Martha E. Bernal, PhD, the first woman of Mexican descent to successfully complete her PhD in clinical psychology, died on Sept. 28 from lung cancer. Bernal overcame family and societal confines to earn her doctoral degree in 1962 at Indiana University.
Bernal's graduate experience was marked by a dearth of women and minorities in psychology, which pinnacled during her postgraduate job search for a faculty position when she received replies from schools that said, "We do not hire women." She then pursued a U.S. Public Health Service Postdoctoral Fellowship, and completed research training in human psychophysiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, Health Sciences Center. In 1966, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) gave her a grant to establish a laboratory to study orienting responses and classical conditioning in autistic children.
Shortly after, Bernal became interested in finding others who had shared her experience with racism and sexism in schools. She often said that "racism and sexism in psychology had a systemic basis within the profession," and that they mirrored the prejudices of the larger society.
Her goals became to teach and conduct research on topics important to people of color, to advocate on behalf of people of color and to work within APA to improve the status of ethnic minorities in psychology.
In 1979, Bernal received a National Research Service Award from NIMH to study how psychologists prepared for work with multicultural populations. She published the results that showed APA-accredited clinical psychology programs had few multicultural curricula for psychologists, and a scarcity of students and faculty of color. That same year, she helped establish the National Hispanic Psychological Association and later served as its second president.
In 1986 Bernal became a professor at Arizona State University, where she focused on finding out how Mexican-American children developed their identities and how schools could improve their efforts to provide clinical psychologists with training in minority mental health issues.
In 2000, Bernal was recognized for her contributions to Latino psychologists at the Latino Psychology Conference. At APA's 2001 Annual Convention, the Public Interest Directorate awarded Bernal the 2001 Contributions to Psychology Award.