Edward Lee Thorndike was a son of a Methodist minister in Lowell, Massachusetts. He became an American pioneer in comparative psychology and was a typical late 19th century American scientist. He grew up in an age when scientific psychology was establishing its place in academic institutions and attracting college graduates, Thorndike being one of them. He became interested in the field of psychology after reading William Jame's "Principles of Psychology" and after graduating from Weslyan University enrolled at Harvard in order to study under James. His research interest was with children, but his initial study of "mind reading" led to their unavailability for future study. So, he developed projects that examined learning in animals to satisfy requirements for his courses and degree. He completed a study of maze learning in chicks, but for personal reasons, Thorndike did not complete his education at Harvard. Cattell invited him to go to Columbia University where he continued his animal research. He switched from chicks to cats and dogs, and made good use out of his own designed "puzzled boxes." In 1898, he was awarded the doctorate for his thesis, "Animal Intelligence: An Experimental Study of the Associative Processes in Animals", in which he concluded that an experimental approach is the only way to understand learning and established his famous "Law of Effect".
Upon graduation, Thorndike returned to his initial interest, Educational Psychology. In 1899, after a year of unhappy, initial employment at the College for Women of Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio, he became an instructor in psychology at Teachers College at Columbia University, where he remained for the rest of his career, studying human learning, education, and mental testing.
Edward L. Throndike's pioneer investigations in the fields of human and animal learning are among the most influential in the history of Psychology. In 1912, he was recognized for his accomplishments and elected president of the American Psychological Association. In 1934, the American Association for the Advancement of Science elected Thorndike as the only social scientist to head this professional organization. Thorndike retired in 1939, but worked actively until his death ten years later.