Leta Stetter Hollingworth


Researched and written by:  Richard W. Barbaro
I attest that the following biography is a product of my own original work..

Children of 140 IQ waste half their time.  Those above 170 IQ waste practically all their time in school.”  L.S. Hollingworth (Williams, 2003)

 To have the intelligence of an adult and emotions of a child combined in a childish body is to encounter certain difficulties.”  L. S. Hollingworth (Klein, 2000)


Childhood/Family Life

Leta Stetter Hollingworth had a bleak and unfortunate childhood.  She was born on May 25th, 1886 to Margaret Elinor Danley and John G. Stetter.  Born near Chadron, Nebraska, Leta was the eldest of three daughters, followed by Ruth and Margaret in close succession.  Leta had little chance to get to know her mother.  Birthing three children in three years proved to be too taxing on Margaret Elinor’s tiny body, and she died after the birth of the youngest daughter.  Shortly after the death of Leta’s mother, John Stetter left his three daughters to be raised by his late wife’s parents, Margaret and Samuel Danley.  Leta had now lost both biological parents before her 4th birthday. (Hochman, n.d.)

For Leta, growing up in her grandparent’s log cabin was not an entirely negative experience.  Hochman (n.d.) notes, however, that her early childhood journal does maintain a significantly melancholy overtone.  Life did not improve for Leta when her father returned to reclaim his children.  When Leta was 12 years old, she and her two sisters were taken to Valentine, Nebraska to live with their tyrant step-mother and a father they barely knew.  John Stetter had remarried to Fanny Berling, a woman who was verbally abusive towards her step-children and completely authoritarian (Klein, 2000).  Leta termed the four years of her life in Valentine as the “fiery furnace” in her journal, tainted by alcoholism in the family, and depression for Leta herself.  Finally, in 1902, at the age of 16, Leta graduated from Valentine High School and was able to escape from this life by enrolling at the University of Nebraska (Klein, 2000).

Adult Life

Leta’s quality of life greatly improved during her time in college.  She excelled as a student and fostered a healthy and happy social life.  It was at the University of Nebraska where Leta met her future husband, Harry Levi Hollingworth.  Harry went on to pursue graduate work at Columbia University while Leta finished her undergraduate work.  In 1906, Leta graduated Phi Beta Kappa, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Nebraska State Teacher’s Certificate (Hochman, n.d.).  Leta taught high school in Harry’s home town of DeWitt, Nebraska for two years until Harry earned an assistant professorship position at Columbia.  Leta then moved to New York and married Harry Hollingworth on December 31, 1908 (Hochman, n.d.).

Leta had a happy and healthy relationship with Harry, but the marriage proved to be an unexpected obstacle as she attempted to start a career in New York.  Not until moving to New York and becoming a wife did Leta learn of the State Board of Education’s refusal to hire married women to teach.  The newlyweds were counting on Leta’s teaching to supplement their income, and without it they were forced to live in poverty, barely able to afford even their small, dark apartment.  After being denied employment, Leta attempted to pursue graduate work at Columbia like her husband, but she was unable to acquire a fellowship position or scholarship because of her gender.

Leta, unable to exercise her ambitions and talents, sunk into a deep and persistent depression that did not improve until 1911 when Harry was hired to research the effects of caffeine for The Coca-Cola Company.  Leta was immediately hired by her husband as a research assistant, and was finally able to take graduate courses at Columbia (Hochman, n.d.).  In 1913, she received her Master’s Degree and shortly thereafter was appointed the position of consulting psychologist at Bellevue Hospital.  During this time, Leta went on to earn her Ph.D. from Columbia under the guidance of Edward Thorndike.  She performed so well that she was not required to take an oral examination before receiving her doctorate degree in 1916 (Klein, 2000).  Shortly after earning her Ph.D., Leta accepted an offer to teach at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College while still maintaining her involvement at Bellevue Hospital (Hochman, n.d.).  She continued teaching and performing research at Columbia University until she died at the age of 53, on November 27, 1939 (Hochman, n.d.).

Professional Accomplishments

Leta Stetter Hollingworth started her research career by challenging the variability hypothesis that supposedly explained and justified female inferiority.  Most likely sparked by the obstacles she had encountered simply due to being a woman, Leta was the first psychologist to research this topic.  She compared the mental and physical variability of males and females of different age groups, and concluded that there are no significant differences in variability between genders.  These findings disproved the variability hypothesis and allowed that men and women are equally capable of attaining eminence (Benbow, 1990).

