During the summer of 1941 Hitler was somewhat preoccupied with the invasion of the Soviet Union and apparently missed reports that Canada planned to employ psychologists to screen and classify its armed forces. The decision was big news in Ottawa, however. Professor Edward Alexander Bott, a well known child psychologist, was commissioned as a group captain in the Royal Canadian Air Force and sent to England to consult with British experts, while Dr. Brock Chisholm established a Directorate of Personnel Selection in Canada.

Churchill and Mackenzie King
Have struggled on for years;
What good without psychologists,
Are blood, sweat and tears?
But now the Bott Battalion’s on its way,
So give three cheers
The war will soon be won!
Who will break the news to Hitler
That Bott and his brainy boys
Are hurrying off to war
– C.R. Myers

Once in England Bott became involved in programs for children evacuated during the Blitz and had little to do with testing air force personnel. However, Chisholm became a major force within the Canadian services. He was one of the most famous and controversial Canadians of his generation. Now remembered for his campaign to abolish Santa Claus as harmful to children, his international reputation as an advocate of health reforms was recognized in the late 1940s when he became the first director general of the World Health Organization.

In 1941, Chisholm, a decorated WW I veteran, was serving as commander of the Northern Ontario Military District. Trained as a medical doctor, Freudian-psychiatrist and professional soldier, he produced a pamphlet entitled A Platoon Leader’s Responsibility for the Morale of his Men. This was widely distributed throughout the three services and he was brought to Ottawa to take charge of training. However, he was soon transferred to personnel selection. Chisholm brought a number of university professors, “Bott’s brainy boys,” into the directorate before being appointed to the senior medical position in the Army. As director general, Chisholm could overcome the wide spread resistance to psychologists and personnel selection that existed in the Army and especially among medical officers.

It would be easy to dismiss this opposition to scientific manpower management as typical military conservatism, but there were in fact good reasons to challenge the new program. Young Canadians who volunteered for military service in the first years of the war quickly learned that a high school education or some special skill was needed to join the air force. The navy had no firm rules, but with far more recruits than could be absorbed, high physical and educational standards were applied. The Army had always accepted men with little formal education and knew from experience that a man could be an effective soldier even if he was illiterate or had a scrawny physique.

The first recruits were accepted with few formalities. Those with militia experience were automatically enrolled and other volunteers were judged by their appearance and motivation. The 58,000 men who signed up in September, 1939, were enlisted with only a brief physical exam. When X-rays and urinalysis were required in November several thousand failed the new medical and were sent back to civvy street. The Army ignored Major-General McNaughton’s attempt to introduce intelligence and aptitude tests, simply requiring medical boards to establish that “the recruit is sufficiently intelligent by questioning him.” The Army was confident it could train all manner of men to perform useful roles.

The psychologists were equally convinced their tests could help the services to scientifically allocate available manpower. Their science largely consisted of an instrument known as the M Test. The M Test–no one knows if the M stood for mental or McGill University–was made up of eight short subtests. The first three were non-language, picture association tests designed to be understood whatever the soldier’s degree of literacy. Parts four and five related to common tools and were said to measure mechanical aptitude. The last three offered conventional arithmetic, vocabulary and word relationship questions.

The M Test was closely modeled on the U.S. army’s infamous Alpha and Beta tests developed during WW I. American psychologists claimed their tests measured inborn intelligence–the draftee’s “native intellectual capacity”–and this was expressed by assigning a mental age to each soldier. The average, according to army psychologists, was a mental age of 13. Men who scored below it were classified as “morons” incapable of learning. More than 30 per cent of white males were said to be morons while fully 79 per cent of blacks subject to the draft were given this classification.

Canadian psychologists were careful to avoid loaded terms like moron. They did not assign mental ages to recruits but the raw score of the M Test became the basis for determining the assignment for each soldier. Those with high scores within the Army went to armored units, the engineers, artillery or signals. The rest joined the service corps or the infantry. Once attached to a unit the test result helped determine the soldier’s career for the rest of the war.

