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Alfons Chorus, founder of the Institute of Psychology: who was he really?

Alfons Chorus was the ‘founding father’ of Psychology in Leiden. His son Rogier Chorus recently obtained his PhD at Leiden University based on his biography of his father. He talked to his Leiden PhD supervisor Willem Heiser about his father’s innovations, his plagiarism and how he was misunderstood.

Before the Second World War you played hockey for a Catholic team, you did your shopping at Catholic stores, and, if you were part of the Catholic community, V&D was your department store. At clothes chain C&A, the owners, the Brenninkmeijer family, employed Catholic staff. All this was much more than living within your particular bubble: the pillar of Catholicism was your whole life. It was in this Catholic environment that Alfons Chorus grew up in Limburg and built his network at the Catholic University Nijmegen, today’s Radboud University. In the post-War Netherlands, former pastor Gerard van der Leeuw, as Minister of Education, made it possible for Catholics to be appointed as professors at state universities, cutting through the previously dominant religious pillars. It was against this background that in 1947 Alfons Chorus was the right man in the right place to set up the chair in Psychology at the state University of Leiden, currently Leiden University.

Founding father

‘The post-War forties and early fifties were golden years in Leiden,’ Rogier Chorus explains. Heiser mentioned his admiration for the energy with which the founding father constructed a completely new institute of psychology. ‘He had such original ideas. He would take himself off to other faculties, for example, to charter an expert to give lectures on biology.’  To help his students find internships, he founded the National Psychological Service (Rijkspsychologische Dienst, RPD) in The Hague, a body that advises government officials on personnel policies for the ever-growing government workforce. Heiser: ‘Or his students would do internships in Bloemendaal at a reform school for difficult-to-educate Catholic girls.’  Then the Catholic network would come into its own again. Heiser: ‘I, too, think Chorus was an effective networker.' But they had different ideas on this. Rogier Chorus: ‘Networking for other people was fine, but not for yourself. And particularly in that somewhat refined environment of Leiden, he missed his networking friends from Nijmegen and Limburg.’

Innovator

Rogier Chorus takes up the story: ‘His greatest achievement may well have been that he was the instigator of the General Law on Exceptional Medical Expenses (AWBZ) that arose from his approach to the mentally ill. Up to then, these people had been shut away in institutions, but Chorus recognised that, although they may be behind in their development, they still had the potential to develop further.’ Personal engagement or empathy were not part of his make-up, but he did recognise that this issue was a societal problem that needed to be addressed. Heiser: ‘He saw the potential in these people.’  Similarly, as he as a recent graduate in psychology, he recognised the potential of autistic children and coined the term ‘autism’ for this condition. He also described the hyperactivity suffered by some people and the individual possibilities of children with what we today know as ADHD. Heiser recognises Chorus’s strengths: ‘He saw the characteristics that shape people’s life course, was good at assessing “difficult” children and brought a scientific approach to children with a mental handicap.’

The professor and the plagiarism issue

 ‘As the “son of”,’ Rogier continues, ‘I have written a relational biography. The advantages of this kind of biography over one written by an outsider are that you can tell a “flesh and blood” story. There is a drawback, though, namely the tendency to be too negative, in my case about the plagiarism Chorus committed in his manual on social psychology.’  This question was recently resurrected by journalist Frank van Kolfschooten. Heiser puts it in context: ‘The manual was a follow-on from his lectures to final-year students. Today, the model of the researcher is the sacred model, whereas in Chorus’s time you had the model of the professor who passed on to his students what the researchers had discovered and who was able to place the scholar in a theoretical framework. Chorus was the type of professor who talked about the latest insights into social psychology in the U.S. and turned his lecture notes into a book. It was normal at the time to refer to citations in the introduction, except that he repeatedly used a literal quote from an American handbook, with no reference to the authors. At that time, just like now, that was reprehensible behaviour,’ says the biographer who, as a son, is somewhat stricter on this issue.

Misunderstood

No matter how great Chorus’s impact on the care for the mentally handicapped, with the new legislation that he helped introduce, nonetheless this societal benefit was not sufficiently scientific in the eyes of his colleagues. Rogier Chorus: ‘At the end of his career in Leiden, Chorus became entrenched in his views, losing all sense of flexibility, and he wanted to show he was right: he felt misunderstood. What he could have done was to gain recognition for his addition to the basic law of rumour. That law says that the intensity of the rumour flow depends on the importance of the subject, multiplied by the ambiguity of the data. Chorus added to this international publication the additional factor that the receptivity of the individual also plays an important role. His early successes in the forties with his research in Nijmegen and his strong organisational abilities in Leiden in the early fifties were followed by a strengthening of his commitment to the care of the mentally handicapped,' the biographer summarised.  

Banner: Alfons Chorus as a young doctor (Photo from the family archive)

1967: 20 jaar hoogleraar.
1967: 20 years as a professor, from l to r, sitting Piet Stolker (father of the present Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker), Mrs Chorus, Alfons Chorus, Lenie de Groot. Also present, his colleague Van de Geer and his staff, and future professors Van Meel, Van Hoorn and Koornstra.

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