Dr. Martha Bernal: The First Latina with a PhD in Psychology

To celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, we honor Dr. Martha Bernal, the first Latina to receive a PhD in psychology in the U.S.

Bernal contributed greatly to the field of ethnic minority psychology and inspired many generations to follow her.

“Dr. Martha Bernal demonstrated outstanding initiative and dedication to promoting the presence of ethnic minority psychologists in the profession. She provided guidance and inspiration to a wide range and large number of psychologists of color, men and women,” according to Society for the Psychology of Women.

In addition to her contributions to the field, Bernal was a fierce advocate for justice and equity.

“She was passionate about her ideas, she spoke out effectively against injustice, she maintained high standards of scholarship and professionalism, she demonstrated much compassion for fellow human beings, and she had considerable energy,” according to Melba J.T. Vasquez and Steve Lopez, who wrote her obituary.

Bernal’s Early Life & Path Towards Psychology

Bernal was born on April 13, 1931, in San Antonio, Texas. She was raised by Mexican immigrants and spent her childhood in El Paso, Texas.

From an early age, Bernal was successful in school.

But her father didn’t initially support her educational aspirations.

“As she succeeded in her educational pursuits, she learned that her father did not share her goals for higher education. He believed that women were to be married and that a college education for a woman was a waste. Because of Martha’s persistence and the unwavering support of her mother and older sister (Cristina), her father relented and eventually supported her college and graduate school education,” according to Vasquez and Lopez.

In her childhood, Bernal was also no stranger to discrimination against Mexican Americans.

“As Martha entered school in 1937, she was exposed to negative messages about Mexican Americans. In fact, speaking Spanish was not permitted in school, and both the school and the community were ethnically segregated,” according to Vasquez and Lopez.

Despite the injustices she faced, Bernal was always thankful for her success.

“However critical I might be of this country, I have felt grateful for the opportunities of which I availed myself,” Bernal said, according to Models of achievement: Eminent women in psychology.

Pursuing Her PhD at Indiana University

In 1952, Bernal graduated from Texas Western College (now University of Texas at El Paso) with a B.A. in psychology.

She then went on to pursue an M.A. from Syracuse University, which she obtained in 1955.

Bernal then enrolled at Indiana University Bloomington to pursue her PhD in clinical psychology.

While obtaining her PhD, Bernal often encountered racism and sexism.

Dr. Martha Bernal: The First Latina with a PhD in Psychology

“At Indiana University, female students were not invited to participate with their professors on research projects. The ones that participated were mainly white students. Not only were students not allowed to participate but Martha Bernal witnessed her married male professor chasing her female classmates,” according to Linda M. Woolf.

Bernal became so discouraged that she almost dropped out of her program.

Thankfully, some faculty members pushed her to finish.

“With the help of her peers and select faculty, she succeeded. Among those who served as mentors, influential teachers, and supporters were Roland C. Davis, Arnold Binder, Leon Levy, and Harry Yamaguchi,” according to Vasquez and Lopez.

Bernal succeeded and graduated with her PhD in 1962.

Bernal’s Contributions to Psychology

Bernal contributed significantly to two areas of psychology: learning theory and multicultural studies.

After graduating with her PhD, Bernal began working on treatment for child behavioral issues.

Through her work, she helped advocate for more ethical and empirically valid interventions for child treatment.

“After 2 one-year stints, one as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the other as a faculty member at the University of Arizona, Martha was able to develop her primary interest at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, where she worked from 1964 to 1971. During this time, she gained national attention by demonstrating the efficacy of behavioral interventions in the treatment of acting-out problem behaviors of children,” according to Vasquez and Lopez.

Later in her career, Bernal focused on diversity in training, recruitment, and research for psychologists.

“Her social action research was designed to focus attention on the dearth of ethnic minority psychologists and to recommend steps for addressing that problem,” according to Society for the Psychology of Women.

Her work led her to sponsor an annual Ethnic Identity Symposium at Arizona State University.

“Martha and her colleague, George Knight, along with graduate and undergraduate students, worked to develop methodology for measuring ethnic identity, collected normative data, and studied the developmental course of ethnic identity and its correlates in Mexican American children,” according to Society for the Psychology of Women.

Bernal also was involved in creating the Board of Ethnic Minority Affairs (BEMA), where she would serve on the Education and Training Committee.

From these posts, she helped form the National Latino/a Psychological Association.

She was active in committees like the APA’s Commission on Ethnic Minority, Recruitment, Retention and Training (CEMRRAT) and the Committee of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Affairs up until her death.

Bernal’s Death & Legacy

Bernal died from cancer on Sept. 28, 2001 at age 70.

She was diagnosed with cancer three different times in her late life.

A few weeks before her death, Bernal received the APA Distinguished Contribution to Psychology in the Public Interest Award.

Throughout her career, she received numerous awards. These include the Distinguished Life Achievement Award from Division 45 (Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues), the Hispanic Research Center Lifetime Award from Arizona State University, and the Carolyn Attneave award for her contributions to the field.

Bernal is remembered for her great achievements and inspiration to others perusing psychology, particularly Latinas.

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