May Smith O.B.E. Industrial Psychologist

From the L.R. Reeve* collection of short sketches of people he had met - this affectionate piece about psychologist May Smith O.B.E (1868-1968). There is a very brief entry at Wikipedia but a lot more in an article on early women industrial and experimental psychologists which details sleep privation tests she performed on herself in her study of fatigue amongst workers. Our photo is from the Science Museum and is of a Dotting Machine made by Edgar Schuster. It was used for testing accident-proneness in industrial workers by May Smith and her fellow psychologist Millais Culpin while she was at the Industrial Fatigue Research Board. This was  a body originally set up to study the health of munitions workers during World War I. As often with L.R. Reeve, an assiduous attender of lectures, he evaluates oratorical style - in her case 'compulsive' and '..much more unassuming than she ought to have been.'

May Smith

Mr Alec Rodger M.A., of Birkbeck College, London, has recently contributed, in a Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, a well-deserved tribute to the late Miss May Smith, O.B.E., whom for many years I considered to be among the dozen ablest psychologists in this country; and to this day my opinion has never changed. Moreover, Mr Rodger's survey of her career strengthens my previous conviction of her wide outlook, for although I saw her, heard her unruffled, steady speeches, read accounts of diligent research, such as studying, with Dr Millais Culpin, 1,000 people in all walks of life to find 60 per cent showing some sign of mental ill-health, I never knew of her close knowledge of so many of our eminent pioneers in psychology. I knew that she had been associated with William McDougall, Millais Culpin and Cyril Burt; but the fact that she had been influenced by the eminent Samuel Alexander, Lord D'Abernon, Lord Woolton and the steady, clear-thinking Eric Farmer was news to me;  and Mr Rodger’s account of her early days emphasises once again how frequently we meet people for years and suddenly learn that we have both lived in the same locality for a long period, and experienced a human environment of similar interest. Miss Smith and I both knew some of Manchester's leading figures and eminent learned men.
  On the rare occasions when I spoke to her in London I never learned that she had dwelt in Lancashire. We could have compared notes and exchanged anecdotes concerning dozens of people; but I am not going to repeat my remarks made elsewhere about Samuel Alexander except to say that any student was unusually fortunate to be guided by such a remarkable thinker.
  Nor is it my purpose to give an exhaustive account of Miss Smith's numerous and varied activities; for one who has been a teacher, a college lecturer, and industrial researcher on fatigue, telegraphist’s cramp, the nervous temperament, sickness absence, labour turnover, and has delved into an historical study of medical psychology, together with many writings of papers and two books, requires a longish account to portray an exceptionally busy career.
  Even now I have to announce an occupation which may have taken more hours of labour than any other activity; for during twenty-seven years she was Librarian of the British Psychological Society; and anyone with a knowledge of the formidable spate of books on psychology must feel that May Smith's greatest teacher was the library itself. Here I must mention another point of special interest to myself. Mr Rodger quite properly implies the difficulties of moving the library during the war from London to Nottingham and its subsequent merger with the Goldsmiths’ Library of the University of London. When I was a student at Goldsmiths’ I spent hours in the library with books on psychology to cope with my specialized course in Advanced Education; and we students believed that our library was unusually well-equipped.
  When, for more than thirty years, I assiduously attended educational, medical, industrial and general meetings of the British Psychological Society, not forgetting special gatherings at Oxford, Cambridge and Reading, I saw Miss Smith on many occasions.
  I shouldn't say that her oratory quite reached the heights attained by such speakers as Mrs E. M. Burgwin, Mrs Lowe of the L.C.C., Dr Dorothy Brock, or the quiet precision of Dr Susan Isaacs, but I do know that whenever I had an opportunity of hearing Miss Smith I was there; for I was aware that I should hear a woman who knew how to speak on the platform, who never propounded a theory without an exhaustive study of her subject, who made every theme of compulsive interest and who, in view of her unquestioned knowledge, was much more unassuming than she ought to have been. She would, I am sure, have left an impress on any line she may have adopted. It is hard to say whether her success in life was due largely to her strong will, or whether she was one of those unusual people whose obsession urges them on to incessant study. In any case she must have looked back on her past life with an uncommon measure of satisfaction, for she inspired hundreds of young students and psychologists.
  The last time I spoke to her I discovered one reason why she was such a distinguished psychologist.
  She and I were the earliest arrivals for an impending lecture.
  "Do you think," I asked, "that William McDougall is our greatest psychologist?”
  “I certainly think so," she replied, "but then, I may be biased; he is my old teacher."

* Found among  the papers of the long defunct literary agency Michael Hayes of Cromwell Road S.W.5  - parts of a manuscript memoir by one L.R. Reeve of Newton Abbot, South Devon. Mr Reeve was attempting to get the book (Among those Present: Very Exceptional People) published, but on the evidence of the unused stamp Hayes never replied and  L. R. Reeve published the book himself through the esteemed vanity publisher Stockwell two years later in 1974.

L R Reeve had, in a long life, met or observed a remarkable selection of famous persons. He  presents 'vignettes' of 110 persons from all grades of society (many minor or even unknown) they include Winston Churchill, Dorothy Sayers,  H H Asquith, John Buchan, the cricketer Jack Hobbs, J.B. Priestley, H.G. Wells, Marconi, E.M. Forster, Duchess of Atholl, Marie Stopes, Oliver Lodge and Cecil Sharp -- 'it is unnecessary to explain that  many I have known have not known me. All of them I have seen, most of them I have heard, and some of them have sought information, even advice from me." Reeve states that the unifying qualification all these people have is '… some subtle emanation of personality we call leadership, and which can inspire people to actions  unlikely to be undertaken unless prompted by a stronger will."

Reeve was a teacher throughout his life and deputy head of 3 London schools, headmaster of Loughborough emergency schools, ex-president of London Class Teachers Association  and very early member of the British Psychological Society (55 years)... I calculate he was probably born in about 1900. His style is markedly unexciting but he has much information unavailable elsewhere.. He sent several typed manuscripts to (from the smell) the chain-smoking agent Hayes…

2 thoughts on “May Smith O.B.E. Industrial Psychologist

  1. ClockWork

    May Smith was born on the 29th of August 1879, and passed on the 22nd of February 1968. that’s 88yrs, not 100yrs. Practically nobody was 100 yrs back then.

    (can anyone find an image of her to put on any articles?)


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