Cyril Lodowic Burt

Cyril Lodowic Burt

Burt, Cyril Lodowic, 1883-1971, British psychologist. Educated at Oxford and Würzburg, he became a prominent figure in psychology. Burt made significant contributions to educational psychology, and is noted for his development of the method of factor analysis in psychological testing. Though initially credited with important research concerning inheritance and intelligence, evidence surfaced after his death indicating that he had falsified research data. Although these discoveries diminished his reputation, he is still credited for his important work in educational psychology.

See L. S. Hearnshaw, Cyril Burt (1979).

Sir Cyril Lodowic Burt (March 3, 1883October 10, 1971) was an English educational psychologist who contributed to educational psychology and claimed to have developed the method of factor analysis in psychological testing, although his mentor and predecessor as chair of the psychology department at University College London, Charles Spearman actually did so. Burt is known for his studies on the effect of heredity on intelligence. Shortly after he died, his studies of inheritance and intelligence came into disrepute after evidence emerged indicating he had falsified research data, in addition to having falsely claimed to have invented factor analysis. Some scholars have asserted that Burt did not commit intentional fraud.

Life and career

Childhood and Education

Cyril Lodowic Burt was born on March 3, 1883, the first child of Cyril Cecil Barrow Burt (b.1857), a medical practitioner, and his wife Martha . His birth place can be found in different sources as either Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire or London. Burt's father initially kept a chemist shop to support his family while he studied medicine. On qualifying, he became the assistant house surgeon and obstetrical assistant at Westminster Hospital, London . The younger Cyril Burt's education began in London at a Board school near St James's Park.

In 1890 the family briefly moved to Jersey then to Snitterfield, Warwickshire in 1893, where Burt's father opened a rural practice . Early in Burt’s life he showed a precocious nature, so much so that his father, a physician, often took the young Burt with him on his medical rounds . One of the elder Burt’s more famous patients was Darwin Galton, brother of Francis Galton. The visits the Burts made to the Galton estate not only allowed the young Burt to learn about the work of Francis Galton, but also allowed Burt to meet him on multiple occasions and to be strongly drawn to his ideas; especially his studies in statistics and individual differences, two defining characters of the London School of Psychology whose membership includes both Galton and Burt.

He attended King's School, Warwick from 1892-1895, and later won a scholarship to Christ's Hospital, then located in London, where he developed his interest in psychology .

From 1902 he studied at Jesus College, Oxford where he specialized in philosophy and psychology, the latter under William McDougall. McDougall, knowing Burt’s interest in Galton’s work, suggested that he focus his senior project on psychometrics, thus giving Burt his initial inquiry into the development and structure of mental tests; an interest that would last the rest of his life. Burt was one of a group of students who worked with McDougall, which included William Brown, John Carl Frugel, May Smith, who all went on to have distinguished careers in psychology. Burt graduated with second-class honours in 1906 which he supplemented by a teaching diploma.

In 1907 McDougall invited Burt to help with a nation-wide survey of physical and mental characteristics of the British people, proposed by Francis Galton, in which he was to work on the standardization of psychological tests. This work brought Burt into contact with eugenics, Charles Spearman, and Karl Pearson.

In the summer of 1908, Burt visited the University of Würzburg, Germany, where he first met the psychologist Oswald Külpe.

Work in Educational Psychology

In 1908 Burt took up the post of Lecturer in Psychology and Assistant Lecturer in Physiology at Liverpool University, where he was to work under the famed physiologist Sir Charles Sherrington. In 1909 Burt made use of Charles Spearman's model of general intelligence to analyse his data on the performance of schoolchildren in a battery of tests. This first research project was to define Burt's life's work in quantitative intelligence testing, eugenics, and the inheritance of intelligence. One of the conclusions in his 1909 paper was that upper-class children in private preparatory schools did better in the tests than those in the ordinary elementary schools, and that the difference was innate.

In 1913, Burt took the part-time position of a school psychologist for the London County Council (LCC), with the responsibility of picking out the 'feeble-minded' children, in accordance with the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913. He notably established that girls were equal to boys in general intelligence. The post also allowed him to work in Spearman's laboratory, and received research assistants from the National Institute of Industrial Psychology.

Burt was much involved in the initiation of child guidance in Great Britain and his 1925 publication The Young Delinquent led to opening of the London Child Guidance Clinic in Islington in 1927 . In 1924 Burt was also appointed part-time professor of educational psychology at the London Day Training College (LDTC), and carried out much of his child guidance work on the premises.

Later career

In 1931 he resigned his position at the LCC and the LDTC after he was appointed Professor and Chair of Psychology at University College, London, taking over the position from Charles Spearman, thus ending his almost 20-year career as a school psychological practitioner. While at London, Burt influenced many students, including Raymond Cattell and Hans Eysenck, and toward the end of his life, Arthur Jensen and Chris Brand. Burt was a consultant with the committees that developed the Eleven Plus examinations. This issue, and the allegations of fraudulent scholarship against him, are discussed in various books and articles listed below, including Cyril Burt: Fraud or Framed and The Mismeasure of Man.

