dramatis personae

So who am I writing my dissertation on? Here’s a quick intro to the two major players.


  • Born 1903, in a small German-speaking town in what was then Austria
  • Got interested in psychology by reading Freud at age 16
  • Immigrated to Toronto in 1928 with her husband, to the US in 1947 by herself to teach
  • Was able to begin university and study psychology only because of her separation from her husband (and his custody of their 3 girls)
  • Got her PhD from University of Toronto with a dissertation that challenged the established wisdom about the role of adrenaline in emotion (think fight or flight)
  • In 1948 converted to Catholicism, a decision which impacted both her career and her thinking about psychology–her theories of emotion were inspired by and relied on the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas
  • Introduced the appraisal theory of emotion, which foreshadowed and influenced cognitive theories of emotion. Magnum opus = Emotion and Personality (1960)
  • Edited The Human Person (1954), the result of a symposium she organized for Catholics in psychology which attempted to review personality and reinterpret the conclusions “from a Christian conception of man as a philosophical basis.”

If you had asked me about my dissertation project this summer at the beginning of the fall, I would have stopped there. My dissertation focuses on Magda Arnold and the impact her religious belief had on her scientific theories, and that is quite enough to cover in one dissertation, thank you very much!

But then in October I visited Joan Arnold, Magda’s oldest daughter. She generously shared with me a treasure trove of papers from Magda, which blew my plans for my dissertation right out of the water! In addition to a bunch of other cool things, the most thrilling was a stack of correspondence circa 1950 between Magda Arnold and her priest friend Father John Gasson. The letters were completely charming and full of the sort of details of daily life that historians crave, but more importantly they filled in the story about how Magda came to faith. John Gasson was the key–Magda called meeting him “the greatest stroke of luck” in her life. So here’s what I know about him so far:



  • Born in 1904 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts
  • Joined the Society of Jesus in Macon, Georgia in 1921, was ordained in 1933
  • Received degrees in from Boston College (BA and MA), Gregorian University in Rome (PhD),  and Weston College (STL)
  • Dissertation on ‘The Psychological Structure of Religious Experience’
  • Taught at Spring Hill College and the Jesuit House of Studies there
  • Taught primarily psychology and philosophy, but also Latin, Greek, history, logic, and anthropology
  • Established the psychology department at Spring Hill in 1962
  • Led numerous retreats and provided counseling to various clients
  • Co-edited The Human Person with Magda Arnold
  • Guided Magda back into the Catholic church in 1948
  • Was deeply influential in Magda’s thinking–an intellectual partner and her closest friend

Of course, I know a whole lot more than that about John’s personality, thanks to his letters. I know, for example, that he was a joyful person with a great sense of humor–he was an (intentionally) sloppy speller, he rarely dated his letters other than by the day of the week (or a holy day), and occasionally broke out his typewriter’s red ink for emphasis or to be funny. As you can tell, I like him a lot. I’m still not quite sure how he fits into my dissertation, though.

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