The amazing life of Molly Harrower

In 1944 Molly Harrower was cooling her heels on one of Reno’s infamous divorce ranches waiting to be officially separated from her husband. Molly’s life so far had been characterised by flirtations and grand passions, it was no surprise that this marriage to Theodore Erickson, who wanted an ordinary well-behaved wife, hadn’t stuck. Molly was well aware of her own nature – in one of her most notable poems, she wrote “Life… will lose a lover when I die”.

But Molly was much more than a hopeless romantic, a woman in thrall to love. A remarkable scientist whose work on ink blots helped identify and bring to justice Nazi war criminals, Molly was one of the foremost psychologists of her time.

Born in 1906, Molly was brought up in London where she lived with her parents and brother. While Molly’s brother was encouraged to go to university and learn, she was urged to attend finishing school in Paris. Determined to follow her own path and rebel against the status quo, Molly dropped out of finishing school and gained admission to a specialist degree program at Bedford College, University of London. This was the beginning of Molly’s career in psychology.

Bedford College, Regent’s Park

The field of psychology was heavily male-dominated at this time, yet nothing would not stop Molly from making her impact. Resolute and self-assured, she pushed for access to some of the greatest minds and became a mentee of C.K. Ogden, the inventor of Basic English and founder of Psych Magazine. Ever on the quest for knowledge, she decided to broaden her horizons and move to the US where she secured a place at Smith College, Massachusetts, working with Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka. Gestalt psychology looks at how we make meaningful perceptions in a chaotic world – as Kurt Koffka himself put it: “the whole is something else than the sum of its parts”. It was here that Molly developed her research into ink-blot testing, an area she would continue to explore throughout her career.

The Rubin vase – one of the optical illusions that influenced Gestalt psychology.

Kurt and Molly hit it off instantaneously and – though Kurt was a married man – together they enjoyed a passionate affair. We luckily have access into their fervid relationship through the gripping account of over 2,000 letters the two exchanged, published in Molly’s book “Kurt Koffka: An Unwitting Self-Portrait”. Through both these letters and Molly’s poetry, which explores themes of life, love and research, we gain a fascinating insight into the wonderfully passionate, astute and multi-dimensional person she was.

Molly and Kurt

Though her love for Kurt was deeply intense, her career and research remained the priority. After earning her PhD in 1934, Molly left Massachusetts, where career prospects for women in psychology were poor, and upheaved her life to New Jersey. She married neurosurgeon Theodore Erickson, earned a post-doctoral fellowship and produced unique work examining the psychological effects of surgery. From there, Molly moved to New York where she created the first-ever group Rorschach test further developing the inkblot analysis she’d been studying since Smith. She also established her own private practice, amongst the first psychologists ever to do so and used Rorschach as her primary diagnosing tool.

Rorschach test

Having lived through WWII and determined to use psychology to make the world a better place, Molly used her knowledge and talent to help victims of PTSD. She also collaborated with leading researchers to reveal insight into the personality traits of Nazi war criminals. The verdict was out: they had no noticeable personality differences to normal people. Molly concluded that the Nazi criminals were susceptible to circumstance, deceived by the myths of higher powers to commit terrible acts and were not inherently evil themselves. While the validity of these findings is up for debate, the research has contributed to an interesting conversation surrounding potential preventative measures of war atrocities and the mindset of criminals.

Following this post-WWII research was a two decade-long period of on-going professional successes for Molly. She contributed to understanding the onset of MS and was the first woman permitted to use the doctors’ dining room at the Montefiore Hospital. She was also among one of the first women allowed entrance to the faculty club at McGill University. Through her private practice work, Molly took over 1,600 notes from clients and used these findings to create poetry therapy: a remarkable and innovative project that helped many patients over the years.

Unfortunately, around this time, her second husband and businessman Mort Lahm was dying. Molly was deeply saddened by his death in 1967 and decided to move to Florida to retire. She spent these next years writing, researching and teaching until 20 February 1999 when she died in her home in Gainsville.

Molly was an incredible person and will be remembered for her achievements in psychology, her determination to follow a career in a male-dominated field, and the beautiful poetry she wrote throughout her life.

As a tribute to Molly and her passion for life, love and research, we leave you with an extract of her poetry:

You say I should not love you, in my face
You have flung hardships, shown me to my place
For my bold daring:
Yet as you do so, with the other hand
You cast the coloured splendour of the land
For my own keeping; sun and air and youth
You give me with each kiss…. Ah Life, in truth
You will have lost a lover when I die!
So while I love…..leave me with this ecstasy!

by Catriona Cox

Manchester Science Festival 2018 is celebrating the extraordinary Molly Harrower with two fabulous events: Introduction to Inkblots (Friday 26th October, 2pm-4pm, The Portico Library) and Shining Molly: Love, Sex and Inkblots (Friday 26th October, 6.30pm – 7.15pm at The Portico Library). Booking is required, so make sure to buy your tickets in advance to hear more fascinating tales of this extraordinary woman, her ground-breaking research, passionate poetry, and personal life.