By: Megan Henderson, Bicentennial Intern, Class of 2020, Psychology, IUPUI
While researching Roland Clark Davis, often known as R.C. Davis, I had the fortune of being able to speak with his granddaughter, Francie Gabbay, who is in the same field of work as R.C. Davis.
She was more than helpful and provided many documents, photographs, and much information that I could not otherwise find (online or in the archives).
So, who was Roland Clark Davis?
Davis was a well-educated, curious man. People often described him as ‘lost in thought.’ “When Davis’s son Chris was in first grade, the children in his class were asked by their teacher what their fathers did. Chris answered that his father sat with his legs up on his desk and thought” (Gabbay, F. H., & Stern, R. M., 2012, p.9).
Davis was often found deep in thought like this, both in his office at the university as well as his study at home. According to his daughter, Davis would play opera music at their home on Sundays. He would walk around the house, “conducting” the orchestra.
Davis attended Harvard for his A.B. in English in 1924, however, he decided English was not his main interest. He then attended Columbia University and completed his Ph.D. in psychology in 1930. That next year, he and his wife moved to Bloomington, Indiana where he began working at Indiana University as an associate psychology professor, which was supposed to be a one-year job.
Davis ended up staying at IU Bloomington for the rest of his career, working as an acting associate professor of psychology at the Indianapolis Extension Center in 1935, and then later being appointed as a full-time psychology professor for IU Bloomington in 1938. (Davis, R. C., 1949, p.219)
His area of focus in psychology was psychophysiology, which focused on the physiological responses and bases for psychological processes. Davis was one of the first generation of psychologists to use the term psychophysiology, and one of the first full time psychophysiologists.
Davis attended many of the American Psychological Association (APA) meetings, at which he met other psychologists interested in psychophysiology. It was with this group of people that he helped create the Society for Psychophysiological Research (SPR). SPR was created for psychologists interested in psychophysiology to meet and discuss their findings in this area of psychology.
Davis was appointed chair of the organizing board and was placed as the successor of the president of the group when the time came. The group had their organizational meeting in 1959 to discuss the what, where, and when of their meetings. Their first meeting was scheduled for September 5, 1961, but sadly Davis never made it to the meeting as he passed away seven months earlier.
When he began at IU, he established his psychophysiology laboratory in Science Hall (now known as Lindley Hall). His laboratory was in the same hallway as B.F. Skinner’s laboratory during his time at IU (1945-1948).
At that time, Skinner was carrying out experiments involving animals (mostly pigeons), and Davis was doing experiments requiring the burning of gunpowder. In a paper written about Davis, his son described the smell in the hallway as an “acrid smell of the recording paper mixed with the stench of clucking pigeons, which were housed next door in B.F. Skinner’s laboratory” (Gabbay, F. H., & Stern, R. M., 2012, p.3).
During his career at IU Bloomington, Davis mentored a number of students in psychology. One of his students was Oren W. Eagleson. Under Davis’s supervision, Eagleson completed his dissertation, “Comparison Studies of White and Negro Subjects in Learning to Discriminate Visual Magnitude”, and attained his PhD in 1935. Eagleson was one of the first ten African-American students in the United Stated to obtain a PhD in psychology (Capshew, J. H., 2014, p.49).
R.C. Davis was very invested in his research, and published well over 100 papers throughout his career. He researched several areas of psychology, such as stomach issues and sleep, but his main focus was on galvanic responses. Galvanic responses are our bodies electrical responses to certain stimuli.
Davis, when he could, would take part in his own experiments. One specific experiment that he partook in was a galvanic stomach response where he was testing stomach contractions, or the electrical potential that the organs in the abdomen create.
For this, he and his volunteers would swallow balloons to measure the electrical potential. However, he later changed the method as the, “…balloon technique is too inconvenient and difficult for most to accept” (Davis, R. C., Garafolo, L., & Gault, F. P., 1957, p.1). He revised his methods for this particular experiment and used electrodes attached to the abdomen to record the data.
His children were also often involved in his research as volunteer subjects. “She [Davis’ daughter, Susan] and her brother Chris (known then as “Kit”) made many visits to Science Hall and were frequently called into service” (Gabbay, F. H., & Stern, R. M., 2012, p.3). These research experiments were generally to measure a person’s galvanic response to some sort of stimulus, such as loud noise or gunfire.
They would take place by having the subject sit in a sheet metal box, with electrodes strapped to their arms, legs, and stomach to measure the electrical pulses the body gives off. As his daughter, Susan Gabbay, recalled:
“Thus arrayed, I was closed into the chamber, hand poised over the signal button. There were beeps. I pressed on cue. Suddenly there reverberated an indescribable burst of sound. My heart nearly left my chest and my breath stopped. Dad had pounded on the sheet metal box in which I was contained. He was looking for my physical responses to being startled. He got them.” (Gabbay, S., 2012, p.2)
Davis’s research on the galvanic responses led to his interest in lie detection; and this research may have been undertaken for the military, according to his granddaughter. IU Bloomington was given access to the patent for ‘Lie-Detection Apparatus’ in 1939, which stated that its inventor was R.C. Davis.
The original patent has not been able to be retrieved, and the best conclusion that we can draw about it is that once Davis passed away, the patent filing stopped.
There were lie detection devices invented before Davis’s version; they differed in how they detected lies. Prior to Davis’s device, lie detectors relied on blood pressure and the rate at which a person was breathing. The apparatus Davis came up with relied on the electrical resistance of the skin tissue, a method that came from his research on galvanic responses.
The electrical skin responses correspond with emotion felt by the subject, so when the subject was asked a question that riled their emotions, the needle on the device measured the presence of decreased resistance, and the degree to which it was present, thus indicating if a person was lying or not. (Foundation Given “Lie-Detector” Patent, 1939)
In other research Davis carried out regarding lie detection, he noted differences in the circumference of the index finger of is subjects. As reported in the Indianapolis Star (1953), he found that when asked a question, a person’s index finger will shrink veer so slightly.
When the person lies about the answer to said question, their index finger would shrink again. This was an interesting point of focus for Davis, but it was not very reliable and thus not included in the apparatus that he created.
The lie detection apparatus patent was given to the university in 1939, and the police were very interested in using the device for investigations. Strangely enough, there was slim mention of Davis’s lie detection apparatus in the newspapers (regarding assisting investigations) before 1953. There were news articles describing the lie detector, as well as later articles about it being used in death investigations and disappearances.
His apparatus was used in 1935 to question two male suspects about the death of a 15-year-old girl. However, these results were not considered reliable by Davis, who said the suspects fatigue interfered with the results. Davis acknowledged that the lie detection apparatus was not 100% reliable. Even today, lie detectors are still used in investigations, however they are not considered permissible evidence in a court of law.
I may have been R.C. Davis’s last doctoral student. To say that he was a Renaissance man wouldn’t be nearly enough. He was masterful is wide range of intellectual areas. I am enormously grateful for his wonderful influence. Not a day goes by without my thinking of him. I have a picture of him by my desk.
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