, you ask? Remember Pavlov’s dogs, where a bell is rung before the dogs were given their food to the point where the ringing bell alone would cause the dogs to salivate, even if no food arrived? That’s forward conditioning. If Pavlov had used backward conditioning instead, the bell would ring after the dogs were given their dinner. Because the dogs wouldn’t associate the bell with a soon-to-arrive dinner, a ringing bell alone wouldn’t cause the dogs to salivate. It might bring about some very annoyed doggy looks though. 

Whew! Fun, huh? I’m sure there’s a lot more to the subject—there’s got to be—but I don’t think we need to dig any deeper for this blog post. (You’re welcome.)

At first, Doc thought he might like to coauthor the book with a fellow psychology professor at Miami University who’d received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin two years before Switzer had gone there. Hull knew that person too, but, for some reason, didn’t care for him. I know this because I’ve read letters that Hull had written to Switzer that are on file at the National Museum of Psychology, in Akron, Ohio, and some of his comments were mean and petty.

When Doc wrote to Hull in September 1934 telling him of his plans, Hull was unenthusiastic. Not about the book, mind you. Hull had nothing but encouragement for Doc’s book. He said his choice in book topics was “extremely fashionable,” and that he genuinely felt that Doc was wholly qualified to write it. He just didn’t think he should write it with the other professor, whom he viewed as Switzer’s competitor, or worse, his nemesis, who would take all the credit while doing little of the work.

“Surely you have turned out as much experimental work on conditioned reflexes as Hilgard or Razran, and I am sure you are able to write more readily and more effectively than either one of them,” said Hull.

That was quite the compliment. Agewise, Ernest (Jack) Hilgard and Gregory Razran were peers of Switzer’s (Hilgard was actually two years younger than Doc and Razran was a year older) but they were well on their way to becoming world authorities on conditioning and other psychological principles. Switzer had become friends with Hilgard during his time at Yale when Hilgard was still an instructor there, before he moved on to Stanford. Switzer had hoped to work in Hilgard’s lab at Stanford the following academic year with the assistance of a fellowship from the National Research Council. Unfortunately, in April 1934, Doc learned that the fellowship hadn’t come through. Two months later, he learned of Hilgard’s intention to write a book on conditioning. Switzer encouraged Hilgard in his letter, though, for some reason, he didn’t mention that he, too, was contemplating such a book. Who knows, maybe he was still mulling things over.

“I think you are just the man to give the subject a sane and lucid treatment,” Doc had told Jack.

It’s important to point out here that, fashionable as the topic was, in 1934, there was still plenty of room for someone to make a name for himself or herself by publishing a definitive work on conditioning. Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov had published his landmark book, Conditioned Reflexes, relatively recently, in 1927, and Razran, who’d emigrated from Russia to live in the U.S., had published Conditioned Responses in Children in 1933. But America’s heaviest hitters still hadn’t published. You’ve heard of B.F. Skinner? His first book, The Behavior of Organisms, An Experimental Analysis, wouldn’t be published until 1938. Hilgard’s book, Conditioning and Learning, which he coauthored with another Yale guy, Donald Marquis, didn’t come out until 1940. In September 1934, Switzer had the opportunity to truly become a household name in conditioned reflex circles both domestic and abroad, and Hull was doing all he could to push him in that direction.

“I suggest that you go after that,” encouraged Hull in his letter written September 27, 1934. “Anything that we have here or that we are likely to have should be available to you, and I will undertake to use what influence I have to help you get a publisher. As a matter of fact, a book written as well as you can write one should not need any influence.”

Clark Hull was being his usual magnanimous self. Without question, if St. Clair Switzer had written his book on conditioned reflexes, Clark Hull would have helped him secure a good publisher. And if that had happened, if the book were as good as Clark Hull had predicted, then Switzer’s name might have been likened to the names of Jack Hilgard, Donald Marquis, and Gregory Razran. Maybe even Clark Hull himself.

But Switzer fretted and stewed. He didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, certainly not Jack Hilgard’s or Donald Marquis’. Or maybe he didn’t want to compete with those two. How would it look if their book took off and his tanked?

“My dear Switzer,” Hull began in a letter written November 13, 1934—the same way that he began all his letters to Switzer. “Yesterday Marquis was in and told me that you were worrying about the propriety of your going ahead and writing your book on conditioned reflexes. He asked me if I wouldn’t write you and assure you that you should go ahead with it. As you know, I have felt all along that there was no ethical question involved in any number of people writing books on any subject at all. Surely you have as much right as anyone else to write a book on conditioned reflexes.”

He went on to say this about Marquis, who seems to be a very above-board kind of guy: “He believes, as I myself do, that while an increase in the number of books will doubtless cut down the royalties which should be received from anyone, it is a distinctly wholesome thing for the development of this branch of science that a number of good works should be published. From all indications this seems assured.”

The Marquis-Hull intervention must have worked. For the time being, Doc stuck with it.

In September 1935, Hull had this to say to Doc:

“I was under the general impression when I talked with you at Ann Arbor that you were a little despondent about the progress of your book. I am writing this letter mainly to remind you in a somewhat emphatic manner that the writing of a good book will make a tremendous difference in the possibilities of your getting into a better job without waiting for some perfectly healthy person to die off. I wonder if you get my meaning?”

Oh, Clark Hull, I believe I do get your meaning. I could be wrong, but I think Hull was referring to the professor on Miami’s faculty whom Hull didn’t like very much. I sincerely doubt that he was referring to Everett Patten, Miami’s psychology department chair and a former Hull student whom Hull did like very much. But let this be a lesson to readers: be careful what you put in writing, because it might end up in an archive somewhere and everyone may see the darker side of you. As it turns out, the person whom I believe Hull was referring to died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1940 at a very young age.

