John F. Eaton was an American psychologist who made significant contributions to the studies of learning and motivation. Eaton was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1886. He remained there as he grew up and was educated in public schools. He lived in a family of "upper middle" socioeconomic status and had a father who was the president of a manufacturing company. His brother, Robert, was five years older than he was and both he and Robert were expected to go into the family business.
He and his brother decided to seek academic careers, against their family's wishes. Both went on to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Robert pursued a career in academics, ultimately becoming a world-renowned theoretical chemist and physicist, and John initially sought a bachelor's degree in electrochemistry. Eaton changed the course of his career during his senior year. He decided to become a philosopher. After graduation in 1911, he attended summer school and took a course in philosophy and psychology. He concluded that he wasn't quite smart enough for philosophy and that psychology was more to his liking.
That coming fall, Eaton enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School as a philosophy and psychology graduate student. At that time, the disciplines were a combined department. After his first year as a graduate student, he went to Germany to study for his PhD examination in German (at that time all PhD examinations were conducted in French, German, or Russian).
He received his doctorate in 1915. Eaton became an instructor at Northwestern University and taught for three years after receiving his doctoral degree. He described himself as being self-conscious, inarticulate, and fearful of his classes.
Eaton went on to become an instructor at the University of California in Berkeley in the fall of 1918 where he remained for the rest of his life. He married Susan Thompson; they had 3 children, Joseph, Susan and Grace.