William Moulton Marston was over the course of his career a psychologist, a feminist theorist, an inventor, and comic-strip writer. He obtained an A.B. from Harvard in 1915 and then a law degree in 1918 and a Ph.D. in psychology in 1921. He began working on his blood pressure approach to deception in 1915 as a graduate student under the direction of Hugo Munsterberg in the Harvard Psychological Laboratory. According to Marston’s son, it was his mother Elizabeth, Marston’s wife, who suggested to him that “When she got mad or excited, her blood pressure seemed to climb” (Lamb, 2001). Although Elizabeth is not listed as Marston’s collaborator in his early work, Lamb, Matte (1996), and others refer directly and indirectly to Elizabeth’s work on her husband’s deception research. She also appears in a picture taken in his polygraph laboratory in the 1920s (reproduced in Marston, 1938).
After the United States entered World War I, Marston attempted to interest the Committee on Psychology at the National Research Council (which at the time was acting as the Department of Science and Research of the Council of National Defense) in his work and its potential to detect espionage. The committee was chaired at the time by Robert M. Yerkes, who had written on the uses of psychological methods for the detection of crime. Most accounts of Marston’s work at the time claim that he actually worked at the National Research Council (NRC), but a review of material in the archives of the council make clear that, despite extended correspondence between Marston and Yerkes, and review by the committee of Marston’s work, the NRC never officially hired Marston nor sponsored his work (see Marston, 1938; Matte, 1996).
Accompanying a letter to Yerkes dated October 9, 1917, Marston submitted a proposal for the next phase of his research on the topic of deception detection. On October 13, the committee voted to set up a subcommittee, under the chairmanship of John F. Shepard, to consider “the value of methods of testing for deception” and to evaluate Marston’s proposal. Two weeks later, following the set-up of apparatus in the Harvard Laboratory, Marston wired Yerkes with the message: “Remarkable results thirty deception tests under iron clad precautions letter following.” This was followed by a letter detailing the work that Marston had carried out with Harold E. Burt and Leonard T. Troland, and the subsequent testing of another 20 cases in Boston Municipal Court. Shepard reported back to the committee on December 14 on Marston’s work, and the committee decided to pursue the use of Marston’s approach further. Shepard’s written report, however, was not quite so positive. He expressed strong skepticism about the use of blood pressure tests, based on flaws in similar