The tests, however, were of limited value in measuring how much a man or woman knew because they were administered under widely varying conditions. They had absolutely no validity as a measure of how much a person could learn. Psychologists were reluctant to admit this, but they did recognize that individuals who were unstable, neurotic or psychopathic could not be identified by the M Test. To remedy this the Directorate of Personnel Selection introduced a brief “psychiatric” interview into the recruiting and classification process. After 1942 hundreds of thousands of young Canadians were interviewed by “Assistant Army Examiners,” usually school teachers or recent college graduates, who were supposed to refer suspect cases to a psychiatrist. The interview, which often took place immediately after the physical exam–while the recruit was still stark naked–consisted of questions about personal behavior and family background.

The examiners took to their work with enthusiasm, referring thousands of volunteers and conscripts to the psychiatrists. The new Director of Personnel Selection, another University of Toronto professor, Colonel Bill Line, was shocked by the results. After the first month of interviews he wrote a “secret” memorandum ordering examiners to stop using terms like “moron”, “imbecile”, “sexual pervert” or “insane” in their reports. These comments and slang expressions like “ignorant hobo” or “needs a good thrashing” were he said, unacceptable, especially in a document the soldier had the right to see. Col. Line concluded that the phrases no doubt expressed the examiner’s feelings but were of no other value.

All of this might be seen as one of the funnier examples of the Army bureaucracy’s growing pains. Certainly the poet and novelist Earle Birney made good use of his own experience as a personnel selection officer in writing his 1949 comic novel Turvey. But in 1942, the first year under the new system, the rate of rejections for psychiatric reasons skyrocketed depriving the Army of thousands of recruits. The U.S. Army, which adopted a similar system in late 1942, found that psychiatric rejections and discharges in 1943 exceeded the number of new men enlisted. Orders were issued to change the procedure and the rate dropped as sharply as it had risen. No one reported any difference in the quality of the recruits.

The situation in Canada was less serious. However, more than 200,000 of the 1.8 million registered under the National Resources Mobilization Act were classified as unfit for service for psychiatric reasons. One follow-up study of 22,000 men released from the Army in 1943 as psychoneurotic showed almost all had found civilian employment with 43 per cent reporting they now had a “better job” than before enlisting. The large number of rejections for medical reasons became a public scandal in 1943 particularly when athletes and others engaged in strenuous activity were pronounced “unfit” for service.

Chisholm responded by introducing new guidelines, including a category “accept for re-check” that allowed many allegedly doubtful cases to complete basic training. More than 75 per cent of these turned out to be effective soldiers who completed training “without difficulty”. The Army also introduced a new system of physical and mental classification known as PULHEMS. The letters stood for Physique, Upper body, Lower body and locomotion, Hearing, Eyes, Mental capacity and Stability. The M Test still provided the score for mental capacity, and the psychiatric interviews the grade for stability, but there were only five possible grades and in practice the vast majority were given enough points to be “fit for service anywhere.”

The PULHEMS classification system allowed the Army to transform personnel selection from a liability into a constructive asset. Selection officers now had the choice of classifying men and women in four categories of fitness for service, namely combat, anywhere but front line combat, line of communications or service in Canada only. Almost everyone could be assigned to one of those classifications. The rate of psychiatric rejections dropped dramatically for volunteers, though almost one third of conscripts continued to be rejected on psychiatric grounds, largely because examiners hesitated to force men determined to avoid military service into the Army.

All those who served in the Canadian armed forces have the right to obtain copies of their personnel records from the National Archives. Those who do read their dossiers should remember that the words in the report often tell us more about the person who wrote it than the person being evaluated.

At the time of the Korean war, when personnel selection was again an important issue, Major F.C.R. Chalke wrote a careful review of the wartime experience. He concluded that existing methods of screening recruits could at best detect 50 per cent of those who would fail and would reject an equal number of those who would become satisfactory soldiers. The Army’s traditional method of selecting recruits, on the basis of character and motivation, was at least as effective as the “scientific” methods introduced by psychologists.

  • Originally published in Legion Magazine, on May 1st 1996.