In November 1935, Hull wrote this to Doc:

“I am very happy to know about the encouraging prospects of your book. You must set your teeth into that and stick to it until it is done. I believe that the publication of this book may do you a lot of good. After that you must get back into the laboratory, if you hope to save your scientific soul!”

He sounds, I don’t know…exasperated? Hull was probably sort of kidding around, but for him to tell Switzer that he was in danger of losing his scientific soul is harsh. I’m sure Doc cringed over that line.

And that’s it. That’s the last time Clark Hull had anything to say to Doc Switzer about his book according to my records, which tells me that Doc had either told him that he’d given up or he’d just stopped talking about it. 

About a year and a few months later, on February 20, 1937, Hull had one thing and one thing only to say to Switzer and he did it in a letter that contained one terse sentence. He said:

“A day or so ago I heard that Hilgard has a leave of absence from Stanford for the last quarter, and is coming here to finish the book on conditioned reflexes by himself and Marquis.”

Was he scolding Switzer? Was he trying to shame him into finishing his own book? The answer, I think, could be a little of both. It was as if he was saying, “See? This is what authoring a book actually looks like.”

As I mentioned earlier, Hilgard’s and Marquis’ book came out in 1940. It’s now a classic. That same year, Hull was part of a team that published a 329-page book titled Mathematico-deductive Theory of Rote Learning. Three years later, he published his classic, Principles of Behavior.

But by then, Doc was doing something else entirely. In 1942, he did an about-face and enlisted in the Army Air Forces to do his part during World War II. There, he was warmly welcomed for his skills in psychological testing, which involved assessing and placing Army Air Forces personnel according to their vocational strengths. By the war’s end, he’d worked himself into a lofty post at the Pentagon, where he was chief of the demobilization procedures section, and, according to a letter Doc wrote to Miami’s vice president, was “partly responsible for speeding up the release of a quarter million Air Forces men.” After the war, Doc was given the rank of lieutenant colonel, and he became a member of the Air Force Reserves. From that point on, he had two bosses: Miami University and the United States Air Force.

So there would be no book on conditioned reflexes. But that doesn’t mean Doc didn’t think he had a book inside him.

On June 30, 1951, as Doc was writing to Major H.G. Rollins of the Air Research and Development Command (ARDC) about a temporary job opportunity in Baltimore, he had this to say:

“Incidentally, I can be reached at my office at the university in the mornings. The number is 277-J. I am in the midst of writing a text on INDUSTRIAL PSYCHOLOGY and my afternoons are taken up with that task, which I carry on at home. The home phone is 487-M.”

A book on industrial psychology would have been perfect for Doc. He’d developed the business psychology course at Miami and, as with conditioning, he knew the subject backwards and forwards. And even though he seemed to be out of touch with his former mentor, Clark Hull, I’m sure there were no hard feelings between them. If Hull could have helped him get it published, I believe he would have. Also, even though Miami University didn’t have its own publishing operation at that time, other universities did. If he’d finished his book, I’m confident that he could have found a publisher.

But he didn’t finish that one either. From what I can tell, he didn’t work on his book during his sabbatical in 1956-57, and by his retirement in June 1966, he didn’t mention any plans to complete his book when asked how he’d be spending his newfound time. 

No, after Doc Switzer worked for the ARDC in 1951, he seemed to lose all interest in publishing a book on a topic he’d been passionate about for so long.

Could it be that he became busy doing other things? Depending on what those other things were, and who they were for, not only is it possible that Doc had lost his scientific soul, but there’s a chance that he ended up selling it to the devil. 

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1 month ago

And some researchers who became too high-profile, like Timothy Leary, got their grants yanked. Granted, I doubt Switzer was going to start
inviting students and faculty to LSD orgies, but intelligencia across the ages seems to take the view of “all press is bad press unless we are creating propaganda. “

Stevie J
Stevie J
1 month ago

Let me put on my conspiracist’s hat and make a suggestion. If Doc Switzer was involved in MK Ultra, I would think it would be incumbent on him to keep as low a profile as possible, and surely not publish a book in a related field. The strange secrecy 60 years later suggests to me that the perps wouldn’t want anyone involved to be any more publicly noted than necessary.

1 month ago

Fascinating wind-up. Soul-for-Sale Switzer is in numerous company in government, academia, medicine, entertainment, sports and business. Quite the market.

1 month ago

Thank you, yes, it’s much less of a problem now, but it took a LOT of therapy (and regularly checking myself) to realize I don’t have to do everything perfectly to be loved and that I’m not responsible for other people’s feelings. Also that there’s times when it’s appropriate to take a break/set something aside and come back to it, even years down the road, or give up, as long as it isn’t everything. And that it is ok not to try some things as long as you keep developing other skills. (For example, those Diamond Dotz crafts fascinate me, but I already make jewelry and sometimes wreaths, cross stitch, and sew, and can’t justify spending money on something new.) And finally, certain close family members are never finding out about my involvement with this blog because they’ll be too judgemental.

1 month ago

Very interesting. I’m going to point you in the direction of this fact sheet written by Canadian psychologists who did an intensive study on perfectionism, because it sounds like Switzer and they explain it much better than I can:

I bring this up because Switzer’s excuses about not stepping on toes seems kind of absurd. If it was an artistic endeavor then he should watch out but it wasn’t, and as a scientist he should have known that more data is better. And I know all about “avoiding, procrastinating, quitting” – it’s something I continually have to work on, usually with a therapist.

Marilyn Laurie
Marilyn Laurie
1 month ago

Wow! Thanks. I enjoyed this very much.