Interview with John T. E. Richardson, author of Howard Andrew Knox: Pioneer Intelligence Testing at Ellis Island

Howard Andrew Knox, John T. E. RichardsonThe following is an interview with John T. E. Richardson, author of Howard Andrew Knox: Pioneer of Intelligence Testing at Ellis Island

Question: Who is the subject of your book?

John T.E. Richardson: Howard Andrew Knox was one of the physicians employed by the U.S. Public Health Service at the Ellis Island immigration station in New York during the first part of the twentieth century. He and his colleagues were charged with assessing the health and in particular the intelligence of potential immigrants who were seeking entry to the United States. Many books have been written about the experiences of the immigrants at Ellis Island, but less has been written about the physicians who were responsible for examining them. Knox’s work is barely known.

Q: Why was Knox’s work at Ellis Island important?

J.T.E.R: Knox made a key contribution in developing a wide range of new intelligence tests with which to test potential immigrant and in promoting the idea that any adequate measure of intelligence should be based on both verbal and nonverbal (“performance”) tests. Although his own work in this field was confined to a period of just four years between May 1912 and May 1916, it represents a crucial link between the early endeavors of Francis Galton, Alfred Binet, and Henry Goddard (whose tests were mainly verbal in nature) and the later work of Rudolf Pintner, Robert Yerkes, and David Wechsler (who accepted the need for both verbal and nonverbal tests).

Q: Why did we not know about Knox’s work?

J.T.E.R: Knox is nowadays an almost wholly neglected figure in historical research on intelligence testing. His contribution was apparently widely known until the Second World War, but since then he has barely been mentioned in accounts of this field, and his life and work have often been described inaccurately. During his time at Ellis Island, Knox published sixteen articles in several different learned journals, yet only one or two of his publications have tended to be cited, and hardly anything can be gathered from published sources about Knox as a person.

Q: How have you been able to add to the knowledge about Knox?

J.T.E.R: There is a good deal of unpublished material in the U.S. National Archives and elsewhere about Knox’s work at Ellis Island. More important, however, I am the only researcher to have made contact with Knox’s descendants, and they provided access to his letters, photographs, and other documents. My background as a psychologist means that I have been able to locate Knox in his scientific context and historical context, but these invaluable family contacts mean that I have been able to locate Knox in his personal and social context as well.

Q: What has your biography achieved?

J.T.E.R: My book describes the various ways in which the Ellis Island tests were used and their impact on the subsequent course of intelligence testing. I also provide an objective assessment of Knox’s contribution to the development of intelligence tests. My biography contains a thorough account of Knox’s life and work and reinstates him in the history of psychological testing.

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