In 1942, Burt was elected President of the British Psychological Society and in 1946 became the first British psychologist to be knighted for his contributions to psychological testing and for making educational opportunities more widely available, according to an account by J. Philippe Rushton. Burt was a member of the London School of Differential Psychology, and of the British Eugenics Society. Because he had suggested on radio in 1946 the formation of an organization for people with high IQ scores, he was made honorary president of Mensa in 1960. He officially joined Mensa soon thereafter.

At age 68, Burt retired but continued writing articles and books. He died of cancer at age 88 in London on October 10, 1971.

"The Burt Affair"

Over the course of his career Burt published numerous articles and books on a host of topics ranging from psychometrics to philosophy of science to parapsychology. It is his research in behavior genetics, most notably in studying the heritability of intelligence (as measured in IQ tests) using twin studies that have created the most controversy, frequently referred to as "the Burt Affair.

Shortly after Burt died it had become known that all of his notes and records had been burnt, and he was accused of falsifying research data by Leon Kamin. W.D. Hamilton concluded in 2000 the claims made by his detractors in the so-called "Burt Affair" had been either wrong or grossly exaggerated. Other scholars, notably Leon Kamin, still accuse Burt of fraud. However, Burt's groundbreaking conclusions about the heritability of intelligence have been reproduced in numerous independent studies and are today generally accepted though some modern research indicates that the effect of heredity on intelligence is even larger than Burt originally proposed.

From the late 1970s it was generally accepted that "he had fabricated some of the data, though some of his earlier work remained unaffected by this revelation." This was due in large part to research by Oliver Gillie (1976) and Leon Kamin (1974). The possibility of fabrication was first brought to the attention of the scientific community when Kamin noticed that Burt's correlation coefficients of Monozygotic and Dizygotic twins' IQ scores were the same to three decimal places, across articles – even when new data were twice added to the sample of twins. Leslie Hearnshaw, a close friend of Burt and his official biographer, concluded after examining the criticisms that most of Burt's data from after World War II were unreliable or fraudulent. Taking a different perspective is J. Philippe Rushton, a professor of the University of Western Ontario, who has argued that Burt's controversial correlation for reared-apart identical twins` IQ scores is in line with the correlations found in modern studies.

In 1976, the London Sunday Times claimed that two of Burt's supposed collaborators, Margaret Howard and J. Conway, were invented by Burt himself. They based this on the lack of independent articles published by them in scientific journals, and the fact that they allegedly only appeared in the historical record as reviewers of Burt's books in the Journal of Statistical Psychology when the journal was redacted by Burt. However, Miss Howard was also mentioned in the membership list of the British Psychological Society, prof. John Cohen remembered her well during the 1930s and prof. Donald MacRae had personally received an article from her in 1949 and 1950. According to Ronald Fletcher there is also full documentary evidence of the existence of Miss Conway.

In 1989 and 1991, two independent authors, Robert Joynson and Ronald Fletcher published books that argued the case against Burt was led by "carelessness and errors of interpretation. They argued that explanations exist that are at least as plausible as the guilty explanations for each of the points of concern, such as that the bombing of Burt's University College during World War II caused Burt to have to sort out his previous data.

In 1995, Cambridge University Professor of Psychology Nicholas Mackintosh edited the book Cyril Burt: Fraud or Framed? (Oxford University Press), in which the contributors argued that "his defenders have sometimes, but by no means always, been correct, and that his critics have often jumped to hasty conclusions. A 1995 review in Nature concluded "...Mackintosh's academic whodunit marks a further step towards Burt's rehabilitation." However, William H. Tucker argued in a 1997 article that: "A comparison of his twin sample with that from other well documented studies, however, leaves little doubt that he committed fraud."

Further reading


  • Banks, C., & Broadhurst, P.L. (eds.). (1966). Stephanos: Studies in psychology presented to Cyril Burt. New York: Barnes & Noble. Also published as Studies in psychology, presented to Cyril Burt. London: University of London Press, (1965).
  • Burt, C.L. (1949). An autobiographical sketch. Occupational Psychology, 23, 9-20.
  • Fancher, R.E. (1985) The intelligence men: Makers of the I.Q. controversy. New York: Norton.
  • Hearnshaw, L. (1979). Cyril Burt: Psychologist. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Also published London: Hodder and Stoughton, (1979).
  • (1983) "Sir Cyril Burt". AEP (Association of Educational Psychologists) Journal, 6 (1) [Special issue]
  • Scarr, S. (1994). "Burt, Cyril L.", in R.J. Sternberg (ed.), Encyclopedia of intelligence (Vol. 1, pp. 231-234). New York: Macmillan.

