Sandra Wood Scarr Born: 1936 - Washington, DC



  • Ph.D., Harvard University


  • Made major contributions in child development, intelligence, and racial differences in test performance;
  • Founder of the American Psychological Society.

Other description:

Sandra Wood Scarr (born August 1936) is an American psychology professor. Like many of her predecessors, Sandra Wood Scarr was a woman who faced hardships merely because of her sex in the world of careers in Psychology. However, these difficulties did not deter Scarr from a life of happiness doing what she loved most: being an advocate of adequate childcare, and finding the best ways to accommodate and explore child development.

Childhood (O'Connell, 2001)

Scarr was born in August of 1936 in Washington, D.C..

At the time of her birth, the United States was suffering from the Great Depression, yet this did not affect Sandra's family as much as it did others. Sandra's father, John Ruxton Wood, was a physician with the U.S. army, and her mother, Jane Powell Wood, was an elementary school teacher. They made a decent living, enough to be able to spend four years in the Philippines with servants and a leisurely social life before Sandra was born.

Sandra's sister Joanne was born in 1939, and during this year, the family moved to the suburbs of New York.

The family moved again in 1942 when Sandra's father was assigned to head the Army Research Laboratories in Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland. This location housed the main chemical warfare post of the United States, and was also where Sandra spent most of her childhood.

Sandra's unusual childhood stemmed mostly from the fact that she was allowed much freedom and that she lived on a chemical warfare post.

Her family had German prisoners of war as gardeners, always watched by armed guards. Sandra and her sister often had to wear gas masks to avoid escaped tear gas from the chemical plant.

When the war ended, Sandra was entering the seventh grade. Along with many other families, her parents decided to send her to the Bryn Mawr School for Girls in Baltimore, an eighty-mile round trip.

Here, Sandra had to spend an entire year catching up to the level of education that she was supposed to be at according to Bryn Mawr's curriculum. This rigorous school set the standard for the rest of her education.

In 1950, Sandra's father was moved again, this time to the Army Surgeon General's Office in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Two years later, he was promoted to the head of the Army Institute of Research.


For their high school education, Sandra and her sister Joanne attended the National Cathedral School for Girls. They studied Latin, French, Math, English, History and Religion. During high school, Sandra's parents sent her to dancing school. Sandra's mother Jane wanted her to be popular with the boys because she believed that women were defined by whom they married.

Sandra decided to go to Vassar for her undergraduate education, and here she studied anthropology and sociology. Sandra and her parents were unaware that Vassar stood for women's liberation, even before the nationally recognized Women's Movement had begun. Sandra's time at Vassar changed her life, not only because of the new views concerning women's rights that it provided her, but also because she had never been exposed to educated African Americans and New York intellectuals.

Developing a Career Scarr graduated from Vassar in 1958 with a bachelor's degree in sociology. After graduation, Scarr worked at a social service agency for one year. At the agency, Scarr was further exposed to members of ethnic minority groups and people from lower socioeconomic status. Scarr believed that the agency's treatment of clients was unsatisfactory because she thought their needs were more economical than psychological. After a year, Scarr moved on to work as a research assistant in the Laboratory of Socio-Environmental Studies at the National Institute of Mental Health ("Development," 1995).

While working here, Scarr 's desire to find new ways to treat members of minority groups and people of lower socioeconomic status developed. Scarr also helped work on studies of hospitalized schizophrenics here, gaining more knowledge about the research component of psychology. Graduate School Scarr 's commitment to her career often put her at odds with her parents who wanted her to get married and have children. Although they pushed her towards this, Scarr was determined to go to graduate school, and decided on Harvard in 1961. Scarr soon discovered that Harvard's faculty was not friendly towards female graduate students. One professor said that it was a waste of resources to teach women because they were "unlikely to pursue serious academic careers" . Scarr 's dissertation was a study of genetic differences in identical and fraternal twin girls.

Environmentalism was very popular at this time, so she wanted to look instead at the influence of genetics. Scarr found that genetics contributed significantly to activity level and sociability. Scarr was married to another graduate student in 1961, much to her parents' excitement and approval. His name was Harry Scarr. One year later, the couple had their first child and named him Phillip.

Academia and Career

Scarr earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1965 with a major in behavior genetics. After graduation, finding employment was difficult for Scarr. No one wanted to hire her when they found out she had a child. With much persistence and hard work, Scarr eventually found a job at the Institute of Child Study at the University of Maryland as a part-time teacher. She was later promoted to an assistant professor. In 1966, Scarr 's husband had to move to Pennsylvania for his job, so she followed, and taught at the University of Pennsylvania.

