A Biography of William Marston, Creator of Wonder Woman (Web Exclusive, Extended Version)

Though William Moulton Marston (May 9, 1893 – May 2, 1947) died fairly young, at only age 53, he collected an impressive, and incredibly varied, list of accomplishments: he was a lawyer, a psychologist, creator of the DISC system of personality classification, inventor of an early version of the lie detector machine, and creator of the comic character Wonder Woman.

Raised in Massachusetts, Marston received his education from Harvard, earning a BA in 1915, an LLB in 1918, and a PhD in psychology in 1921. Over the next ten years, Marston worked in academia, teaching at American University and Tufts University, and developed his version of the polygraph machine—which had been invented in 1921 by a student at the University of California, Berkeley. While teaching at Tufts, Marston met Olive Byrne, a former grad student who became his research assistant in his work on the polygraph.

After Marston’s wife Elizabeth told him that when she became mad or excited, her blood pressure started to climb, Marston realized that there was a correlation between lying and blood pressure. He went on to invent the systolic blood pressure test, which used blood pressure cuffs and a stethoscope to take intermittent blood pressure during questioning, and ostensibly revealed changes when the subject was lying. This was the first functional lie detector.

In 1923, Marston unsuccessfully tried to have his machine admitted as evidence in courts of law. Marston also saw a future for the machine in the field of love as well as crime, and even saw the machine as a tool of psychotherapy, contending that it would disclose subconscious secrets of which the subject was unaware. He reported success for his device in solving domestic problems—for example, he claimed a two young people engaged to others were revealed to be in love by the lie detector, and were able to realize their feelings and marry each other as a result.

During this time, and for years after, Marston continued his own work as a psychologist, developing his DISC Theory. The DISC Theory is a system of classifying personalities by gauging the way they behave in a favorable or antagonistic situation: the categories of behavior are dominance, influence, submission, and compliance. Marston wrote essays in popular psychology and, in 1928, published Emotions of Normal People—his book explaining the DISC Theory. One of Marston’s findings was a difference of behavior between the genders: he claimed that his psychological experiments proved that men were more inclined to submit in love situations, while women were more inclined to induce.

Throughout the 30s, Marston became a well-known public figure: in 1938, he even appeared in advertisements by Gillette claiming that the lie detector proved that Gillette razor blades were better than the competitors. He was also frequently featured in Family Circle Magazine, interviewed by a young staffer named “Olive Richard” (actually a pseudonym for Olive Byrne, Marston’s former student). One article, entitled “Don’t Laugh at the Comics,” was published in 1940—in this article, Marston described that he saw high educational potential in comic books. Comics publisher Max Gaines saw the article and hired Marston as an educational consultant for All-American Publications, which would soon merge with another company to form DC Comics.

A year later, Marston wrote his own comic book, creating the character of Wonder Woman in a guest role in the 1941 All-Star Comics #8 under the pen name “Charles Moulton.”  Marston hoped to craft a female superhero as strong as her male counterparts but with intelligence, goodness, and the allure of a beautiful woman. He gave her a lie detector of her own in the form of the magic “Lasso of Truth,” which impelled anyone caught within it to tell the truth. Wonder Woman was immensely popular, and soon starred in her own comic. Just as he had focused on dominance and submission in his psychology studies, Marston structured Wonder Woman’s universe with these same categories: she and the other characters in the series were constantly being tied up, chained, imprisoned, and handcuffed. This was indicative of Marston’s moral philosophy—that one must submit to truth to find freedom: the golden lasso itself was an instrument of both domination and liberation.

Throughout this time, Olive Byrne had been living with Marston and his wife Elizabeth, in what appears to have been a polyamorous relationship. Both women had two children by Marston, and Elizabeth even named her own daughter after Olive, as well as formally adopting Olive’s children. Marston and Elizabeth’s son Pete has said that the situation was a wonderfully happy one.  

Pete Marston has also suggested that it was Elizabeth’s idea to create a female superhero, after learning that her husband wanted to write a comic. Elizabeth Marston was a strong woman herself, earning degrees in psychology and law, and working to support the family. Marston himself attributed aspects of Wonder Woman to Olive, in another Family Circle interview published in 1942: although presumably keeping up the guise that she was merely a reporter and not his lover, he called her his “Wonder Woman” and said that her bracelets (silver ones that she seems to have worn always) were the inspiration for Wonder Woman’s bullet-deflecting cuffs. These bands, the bondage in Marston’s comics, and his focus on the categories of domination and submission have led to much speculation that the trio was involved in BDSM as well as polyamory.

Marston died fairly suddenly of cancer in 1947, but Elizabeth and Olive continued to raise their children together and were partners until Olive’s death in the late 80s. Wonder Woman has been published continuously since her creation (and is one of only three DC Comics characters for which this is true).

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