Shinn, Milicent W.

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Milicent W. Shinn

American child psychologist best known for her seminal systematic observational study of a child.

As the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from the University of California, Milicent Shinn is credited today for her outstanding early American study, "Notes on the Development of a Child." First published in 1898 as a doctoral dissertation, this work is still hailed as a masterpiece and a classic in its field.

A native Californian, Shinn was born in 1858 to parents who emigrated from the East and established a farming homestead in Niles, California, where she lived her entire life. In 1879, at the age of 25, she became editor of the Overland Monthly, a literary magazine that had fallen on hard times in post-Civil War California. Dividing her time between the family ranch and the journal, Shinn cared for her aging parents, ran the ranch with her brother and his wife, and helped care for their daughter, Ruth, who was born in 1890. Inspired by personal interest in her niece, Shinn applied her writer's skills to create a carefully recorded and minutely detailed two-year account of her niece's physical growth and emotional development . Delivered as a paper entitled "The First Two Years of the Child" at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Shinn's observational study was hailed as the first of its kind in America. Convinced by others that her work represented a significant contribution to child psychology , Shinn resigned from the Overland Monthly in 1894 and enrolled as a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, completing the degree with the publication of her dissertation in 1898.

Compelling family needs and pressures led Shinn to abandon her scholarly pursuits and return to the family ranch to care for her invalid mother and aging father. By 1913, in her mid-fifties and in ill-health herself, Shinn undertook the education of her younger brother's four children, devoting the rest of her life to her family until her death in 1940.

Further Reading

Scarborough, Elizabeth, and Laurel Furumoto. Untold Lives: The First Generation of American Women Psychologists. 52-69. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.