History of the Department

Peter Venables came to York from Birkbeck College, London, in 1974 charged with setting up a new Psychology Department. Single-handed, he designed a new course, planned the conversion of "temporary" accommodation in Wentworth College (financial constraints meant that the planned, purpose-built building did not appear for another 20 years), appointed three new lecturers (Cox, Hall and Monk - both of the latter still with the Department in 2009), and personally interviewed several hundred undergraduate applicants for places on the course beginning in October 1975.

The high proportion of that first cohort with an interest in mountaineering or other healthy outdoor pursuits led to the supposition that Venables had used an unusual set of selection criteria. However that may be, the first cohort is still remembered as being lively, intelligent, and variously talented, and as having played an important role in getting the Department off to a flying start.

Departmental emphasis

From the outset, the emphasis in the Department was on "experimental" psychology, in the widest sense of that term. That is, Venables, and the staff he recruited, shared the belief that Psychology as a discipline was most likely to make progress by concentrating on issues that were amenable to empirical investigation and on theories that could be subjected to direct test.

The core values established in the early years still exercise a profound influence

This approach led to the early establishment of an animal laboratory and the appointment of staff members specializing in perception (vision and audition), and cognition (memory and mechanisms of information processing generally). But it did not preclude the development of research programmes in other areas (such as social, personality, and developmental psychology), the staff appointed to cover these topics being as committed to a rigorous empirical approach as their colleagues in other areas of psychology. Our judgement as to what constitutes good psychological research was evidently shared by the assessors who conducted the first Research Assessment Exercise in 1986. They gave the Department the top rating, a position that has been maintained in each of the exercises conducted subsequently.

Departmental growth

Venables retired in 1988 to be replaced as head of department by Ellis, recruited from the University of Lancaster, and then (the headship now being a fixed-term appointment) by Hall, Hulme, Young, Hitch, Gathercole and now Summerfield.

The years since Venables' retirement have seen a dramatic increase in the size of the department - the undergraduate intake has increased from about 30 per year to over 160 and new staff appointments have seen the development of research groups in neuropsychology,  reading and the psychology of language more generally.


Phase 1 of the new Psychology building was completed in 1996 and Phase 2 a couple of years later. Expansion continues and a Phase 3, the Henry Wellcome Building for Psychology was opened in 2004. What is striking, however, is that this expansion has not radically changed the nature of the place - the core values established in the early years still exercise a profound influence.

Window blinds

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