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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Porteus, Stanley David (1883–1972)

by R. H. Day

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Stanley David Porteus (1883-1972), psychologist, educationist and writer, was born on 24 April 1883 at Box Hill, Victoria, fourth child and only son of Rev. David Porteus, Methodist minister, and his wife Katharine, née Hebden. As his father's postings took the family to numerous small towns in Victoria, Porteus received his early education mainly in one-room rural schools. He was nominated by his teacher at Toolleen for a three-year scholarship to attend the Melbourne Education Institute to train as a schoolteacher. He was awarded the scholarship, completed his training in 1899 and taught until 1912 at country schools, mainly in Gippsland. On 13 July 1909, at Bairnsdale, he married Frances Mainwaring Evans (d.1976); they had two sons.

While a teacher Porteus developed novel but simple methods to assist children in acquiring basic linguistic and mathematical skills. In 1912 he applied successfully for the position of superintendent of special schools which he occupied for about five years. Concluding that the Goddard-Binet test of intelligence was a poor predictor of adaptive behaviour, he devised a test, subsequently known as the Porteus maze test, a series of 'pencil-tracing' mazes of increasing complexity, intended to assess 'forethought' and 'planfulness'. It was standardized and validated on large numbers of children in Victorian schools and institutions. In 1914 the results of his research were well-received at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Melbourne.

In 1916 Porteus was awarded a research scholarship to work in the department of anatomy in the University of Melbourne on brain size and intelligence, and next year was appointed on a sessional basis to lecture on experimental education. Continuing research with his maze test led in 1919 to an invitation to join the research staff of the Vineland Training School, a centre for the study of mental retardation in New Jersey, United States of America. In 1922 Porteus also established a psychological clinic at the University of Hawaii. Resigning from Vineland in 1925 he thereafter lived in Honolulu where he was professor of clinical psychology and director of the Psychological and Psychopathic Clinic until 1948. He became an American citizen in 1932.

Porteus was as concerned with the theoretical and conceptual aspects of mental ability and performance as with amassing comparative data. He applied his test widely in educational, cross-cultural and clinical research. It was used in studies of Aborigines in the Kimberley region and Northern Territory (1929) and of the Kalahari tribesmen of southern Africa (1934). It was also used to assess the effects of pre-frontal brain surgery on mental performance. The results of these applications and others were published in various monographs, notably in his The Psychology of a Primitive People (London, 1931), Mental Changes After Bilateral Prefrontal Lobotomy (with R. D. Kepner, 1944) and in several books on the test itself. His many other works are listed in an annotated bibliography in his autobiography, A Psychologist of Sorts (Palo Alto, California, 1968).

In his book with M. E. Babcock, Temperament and Race (Boston, 1926), Porteus expressed the view that temperamental differences between racial groups in Hawaii 'have an organic basis and are part of man's original endowment'. Porteus was equally explicit in claiming that temperamental traits are 'more susceptible to training and to the influence of experience than purely intellectual traits'. Such conclusions have been taken rather unfairly to mean that Porteus was essentially racist in outlook.

A keen interest in history gave rise to two books by Porteus about Hawaii: Calabashes and Kings and And Blow Not the Trumpet. In 1948 he published The Restless Voyage, a novel based on an account by the sailor Archibald Campbell of his voyage around the world in 1806-12. Some critics compared it to the works of Stevenson, Marryat and Fenimore Cooper. His interest in the early history of Victoria was evident in Providence Ponds: A Novel of Early Australia (1951) which, based on his wife's forebears' experience of crossing from New South Wales and settling in Gippsland, explored 'the psychological effect of human isolation'.

Among other honours Porteus received an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Hawaii (1932) and a Distinguished Contribution award from the American Psychological Association. He was made a foundation fellow of the Australian Psychological Society in 1966. Stanley Porteus died in Hawaii on 21 October 1972; his ashes were scattered at sea.

Select Bibliography

  • R. H. Croll, Wide Horizons (Syd, 1937)
  • A. G. Debus, World Who's Who in Science (Chicago, 1968)
  • Age (Melbourne), 30 Oct 1972
  • Croll papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

R. H. Day, 'Porteus, Stanley David (1883–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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