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Muriel Stern



Training Location(s):

PhD, McGill University, (1957)

MS, McGill University, (1954)

Primary Affiliation(s):

McGill University, (1959-?)

Media Links:

Muriel Stern CPA Oral History of Psychology in Canada Interview Transcript



Career Focus: Hormones; barbiturate anesthesia and behavior; alcoholism; physiological psychology; comparative psychology.


Muriel Stern was born in 1918, in New York City. Almost immediately, however, her family began a life of constant displacement, frequently moving cities: “I went to thirteen schools before I finished high school…[in] all the major cities in the United States.” When Stern’s parents eventually divorced she moved to her mother’s native home in Montreal, Quebec, where she also met her husband, Lloyd. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and going to school was not an option for her, so after marriage, she worked for five years as a stenographer at an insurance company while her husband completed his medical education. He specialized in psychiatry at McGill, and typing out his psychology papers was her first exposure to the discipline.


In 1949, when her husband began his practice, Stern decided it was time to become both a full Canadian citizen and an undergraduate student at McGill – she was 30, “a late starter.” Donald Hebb’s introductory class in psychology proved to be “antipathical to all the ideas I had brought to it.” However, she took the summer to read more psychology texts, such as The Organization of Behaviour, and after a couple of courses with Dalbir Bindra, she discovered her love for comparative psychology and dropped all previous notions of studying medicine or clinical psychology.


Upon completing her B.Sc., Stern earned the psychology prize in first class honours, but was told she could not pursue graduate work: “It was that I was a married woman of 34 and what could my motivations be.” However, after convincing Hebb that she wasn't in psychology for the status - "I told him that in my circle a mink coat would buy me more status" - she was accepted into the Master’s program at McGill, but told that “under no circumstances” would she be allowed into the PhD “for [her] own good.” Another outstanding performance, this time in her Master’s thesis using the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), earned her the right to enter the PhD program, now to work with Bindra on the effects of hormones on behavior. While Bindra had a great influence on her self-definition as “a rat psychologist,” she credits Hebb for making her the psychologist she became. As an undergraduate, she had disagreed with his ideas that the environment could contribute to intelligence; however, these very ideas gradually found their way into her research. Most importantly, her mentors taught her to question assumptions and approach experimentation from different perspectives: “I learned early to say ‘just because it’s always been that way, doesn’t necessarily make it so.’ But I must have got that idea from Hebb, from Lucans and from Bindra.” In 1957, at age 39, Stern received her Ph.D.


Stern stayed on as a faculty member at McGill, eventually earning the title of associate professor, publishing numerous studies on the effects of anesthesia and alcohol on the brain and behavior of rats. Her work on alcohol led to findings on how electrical stimulation in the lateral-hypothalamus entices rats to prefer strong alcohol solutions over water, suggesting a connection between brain structure and alcoholism. In 1963, Stern sat on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) where she attempted to mitigate factionalism within psychology departments by advocating for stronger Canadian presence in faculty and leadership roles, as well as broadening the CPA’s focus to promote social change. For example, in 1975, Stern presented a telegram supported by 300 CPA members, addressed to the Minister of Justice, protesting the persecution of abortion provider Dr. Henry Morgentaler and pushing for the decriminalization of abortion. In her personal life, Stern had an appreciation for fine art and was an avid collector and supporter of up-and-coming artists, often purchasing their work before they became well-known.


Spanning over four decades, Stern’s research career was remarkable for having begun at a time when both McGill and the CPA were both rigidly male-dominated institutions. Her success is a testament not only of her passion for scientific methodology, but her persistence to pursue that passion against formidable odds.


by Prapti Giri and Margot Sullivan (2014)

With additional information by Dr. Michael Gistrak

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works:
By Muriel Stern

Amit, Z., Stern, M.H., & Wise, R.A. (1970). Alcohol preference in the laboratory rat induced by hypothalamic stimulation. Psychopharmacologia (Berlin), 17, 367-377.

Stern, M. H. (1941). Psychological characteristics of three groups of Caughnawaga Iroquois Indians (Unpublished master's thesis). McGill University, Montreal, QC.


Stern, M. H. (1956). Effect of anti-thyroid therapy on objective-test performance. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 10, 226-230.


Stern, M. H. (1959). Thyroid function and activity, speed, and timing aspects of behaviour. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 13, 43-48.


Stern, M.H. (1960). Behavioural retardation following barbiturate anaesthesia. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 14, 96-100.

About Muriel Stern

Gul, P., Korosteliov, A.,Caplan, L., Ball, L. C., Bazar, J. L., Rodkey, E. N., Sheese, K., Young, J., & Rutherford, A. (2013). Reconstructing the experiences of first generation women in Canadian psychology. Canadian Psychology, 54, 94-104.


Koenig, J. (Producer), & Lipsett, A. (Director). (1965). Animals and Psychology [Motion Picture]. Canada: National Film Board of Canada.


Pyke, S. W. (1992). The more things change…. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 33, 713-720.


Wright, M. J. (1992). Women ground-breakers in Canadian psychology: World War II and its aftermath. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 33, 675-682.