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Ruth Tolman


Training Location(s):

University of California, Berkeley

Primary Affiliation(s):

Media Links:
Archival Collections

Richard Chace Tolman Papers at The Caltech Archives



Career Focus: Clinical psychology; psychiatry.


Perhaps best known in psychology circles for being the first woman elected to the council of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), Ruth Tolman led an intriguing life, both personally and professionally. Born in Indiana to the Sherman family, Ruth grew up and eventually attended the University of California. There she studied the psychological differences among different groups of criminals for her doctoral dissertation. She continued to pursue her interest in psychiatry, crime, and delinquency when she took a job as the senior psychological examiner for the Los Angeles County Probation Department.


In 1924, Ruth married Richard Chace Tolman, a notable chemist and physicist who shared Ruth's interest in psychology. This marriage was instrumental in her involvement in SPSSI, as Chace Tolman's brother Edward was one of the founders of the organization. Because of her connection with the Chace Tolman brothers, which accrued to her some level of renown in  the fields of both science and the humanities, Tolman never felt that she was as marginalized as other women of the time. She recalled, "I always find it hard to abstract 'being a woman' from being a particular woman and tend to hold my particular idiosyncrasies rather than my sex for the particular arrangements of my life," (Tolman as citied in Capshew & Lazlo, 1986).


Despite not feeling as marginalized as others, the Second World War brought about many changes in gender roles that impacted Tolman's career. Tolman served as chair for the sub-committee on the Service of Women Psychologists in the Emergency Committe on Psychology (ECP). This sub-committee was formed in response to the depletion of male psychologists in the field due to the war. Tolman, along with the other members of the committee, oversaw several wartime duties, including the training of new psychologists, the selection of officers for the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, and research and occupational testing. It has been reported that the sub-committee was formed in response to claims of discrimination by female psychologists who, having been excluded from the ECP, demanded that they be included. They claimed that female psychologists were not being informed of the changes in their field, and were not being asked to fill in the gaps created by male psychologists who were joining the army. The sub-committee was formed to redress some of these issues.


As well as her work as chair of the sub-committee during the war, Tolman also held a position as a clinical psychologist with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which served as the basis for the modern day Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It was during her time with the OSS that Tolman is said to have begun an affair with J. Robert Oppenheimer, known to many as "the father of the atomic bomb." A colleague and friend of her husband, Oppenheimer was a theoretical physicist involved in the development of nuclear weapons. The couple met and became close with Oppenheimer after years of working together (Oppenheimer is also known for his Tolman-Oppenheimer-Volkoff limit, an equation based on the work of Richard Chace Tolman). While the affair was never made public during the war, Tolman and Oppenheimer were not overly careful about hiding their relationship. Friends would often drop in to the Tolman residence to find the couple alone in their dressing gowns. The two also shared an extensive correspondence through letters, both during and after the war.


It was rumoured that Tolman and Oppenheimer's respective spouses had known about the relationship. One evening in 1948, during a party, Richard Tolman suffered a heart attack. He was hospitalized and died shortly after. Some claim that he died of a broken heart, because he knew his wife was in a relationship with his friend. The affair continued after Richard's death, and while most of the evidence of the affair has since been destroyed, the few remaining love letters between Tolman and Oppenheimer demonstrate their deep feelings for one another.


Following the Second World War, Tolman continued her wartime work by taking a position with the Veteran's Administration in the Mental Hygiene Clinic. She also kept a visible presence within the field by serving on various boards and committees. Tolman served as the president of the Western Psychological Association, as well as the representative for Division 12 (the Society of Clinical Psychology) of the American Psychological Association (APA) following the war. Tolman, along with other psychology greats such as Gordon Allport and Kurt Lewin, was responsible for setting up a memorial fund in honour of Barbara Stoddard Burks. Burks was a former student of Richard Tolman, and a friend and colleague of Ruth's. Tolman remained a prominent figure in clinical psychology until her death.


by Meghan George (2011)

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works:
By Ruth Tolman

Tolman, Ruth S. (1942). Tentative suggestions on undergraduate psychological training for women in the emergency. Psychological Bulletin, 39(6), 406-407.


Grayson, H. M., Tolman, Ruth S. (1950). A semantic study of concepts of clinical psychologists and psychiatrists. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 45(2), 216-231.


Forer, B. R., Tolman, Ruth S. (1952). Some characteristics of clinical judgment. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 16(5), 347-352.


Tolman, Ruth S. (1953). Virtue rewarded and vice punished. American Psychologist, 8(12), 721-733.


Tolman, Ruth S., Eysenck, H. J. (1957). Wisdom tempered by prejudice. PsycCRITIQUES, 2(9), 244-245.


Tolman, Ruth S., Meyer, M. M. (1957). Who returns to the clinic for more therapy? Mental Hygiene, 41, 497-506.


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