Despite the enormous number and range of her contributions to psychology, Ethel Tobach appears to have slipped through the net even of those historians of psychology who are interested in reaffirming women’s contributions to the field. One possible reason for this neglect is that many of Tobach’s scientific contributions have been in comparative and physiological psychology—areas that are not well understood by many psychologists and that attract few women.
Ethel Tobach was born in Miaskovka, a small village in the Ukraine, On November 7, 1921. Her mother came from a Jewish family that owned the village’s mill and general store. Her father was an orphan who made his living tutoring students in villages without proper schools. As Labor Zionists, they planned to stay in her village after the Russian Revolution and cultivate the land that the Red Army had offered them. Shortly afterward, however, the village was captured by the White Army, which was carrying out pogroms against the Jews. Ethel was born during this period, and her parents escaped to Palestine when she was two weeks old.
Her father died in Palestine when Ethel was nine months old, and her mother immigrated with her to Philadelphia, where she became an activist in the garment workers’ union. She attributes her radical politics to her mother’s socialism.
She also worked at blue-collar occupations while studying at Hunter College, from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1949. Shortly after World War II she met and married Charles Tobach, a radical man who belonged to the same union as she did. He encouraged her to go on for a Ph.D. in psychology at New York University. At this time, NYU was not very enthusiastic about enrolling married women because they did not “stay in the field,” but “in her innocence,” Tobach succeeded in convincing her interviewer that her husband “was very supportive.” She obtained her Ph.D. in comparative psychology in 1957, working under the supervision of a leader in the field, T.C. Schneirla.
Tobach began her professional career at the American Museum of Natural History, where she remains as Curator Emerita. From 1957 to 1961, she was a research fellow in its department of animal behavior. She became associate curator of that department in 1964 and served as curator from 1969 to 1981. Tobach has had a few full-time appointments at various universities in the New York City area and continues to teach graduate biology and psychology courses at the City University of New York. However, most of her career has been spent as a full-time researcher.
It is impossible to describe adequately Tobach’s research, which has been both voluminous and broad in scope. She has written or edited 117 professional articles, book chapters, and books. She regards her major contributions to comparative psychology as showing links between stress and disease in rats and demonstrating that newborn rats are olfactorily sensitive (can smell) at birth. She has also contributed extensively to the study of emotionality in rats and mice, the biopsychology of development, and the evolution of social behavior.
Tobach has been a consistent critic of genetic determinism as it is expressed in psychological theory in general, in comparative psychology, and in societal racism and sexism. In 1978, she and Betty Rosoff initiated a book series, Genes and Gender, the first such series of its kind. These books are an important contribution to a field that is relatively unsophisticated about the interactions between biological and social processes.
Tobach’s leadership activities within psychology illustrate her commitment to both science and social activism. She was vice president of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1972, president of the Division of Comparative and Physiological Psychology of the American Psychological Association in 1984–1985, and president of the Eastern Psychological Association in 1987–1988. She has also been actively involved in the American Psychological Association’s Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues and received that organization’s Kurt Lewin Award in 1993. She is president of the American Psychological Association’s Division 48 – Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence: Peace Psychology Division.
In 2003 the American Psychological Association awarded her its Gold Medal Award for Lifetime Achivement in Psychology in the Public Interest. According to the medal citation, Tobach “has exposed the unsound science and social damage of genetic determinism institutionalized as racism and sexism. She has been a leader in psychology activist groups seeking constructive public policies, nuclear disarmament, peace building. She is a socially responsible scientist.”
SELECTED WORKS BY ETHEL TOBACH
Behavioral Evolution and Integrative Levels, edited with G. Greenberg (1984); The Biopsychology of Development, edited with Lester R. Aronson and E. Shaw (1971); “The Biopsychology of Social Behavior in Animals,” with T. Schneirla. In The Biologic Basis of Pediatric Practice, edited by R.E. Cooke (1968): 68–82; Challenging Racism and Sexism: Alternatives to Genetic Explanations, edited with Betty Rosoff (1994); “Development of Olfactory Function in the Rat Pup,” with Y. Rouger and T. Schneirla. American Zoologist 4 (1967): 792–793; “Effects of Stress by Crowding Prior to and Following Tuberculosis Infection,” with H. Bloch. American Journal of Physiology 187 (1956): 399–402; “Eliminative Responses in Mice and Rats and the Problem of ‘Emotionality,’” with T. Schneirla. In Roots of Behavior, edited by E.L. Bliss (1962): 211–231; “Evolution of Behavior and the Comparative Method.” International Journal of Psychology 11 (1976): 185–201; “Evolutionary Aspects of the Activity of the Organism and Its Development.” In Individuals as Producers of Their Development: A Lifespan Perspective, edited by Richard M. Lerner and N.A. Busch-Rossnagle (1981); The Four Horsemen: Racism, Sexism, Militarism, and Social Darwinism, editor (1973); Genes and Gender I: On Hereditarianism and Women, edited with Betty Rosoff (1978); Genes and Gender III: Genetic Determinism and the Child, edited with Betty Rosoff (1980); Genetic Destiny, Scientific Controversy, and Social Conflict, edited with Harold M. Proshansky (1976); Historical Perspectives and the International Status of Comparative Psychology, editor (1987); “If It Was Easy, It Would Have Been Done: Genetic Processes Are a Hard Row to Hoe.” European Bulletin of Cognitive Psychology 10 (1990): 681–685; “The Methodology of Sociobiology from the Viewpoint of a Comparative Psychologist.” In The Sociobiology Debate, edited by Arthur Caplan (1978): 423–441; On Peace, War and Gender: A Challenge to Genetic Explanations, edited with Betty Rosoff (1991); “Personal Is Political.” Journal of Social Issues 50 (1994): 221–244; “Some Evolutionary Aspects of Human Gender.” Journal of Orthopsychiatry 41 (1971): 710–715; “Some Guidelines to the Study of the Evolution and Development of Emotion.” In Development and Evolution of Behavior: Essays in Memory of T.C. Schneirla, edited by Lester R. Aronson, Ethel Tobach, Daniel S. Lehrman, and J.S. Rosenblatt (1970): 238–253; “A Study of the Relationship Between Behavior and Susceptibility to Tuberculosis in Rats and Mice,” with H. Bloch. Advances in Tuberculosis Research 6 (1955): 62–89; Violence Against Women, edited with Susan Sunday (1985).
Tobach, Ethel. Communication with author, March 12, 1997; Who’s Who of American Women (1997–1998).
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Unger, Rhoda K.. "Ethel Tobach." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 26, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/tobach-ethel>.