Scarr 's first daughter Karen was born a year later, and her second daughter Rebecca was born in 1969. During this time, Scarr was working on a study that compared identical and fraternal twins' aptitude and school achievement scores. The study revealed that intellectual development was heavily influenced by genetic ability, especially among disadvantaged children. It also showed that on average, black children demonstrated less genetic and more environmental influence on their intelligence than white children. At the same time, Scarr collaborated with a woman named Margaret Williams on a study that dealt with preemie babies. The two women wanted to see the effects of early stimulation on preemie babies who were usually confined to isolettes for weeks or months at a time. They rocked the babies in the experimental group and exposed them to human speech and music. Their study was the first experimental design that showed that stimulated preemies gained weight faster and recovered earlier than the non-stimulated preemies. Within ten years, the practice of taking preemie babies out of their isolettes to be stimulated became standard neonatal practice (O'Connell, 2001).

By this time, Scarr was enjoying a busy and successful career. In 1971, Scarr left her husband and moved to Minnesota to teach at the University of Minnesota. Here, Scarr met a faculty member, Philip Salapatek, whom she married in 1972. They had their first child together in 1973 and named her Stephanie. Scarr was promoted to Professor this same year at the University of Minnesota. During this time, Scarr started working with a colleague, Rich Weinberg, on the Minnesota Transracial Adoption Project. After having performed many separate studies, Scarr and her colleague learned that "rather than the home environment having a cumulative impact across development, its influence wanes from early childhood to adolescence" . The idea that adolescents tend to create their own environments by choosing activities and friends that interest them, and by the influence that their own personalities have on their interactions with others led to many papers about how people make their own environments (O'Connell, 2001).

In 1974, after federal affirmative action was instituted to review women's salaries, Scarr received a twenty-five percent increase, much to the consternation of some of her male colleagues (O'Connell, 2001). Scarr and her husband could afford to have a housekeeper so that Scarr never had to clean or do laundry, and rarely cook (O'Connell, 2001).

Associations, Awards, and Publications

While at Minnesota, Scarr became Associate Editor of the American Psychologist, and in 1981, editor of the APA journal, Developmental Psychology. In 1977, Yale University recruited Scarr as a professor, and she worked there until 1983 (O'Connell, 2001). During this year, Scarr also chaired the APA Committee on the Protection of Human Subjects in Research.

In 1981, Scarr published her first book, Race, Social Class, And Individual Differences in IQ, which was about the effects of heredity and the environment on intelligence ("Development," 1995).

In 1985, Scarr received the American Psychological Association's National Book Award for her book Mother Care Other Care, which addresses the effects of the environment on children's development ("APA Aug,8," 1995). In the book, Scarr evaluates the effects of a mother's care and "other care," such as daycare. In her book, Scarr notes that "good care means only a few babies and toddlers per caregiver" and "a cheerful, stimulating, and safe environment" (Scarr, 1984, p.225).

Scarr 's research on the effects of environmental enrichment on intelligence, and of the effects of the quality of child care led her to receive the American Psychological Association's first Award for the Distinguished Contribution to Research in Public Policy in 1988. Her studies of behavioral science could be applied to important social problems and public policy ("APA Aug.13," 1995).

Scarr served as President of the Behavior Genetics Association from 1985 to 1986 ("Behavior," 1998). The purpose of this association was to promote scientific study of the interrelationship of genetics and behavior in humans and animals. The association also helped to interpret the knowledge about genetics and behavior to the general public and to apply it to health, human development, and education ("Behavior," 1998).

Scarr was elected to the APA's Board of Directors in 1988 (O'Connell, 2001). She resigned in 1990. Scarr served as President for the APS in 1996, and she was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1989.

Scarr was also a founding member of the American Psychological Society and was chief executive officer of Kinder Care Learning Centers from 1994 to 1997, when the company was bought by a New York investment firm (O'Connell, 2001).


After retiring from Kinder Care, Scarr moved to Hawaii with her husband. They enjoy a "heavenly" house, "with a pool and spa, right on the ocean front". In 1998, Scarr became a certified scuba diver and later she even became a rescue diver.

Scarr enjoys being involved in politics and environmental groups and she states that her proudest achievement of her life was "to have four happy, productive, adult children, and one adorable grandson (so far)" . A great piece of hope and advice from Scarr herself is evoked in the dedication she writes to her children in Mother Care Other Care: "May the balance of love and work be as fulfilling in your lives as it is in mine".

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