Leta was also the first to research the validity of “functional periodicity,” a commonly held belief at the time that women made lousy scientists due to their instability caused by their menstrual cycle.  This was the topic of Leta’s Doctoral thesis, and was the high quality research that earned her exemption from her final oral examination.  Leta measured various skills and ability of 23 females and 2 males for three months.  She was unable to find any significant differences in scores between any phases of the female’s menstrual cycle, disproving another theory that stood in the way of women’s involvement in science (Hochman, n.d.).  After earning her Ph.D., Leta’s focus shifted to the field of child psychology.  She did, however, maintain an interest in the psychology of women, publishing on the topic as late as 1927.

In 1916, while teaching a special education class, Leta sought out an exceptional child for the sake of contrast and was surprised when the 8-year old boy scored above 180 on the Stanford-Binet Scale (Klein, 2000).  This incident began Leta’s life long work in the psychology of the exceptional child, for which she is most commonly known.  Leta’s research in the early 1920’s focused on identifying gifted children, and how to interact with them based on their unique needs.  Leta published Special Talents and Defects in 1923, and in 1926 Gifted Children: Their Nature and Nurture summarized the results of a three-year experiment that identified characteristics of exceptional children’s family life, mental condition, and temperament, as well as proposing an appropriate curriculum in school (Hochman, n.d.).  The opening of the Speyer School in New York City in 1936 provided Leta a chance to further research gifted children.  The Speyer School, also referred to as “Leta Hollingworth’s School for Bright Children” was a special school for children of 130+ IQ, the perfect place for Leta to experiment with her curriculum: “Evolution of Common Things.”  This curriculum allowed the children to steer their own learning and freely explore their curiosities of the world around them under the guidance and supervision of Leta.  Leta’s final publication, Children Above 180 IQ (1942), summarized the findings of a twelve-year longitudinal study that determined such children often suffer from a lack of stimulation and parental nurturing, resulting in adjustment problems later in life (Hochman, n.d.).

Contributions to Psychology

Leta Stetter Hollingworth was a lifelong proponent of experimental objectivity, as well as a pioneer for two specific fields of psychology.  Leta single handedly dismantled two substantial obstacles that stood in the way of women’s involvement in psychology, or any scientific field, for that matter.  Because of her work, future women would not have to deal with unchecked acquisitions of innate mediocrity or menstrual disability in their pursuit of scientific eminence.  By recognizing that these obstacles were based on no more that “armchair dogma” (Benbow, 1990, ¶ 4), Leta had recognized that women face their own unique set of challenges, thereby acknowledging a field of psychology that had yet to be explored: the psychology of women.

As the first to perform research that explored the inner workings of uncommonly intelligent children, Leta is also credited at the founder of the psychology of the exceptional child.  Her research was able to successfully identify exceptional children because of her strict and selective use of only the most valid and reliable intelligence tests, a selectiveness that has permeated all intelligence testing through her influence, and ensured the continued usefulness of such testing.  Leta’s discoveries of exceptional children’s special needs and proneness to adjustment issues led to reform in the education system and flexible curriculums that can be varied to better suit the children’s needs.  While her motivation was to improve the quality of life for exceptional young people, Leta indirectly performed a great service for mankind.  She has made it possible to harness these exceptional children’s full potential.  Several of today’s most brilliant minds began their academic careers in gifted and talented programs that started in the 70’s and early 80’s under the influence of Leta’s research findings.  These are the same minds that are attempting to find a cure for cancer, solve our pollution problems, explore our solar system, etc.  Who knows if they’d still be doing what they’re doing if not for the specialized curriculums devised by Leta Stetter Hollingworth eight decades ago?



Benbow, C.P.  (1990).  Letta Stetter Hollinworth: A pilgrim in research in her time and ours.  Roeper Review, 12(3),         210-215.  Retrieved April 2, 2005 from Academic   Search Premier.

Hochman, S.K. (n.d.).  Leta Stetter Hollingworth: Her life.  Women’s Intellectual Contributions to the Study of             Mind and Society.  Retrieved April 4, 2005 from Webster University:                                                           

Klein, A.G.  (2000).  Fitting the school to the child: The mission of Leta Stetter Hollingworth, founder of gifted…              Roeper Review, 23(2), 97-103.  Retrieved April 2, 2005 from Academic Search Premier.

Williams, A.  (2003).  The social and emotional needs of gifted individuals (book review, chap. 7).  Davidson                     Institute for Talent Development.  Retrieved April 3, 2005 from                                                                   



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