Martha E. Bernal: First Latina to earn a PhD in Psychology in the U.S.

Born in San Antonio, Texas to Mexican parents who migrated to the United States, Martha Bernal lived in a time of racial segregation. While attending school she was subject to racial discrimination and sexism, yet Martha still achieved her goals of furthering her education and contributed tremendously to the community.

After high school, Doctor Martha E. Bernal graduated with a Bachelor’s  Degree from Texas Western College. She went on to earn a Masters degree of the Arts at Syracuse University. Finally. she earned her PhD in clinical psychology at Indiana University, Bloomington in 1962.

Martha contributed significantly to the early development of two important areas in the field of psychology (Vasquez & Lopez, 2002). The first was to bring the rigors of learning theory and methods to the treatment and assessment of children with behavior problems.  She contributed to an increase in the use of empirically validated interventions in child treatment.  Second, through both her scholarship and professional activities, she helped to advance a multicultural psychology – one that recognizes the importance of diversity in training, recruitment, and research. Martha applied her interests, energies and abilities in ways that proved invaluable in helping change paradigms within the structure of the American Psychological Association.  In an obituary published in the American Psychologist,  Steve Lopez and I described Martha as  “… 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.” (Vasquez & Lopez, 2002, p. 362).

In the early 1970s, Dr. Bernal dedicated herself to the goal of ensuring that students of color had the opportunity to receive graduate training.  She applied much of her research to increase the status of ethnic minority recruitment, retention and training.  Her social action research was designed to focus attention on the dearth of ethnic minority psychologists and to recommend steps for addressing that problem.  This work is published in the American Psychologist (e.g., Bernal & Castro, 1994), andThe Counseling Psychologist  (Quintana & Bernal, 1995); she  documented the low numbers of minority graduate students and faculty members in psychology departments throughout the United States, as well as the importance of ethnic minority curricula (Vasquez, 2002).

Dr. Bernal implemented strategies to increase the presence of ethnic minority students.  While at the University of Denver and Arizona State University, she received numerous National Research Service Awards from NIMH and other foundations to study the training of clinical psychologists for work with ethnic minority populations.  At Arizona State University, she helped sponsor an annual Ethnic Identity Symposium for several years.  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 (Bernal & Knight, 1993).  Her work has been very widely published, and has had tremendous impact in the field.

Dr. Bernal contributed much of her energy to leadership activities in the profession of psychology.  She was involved in drafting the Board of Ethnic Minority Affairs (BEMA) by-laws and in the complex process involved in establishing the BEMA.  She served on the Education and Training Committee of the BEMA, and also on the Steering Committee Task Force, which established the association which is now called the National Latino/a Psychological Association, previously called National Hispanic Psychological Association (NHPA).  She served as its second president and as treasurer, and was an active member of the NHPA executive committee from its inception through 1986.

Despite some of her health problems, which forced her to “drop out” of volunteer activities for a period of time, she returned to her social action leadership activities by serving on APA’s Commission on Ethnic Minority, Recruitment, Retention and Training (CEMRRAT).  She subsequently served on the Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest.  When she died she had been an active member of the CEMRRAT 2 Task Force, overseeing the implementation of the CEMRRAT recommendations, and had been an active member of the Committee of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Affairs.

Dr. Bernal received numerous awards, including 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 lifelong contributions to ethnic minority psychology. The latter award was presented at the first National Multicultural Conference and Summit, where she delivered a very moving, poignant description of surviving as a psychologist woman of color. She attended the APA convention in 2001 despite complications from her chemotherapy, and with great difficulty, to receive the highly esteemed APA Distinguished Contribution to Psychology in the Public Interest Award.  She knew it was important for many of us to see her in that role. Instead, she ended up in a San Francisco emergency room for several hours, surrounded by Laura Brown, Cynthia de las Fuentes, Linda Garnets, Maria Root and I, all of whom had served as a support group of sorts, for the last few months of her life.  She died a few weeks later.

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. She had a special impact on women, especially Latinas, and other women of color.  To honor her commitment to advancing scholars of color, a Martha Bernal scholarship fund has been set up at Arizona State University. Donations in the form of a check or money order may be made out to the ASU Foundation for the “Martha Bernal Scholarship Fund” and mailed to Dr. George P. Knight, Department of Psychology, ASU, P.O. Box 871104, Tempe, Arizona 85287-1104. (

Pa’lante Latino showcases current events in the arts, entertainment, politics, and culture as it affects our community. Above all, we are ferocious advocates of the contributions that Hispanics/Latinos have made to the United States and feature articles based on historical facts to reaffirm our relevance.Please feel free to email us at . 

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