Burt, Cyril (1883–1971)

Sir Cyril Lodowic Burt was perhaps the most controversial figure in the history of psychology. Trained in philosophy and the classics, Burt was a polymath who eventually turned to psychology, becoming a pioneer in the field. He was the first psychologist to function in the profession outside a university; the first educational psychologist; the author of a number of important books and articles on juvenile DELINQUENCY, child development, INTELLIGENCE TESTING, factor analysis, and the heritability of mental abilities; and the first psychologist to be honored with knighthood for his contributions. Appointed to the London County Council early in his career, Burt had the opportunity to study children with various backgrounds and abilities, resulting in such classic works as The Young Delinquent (four editions from 1925 to 1957) and The Backward Child (five editions from 1937 to 1961). He also pioneered in the development of group tests of ability, many of which remained in use for decades. Offered the position as chair of the psychology department at University College, London, in 1931, he turned his prodigious abilities to more technical issues, producing Factors ofthe Mind in 1940, a landmark work in the history of factor analysis, and a number of elegant, theoretical papers on models of heritability, published in the British Journal of Statistical Psychology, which Burt edited.

It was his empirical studies of heritability, however, that damaged Burt's reputation after his death. A furious opponent of those who failed to recognize what he regarded as the obvious importance of genetic influence on intelligence, Burt sought to silence the "environmentalists" with studies of kinship correlations of IQ scores. In particular, his 1966 study reporting the similarity in IQ of separated monozygotic twins was recognized as the most important of its kind– the largest ever at the time and the only one that could confirm the model's key assumption of no relationship between the socioeconomic status of the homes in which the separated twins had been raised.

Yet only months after Burt's death, Princeton psychologist Leon Kamin noted a number of anomalies in the data that not only rendered the study worthless but raised accusations of fraud. At first the subject of vigorous debate, these charges were eventually accepted with the appearance of Burt's biography (containing a list of his publications and information about archival material) by the British historian of science L. S. Hearnshaw (1979), who had previously praised Burt's work and delivered the eulogy at his funeral. Provided access to Burt's diaries and personal papers, Hearnshaw concluded that, among many breaches of scientific ethics– including the pseudonymous authorship of a large number of articles and reviews supporting his position–Burt had indeed fabricated the test scores of the monozygotic twins some time after publishing the correlation between their IQs. Although publication of the biography seemed to settle the issue, a decade later two new, independent investigations by British social scientists Robert Joynson (1989) and Ronald Fletcher (1991) sought to reverse the earlier judgment and present Burt as unfairly maligned, the victim of "left-wing" influence on Hearnshaw.

A subsequent study by William Tucker (1997), comparing the characteristics of Burt's sample of twins with those from other well-documented studies, strongly suggests that his data were fictional. However, the debate over Burt has become a surrogate for the nature/nurture controversy, in which neither side is likely to provide evidence the other will find persuasive.

See also: Age and Development; Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child Psychology; Education, Europe.


Burt, Cyril L. 1925. The Young Delinquent. London: University of London Press.

Burt, Cyril L. 1937. The Backward Child. London: University of London Press.

Burt, Cyril L. 1940. The Factors of the Mind. London: University of London Press.

Burt, Cyril L. 1966. "The Genetic Determination of Differences in Intelligence: A Study of Monozygotic Twins Reared Together and Apart." British Journal of Psychology 57: 137–153.

Fletcher, Ronald. 1991. Science, Ideology, and the Media: The Cyril Burt Scandal. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Hearnshaw, L. S. 1979. Cyril Burt: Psychologist. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Joynson, Robert B. 1989. The Burt Affair. London: Routledge.

Tucker, William H. 1997. "Re-reconsidering Burt: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt." Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 33:145–162.