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 Beatrice Wright to Receive
 Kurt Lewin Award

 by Kay Deaux, with assistance from Henry McCarthy and Sheryl Wurl






When Beatrice Wright receives the Kurt Lewin Award at the SPSSI/APA convention in Toronto in August, the ceremony will be a particularly important historical moment for SPSSI and for social psychology in general. As the sole surviving doctoral student of Kurt Lewin, with whom she studied in Iowa, Beatrice knows first-hand what the Lewinian tradition signifies. The award ceremony, which will take place from 2 to 2:50 p.m. on Thursday, August 6, will be the occasion not only for others to talk about the contributions that Beatrice Wright has made to social psychology and especially to the field of rehabilitation, but also for Beatrice to talk about her own experience with Kurt Lewin and to answer questions from members of the audience who want to know more about this now unique historical link.


The title of Beatrice’s talk is “What I Learned from Kurt Lewin” (and it is not giving anything away to say that a great deal can be included under that umbrella!). Prior to Beatrice’s comments and following the presentation of the actual award by Dr. Kay Deaux, chair of last year’s Lewin Award Committee, two speakers who have a deep knowledge of Beatrice Wright’s life and work, will give short talks. First, Dr. Henry McCarthy, a professor in the Rehabilitation Counseling Department at Louisiana State University, will offer his perspective on her life-time contributions, under the title of “Appreciating Beatrice Wrights’s Lewinian Legacy to Rehabilitation Theory and Practice.” In a project funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, Dr. McCarthy has done an intensive analysis of the scholarly contributions and practical impact of Beatrice Wright’s work. Dr. Sheryl Wurl, director of Clinical Pastoral Education at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, will talk about “Beatrice Wright and the Lewin legacy.” For her dissertation work, Dr. Wurl wrote a detailed life history of Beatrice Wright, combining available published material with a substantial number of personal interviews.  In the process, she developed both extensive knowledge and a deep appreciation for the woman and for the work, one result of which was her nominating Beatrice for the Lewin award.


Beatrice Wright was born on what is now called Staten Island, a borough of New York City, in December 1917, arriving 12 hours before her fraternal twin brother. Their parents, Sonia and Jerome Posner, were Russian immigrants who had come to the United States six years before. As did many other children of immigrants, young Beatrice went to Brooklyn College, which offered free quality education to those who could not afford private universities. She majored in psychology, earning a Bachelor’s degree in 1938, and her professors at Brooklyn included the legendary Solomon Asch and Abraham Maslow. Then came the career-defining move to Iowa to study with Kurt Lewin, pursued on the recommendation of a Brooklyn College professor. At Iowa, Beatrice was one of only two women who earned a doctorate with Kurt Lewin.  She received her master’s degree from Iowa in 1940 and her Ph.D. in 1942. (Lewin left Iowa in 1944 and died only three years later.) At Iowa, Beatrice also met Erik Wright, whom she married in 1940 and who was himself a student of Lewin.


Beatrice Wright’s academic career was not the standard one – at least not standard in terms of a male-defined model – but perhaps not untypical of the more circuitous routes that female academics of that era were forced to navigate. She began work on disability somewhat by chance, taking advantage of a needed job opportunity in California where her husband was stationed (and where she had moved to be with him, leaving a teaching position at Swarthmore that she attained after her PhD).  This was post-war United States, and the problems facing many returning veterans, so similar to those today, made the psychological study of disability a social issue of the highest priority. This early work became the foundation of Beatrice Wright’s professional legacy.


Roger Barker brought both Beatrice and Erik Wright to the University of Kansas in 1951. Yet while Erik was installed as a Professor and Director of Clinical Psychology, anti-nepotism rules precluded a faculty position for Beatrice. It was not until 1964 that she could have a faculty position in her own right, at which time she immediately became an Associate Professor. Beatrice taught at Kansas until 1995, at which point she moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where she resides now.


Despite the professional challenges that Beatrice Wright faced, her contributions to the field of rehabilitation psychology developed and accelerated. She published the first edition of her influential text, Physical Disability—A Psychological Approach, in 1960. This book was expanded and reissued in 1983, with the term Psychosocial replacing “Psychological”. Still widely cited today, this seminal volume has defined the field of rehabilitation psychology for multiple generations of students, scholars and practitioners. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to talk about the field of disability without making reference – either knowingly or not – to the work of Beatrice Wright. 


Her work and her theorizing are inherently and inextricably social psychological in character. Disability and rehabilitation are conceptualized not in terms of some physical state of the individual but rather as a form of social process in which interactions between the physically affected individual and his or her social and cultural environment are the necessary domains of study. Her work has been theoretical as well as empirical, accessible to practitioners as well as scholars. In short, she is a Lewinian through and through! 


The August 6 session will be a wonderful opportunity to salute this remarkable nonagenarian and to be part of an important moment of SPSSI history as Beatrice Wright receives the 2009 Kurt Lewin Award.


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