Marjorie Van de Water was best known as the psychology writer for Science Service. From 1926 until shortly before her death in 1962, she covered psychology-related news and a wide range of other issues such as civil defense preparation, wartime morale, and agriculture in Haiti. She was one of the pioneers in science writing in the United States.(1)
Before joining Science Service, Van de Water’s interests had vacillated between work in science and writing. When she was a teenager, a local newspaper accepted and printed her first news stories. Despite this early success, her interest in writing was initially “eclipsed by a thirst for scientific work.”(2) She worked for two years in the laboratories of the National Bureau of Standards and then at the National Research Council and U.S. Civil Service Commission, where she developed psychological tests and worked on related research projects about personality or intelligence. One project, for example, involved the creation of a standardized National Intelligence Test for school children. Eventually, Van de Water returned to writing, first through editorial work for an educational magazine and then as a free-lance writer. When she was hired as fulltime staff member at Science Service in November 1929, she found an opportunity to pursue both of her major interests.(3)
Van de Water frequently reported on new developments in psychology, such as research on personality and the role of “social stimulation” in individual development. She attended nearly all meetings of the American Psychological Association from 1931 onward as well as many regional psychology conferences.(4)
Committed both to public understanding and use of science, Van de Water also made efforts to foster awareness of the uses for psychological knowledge, particularly in wartime. To this end, she co-edited Psychology for the Fighting Man (1943) and Psychology for the Returning Serviceman (1945).(5) The circulation for Fighting Man was 500,000, a wartime best seller.(6) During World War II, she wrote numerous daily press pieces on similar topics, spoke on the “Adventures in Science” radio program, and prepared a series of six feature articles on “morale protection,” arguing that such “psychological armor” was vital to national defense.(7)
After the war, Van de Water was one of the authors of Atomic Bombing: How to Protect Yourself (1950).(8) In writing about returning servicemen who had “neuropsychiatric disability,” she also sought to dispel the stigma and misconceptions surrounding the meaning of this term and the people diagnosed with it.(9)
In 1959, the American Psychological Foundation (AFP) honored Van de Water with their Science Writer’s Prize “for her career of distinguished popular interpretation of science.” Noted in particular was her interpretation of psychology as it related to wartime issues.
Van de Water’s activities in public outreach and education extended beyond science writing for newspapers and publications. When UNESCO asked Davis to choose a staff member of “the highest technical skill and adaptability of mind” to go to Haiti to develop educational kits for farming as part of a Fundamental Education initiative, he chose Van de Water. She eagerly accepted, and devoted much of 1950 in Haiti to interaction with UNESCO and local school staff and to the preparation of plant growth experiments aimed at improved results for farmers. While there, she also contributed a few articles to a local newspaper.(10)
While at Science Service, Van de Water also produced the books Knots and Rope (1946) with Fremont Davis and Edison Experiments You Can Do, Based on the Original Notebooks of Thomas Alva Edison (1960).(11)
Throughout her tenure as a science journalist, Van de Water campaigned for complete disclosure to the public of developments in science. She lamented the obscurity of many scientific advancements and knowledge, which remained “locked away in…university laboratories” and with other sites and individuals involved in discovery. She argued that journalists must provide the public with understanding of events and developments in the world. This, she contended, was crucial to the survival of American democracy, as it enabled members of the public to develop better informed opinions and choices.
Van de Water believed this should and could be achieved through the collaboration of scientists, and possibly their public relations officers, with newspaper writers. Indeed, she observed a trend in this direction, noting psychologists had grown increasingly cooperative at meetings she attended. Nevertheless, she urged more regular exchange. On the part of scientists, Van de Water urged continued cooperation with the press, perhaps even press conferences; she also advocated that scientists should include more assessment of the situation and significance of new work. Whenever possible, she urged scientists to provide journalists with advance copies of lectures and addresses to ensure timely coverage. Van de Water understood that Science Service, as conceived by its benefactor, E.W. Scripps, and many of its staff, performed an important function in this process.(12)
At the time of her APF award, it seemed clear that Van de Water had met many of her goals. That year the Foundation deliberately departed from custom, recognizing a distinguished career rather than a single piece of writing. At the ceremony, the presenter said to her and the audience: “Hundreds of thousands of Americans owe to you and to your skillful pen their conceptions of modern psychological science. Your reporting of the psychological news closely approximates that ideal which psychologists hold for scientific news writing. You have understood us psychologists. You have sympathized with our investigative methods and aspirations. At the same time, you have understood and sympathized with those persons who constitute the American reading public. Many an investigator owes to you the fact that a substantial proportion of persons in that public grasp with fair accuracy what his work means.”
Keith Haring died on this day 24 years ago from AIDS complications. He is a true inspiration for all of us, teaching us to love rather than to hate, to create rather than to destroy, to understand rather than to judge, and to live rather than to perish. He will live on forever through his powerful works of art.