Books by Burt

  • Burt, C.L. (1921). Mental and scholastic tests London: P. S. King. Republished and revised (4th ed.). London: Staples, (1962).
  • Burt, C.L. (1923). Handbook of tests for use in schools. London: P. S. King. Republished (2nd ed.) London: Staples, (1948).
  • Burt, C.L. (1925). The young delinquent. London: University of London. Republished and revised (3rd ed.) London: University of London Press, (1938); (4th ed.) Bickley: University of London Press, (1944).
  • Burt, C.L. (1930). Study of the Mind. London: BBC.
  • Burt, C.L. (1935). The subnormal mind. London: Oxford University Press. Republished London: Oxford University Press, (1937).
  • Burt, C.L. (1937). The Backward Child. London: University of London Press. Republished (5th ed.) London: University of London Press, (1961).
  • Burt, C.L. (1940). The factors of the mind: An introduction to factor analysis in psychology. London: University of London.
  • Burt, C.L. (1945). How the mind works. London : Allen & Unwin.
  • Burt, C.L. (1946). Intelligence and fertility. London.
  • Burt, C.L. (1957). The causes and treatments of backwardness (4th ed.). London: University of London.
  • Burt, C.L. (1959). A psychological study of typography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Burt, C.L. (1975). The gifted child. New York: Wiley and London: Hodder and Stoughton
  • Burt, C.L. (1975). ESP and psychology. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Edited by Anita Gregory.

Articles by Burt

  • Burt, C.L. (1972). "Inheritance of general intelligence", American Psychologist, 27, 175-190.
  • Burt, C.L. (1971). "Quantitative genetics in psychology", British Journal of Mathematical & Statistical Psychology, 24, 1-21
  • Burt, C.L. (1963). Is Intelligence Distributed Normally?.
  • Burt, C.L., & Williams, E.L. (1962). "The influence of motivation on the results of intelligence tests", British Journal of Statistical Psychology, 15, 129-135.
  • Burt, C.L. (1961). "Factor analysis and its neurological basis", British Journal of Statistical Psychology, 14, 53-71.
  • Burt, C.L. (1960). "The mentally subnormal", Medical World, 93, 297-300.
  • Burt, C.L. (1959). "General ability and special aptitudes", Educational Research, 1, 3-16.
  • Burt, C.L., & Gregory, W.L. (1958). "Scientific method in psychology: II", British Journal of Statistical Psychology, 11, 105-128.
  • Burt, C.L. (1958). "Definition and scientific method in psychology", British Journal of Statistical Psychology, 11, 31-69.
  • Burt, C.L. (1958). "The inheritance of mental ability", American Psychologist, 13, 1-15.

Readings on the Burt Affair

  • Steve Blinkhorn (1989). "Was Burt Stitched Up?", Nature, 340:439, 1989.
  • Blinkhorn, S.F. (1995). "Burt and the early history of factor analysis", In N.J.Mackintosh, Cyril Burt: Fraud or Framed?. Oxford University Press.
  • Fletcher, R. (1991). Science, Ideology, and the Media. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction.
  • Gould, S.J. (1996). The Mismeasure of Man. (2nd ed.).
  • Arthur R. Jensen, IQ and science: The mysterious Burt affair.
  • Tucker, W. H. (1997). Re-reconsidering Burt: Beyond a reasonable doubt. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 33(2) 145-162.
  • Joynson, R.B. (1989). The Burt Affair. New York: Routledge.
  • Lamb, K. (1992). "Biased tidings: The media and the Cyril Burt controversy", Mankind Quarterly, 33, 203.
  • N. J. Mackintosh (editor) (1995.). Cyril Burt: Fraud or framed?. Oxford University Press.
  • Tizard, J (1976). "Progress and Degeneration in the IQ debate:comments on Urbach", Br J Philos Sci, 27: 251-258
  • Rowe, D., & Plomin, R. (1978). "The Burt controversy: The comparison of Burt's data on IQ with data from other studies", Behavior Genetics, 8, 81-83.
  • Rushton, J.P. (1994). "Victim of scientific hoax (Cyril Burt and the genetic IQ controversy)", Society, 31, 40-44.
  • Rushton, J.P. (2002). " New evidence on Sir Cyril Burt: His 1964 speech to the Association of Educational Psychologists", Intelligence, 30, 555-567.
  • Woolridge, Adrian (1994). Measuring the mind : education and psychology in England, c.1860-c.1990. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Primary Sources

Archival collections related to Burt in the United Kingdom .

  • Liverpool University Special Collection and Archives holds Burt's personal papers (Ref: D191), and the papers of his secretary Margarethe Archer, (Ref: D432).
  • The British Psychological Society History of Psychology Centre holds Burt’s correspondence and reprints, c1920-1971
  • Oxford University: Bodleian Library, Special Collections and Western Manuscripts holds Burt’s correspondence with CD Darlington, 1960-1966, and correspondence with Society for Protection of Science and Learning, 193-1934 (Ref: SPSL)
  • Imperial College, University of London, Archives and Corporate Records Unit holds Burt’s correspondence with Herbert Dingle, 1951-1959 (Ref: H Dingle collection)
  • University College London (UCL), University of London, Special Collections holds letters from Burt to LS Penrose, (Ref: Penrose)


James Hartley and Donald Rooum: Sir Cyril Burt and typography: a re-evaluation. British Journal of Psychology(1983) 74, 203-212

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