Calkins, Mary Whiton

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Mary Whiton Calkins

American psychologist and philosopher who became the first woman president of both the American Psychological Association (1905) and the American Philosophical Association (1918).

The eldest of five children born to Reverend Wolcott Calkins, a strong-willed, intellectually gifted evangelical minister, and Charlotte Grosvenor Whiton, a daughter of an established New England Puritan family, Mary Whiton Calkins grew up in a close-knit family that valued education. As her mother's mental and physical health began to deteriorate, Calkins took on increased responsibilities for her younger siblings as well as her mother.

After earning a B.A. from Smith College with a concentration in the classics, Calkins began teaching Greek at Wellesley College in 1887. In 1888, she was offered the new position of instructor in psychology there, which was contingent upon a year's training in the discipline. Consistent with university policy toward women in 1890, Calkins was granted special permission to attend classes in psychology and philosophy at Harvard University and in laboratory psychology at Clark University in Worcester, but was denied admission to their graduate studies programs. She was also denied permission to attend regular Harvard seminars until faculty members William James and Josiah Royce (1855-1916), as well as Calkins's father, intervened on her behalf. After she was enrolled in James's seminar, four men enrolled in the class dropped it in protest. Attendance at James's seminar led to individual study with him, and within a year Calkins had published a paper on association, suggesting a modification to James's recently published Principles of Psychology. Her paper was enthusiastically received by her mentor, who referred to it when he later revised his book.

Returning to Wellesley in the fall of 1891, Calkins established the first psychology laboratory at a women's

college in the United States with help from Edmund Sanford, a faculty member at Clark, with whom she collaborated on an experimental study of dreams published in the American Journal of Psychology. In 1893, seeking further laboratory training, Calkins returned to Harvard to work with James's protégé, Hugo Münsterberg (1863-1916), investigating the factors influencing memory . During the course of this work, Calkins originated the "paired associates" technique, a method of testing memory by presenting test subjects with paired numbers and colors. Her findings revealed that numbers paired with bright colors were retained better than those associated with neutral colors. However, the prime factor influencing memory was frequency of exposure. The results of this research were published as a supplement to Psychological Review in 1896.

In 1895, Calkins requested and took an examination equivalent to the official Ph.D. exam. Her performance was praised by James as "the most brilliant examination for the Ph.D. that we have had at Harvard," surpassing that of his junior colleague, George Santayana (1863-1952). Nevertheless, Calkins was still denied admission to candidacy for the degree. With the creation of Rad-cliffe College in April 1902, Calkins was one of the first four women to be offered the Ph.D., but she refused it in protest.

Calkins taught at Wellesley College until her retirement in 1929, and had published four books and more than 100 papers in psychology and philosophy. In 1901, she published a well-received Introduction to Psychology and spent the early 1900s developing a psychology of the self that anticipated later theories of personality . In 1909, Columbia University awarded Calkins a honorary Doctor of Letters (Litt.D.) and in 1910, Smith College granted her the Doctor of Laws (LL.D.). Calkins died in 1930.

Further Reading

Scarborough, Elizabeth and Laurel Furumoto. Untold Lives: The First Generation of American Women Psychologists, 17-51. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.