Calkins, Mary Whiton (1863–1930)

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Calkins, Mary Whiton (1863–1930)

American psychologist and philosopher who was the first woman president of both the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association. Born Mary Whiton Calkins in Hartford, Connecticut, on March 30, 1863; died in Newton, Massachusetts, on February 26, 1930; daughter of Wolcott (a Presbyterian minister) and Charlotte Grosvenor (Whiton) Calkins; graduated from Smith College, 1885; never married; no children.

Became tutor in Greek, Wellesley College (1887), instructor in Greek, (1889), and instructor in psychology (1891); established first psychology laboratory at

women's college (1891); appointed associate professor in psychology, Wellesley College (1894); pioneered technique of paired-associate learning (1894–95); appointed associate professor of psychology and philosophy, Wellesley College (1896); completed requirements for a Ph.D. in psychology at Harvard University (1896); promoted to full professor, Wellesley College (1898); published An Introduction to Psychology (1901); elected first woman president of the American Psychological Association (1905); published The Persistent Problem of Philosophy (1907); published A First Book in Psychology (1909); published The Good Man and The Good (1918); elected first woman president of the American Philosophical Association (1918); retired from active teaching (1919).

In a time when women began to enter higher education in the face of strong societal opposition, psychologist and philosopher Mary Whiton Calkins established herself as a pioneer: first as one of a handful of female graduate students at Harvard University, then as a professor at an all-women's college, and finally as the first woman president of both the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association. Though repeatedly denied many of the professional rights and privileges extended to her male counterparts because of her gender, Calkins nonetheless rose to the top of her profession. One of the preeminent psychologists and philosophers of her time, she created the paired-associate technique of learning, founded one of the first psychological laboratories in the country, and developed a theory of "self psychology," which she detailed in books and numerous published articles.

The roots of Mary Whiton Calkins' success in adulthood can be traced back to the loving and unconventional family into which she was born, the eldest of five children (a sister and three brothers followed) on March 30, 1863. Though in mid-19th century America the education of women was widely regarded as both a waste of time and potentially dangerous, Mary's devoted father Wolcott Calkins, a Presbyterian minister, and her mother Charlotte Whiton Calkins , an informally trained musician, believed wholeheartedly in the education of women. The result was an extremely nurturing family environment in which Calkins and her siblings flourished.

Mary Calkins was born in Hartford, Connecticut, but the family moved to Buffalo, New York, in 1866 when she was three. She spent the next 14 years in Buffalo. Her father took so keen an interest in the education of his children that he painstakingly outlined and supervised their studies. He particularly encouraged professional aspirations in his extraordinarily bright and naturally precocious eldest daughter. In addition to her father, Calkins developed an important relationship with Sophie Jewitt , who had moved in with the Calkins family following the death of her own parents. The young girls became intellectual companions and best friends who read their way through the Calkins family library. Later on, their relationship took on a professional aspect when both joined the staff of Wellesley College.

Mary Calkins' mother was devoted to her children and singlehandedly nursed them through a series of potentially life threatening childhood illnesses. The anxiety of caring for them took its toll, and Charlotte Calkins suffered a breakdown during Mary's adolescence. Mary Calkins took her role as a dutiful daughter seriously; she supervised her mother's care and would continue to live with her parents in the house her father built in Newton, Massachusetts, where the family had moved in 1880, throughout her adult life. The education she received from her father was so thorough and advanced that Mary Calkins entered Smith College (then only a decade old) in 1882 as a sophomore. It was during this first year at Smith that her sister Maud died from what was diagnosed as inflammatory rheumatism. It was a terrible blow to the Calkins family. Following this tragedy, Mary took a year off from Smith and stayed at home taking private lessons in Greek. She reentered Smith in 1884 with senior standing and was graduated in the spring of 1885 with a concentration in classics and philosophy.

The Calkins family toured Europe for a year in 1886, thus furnishing Mary with a splendid opportunity for educational advancement. While in Leipzig, she studied briefly at the university there and encountered an American instructor, Abby Leach , who invited her along on a trip to Italy and Greece to visit historical sites and continue her studies in modern Greek and the classics.

While still abroad, Wolcott Calkins contacted the president of Wellesley College, a women's liberal arts college located near the Calkins home, seeking a teaching post for his daughter. In 1887, one week after returning home from Europe, Mary Calkins accepted a position at Wellesley as a tutor in Greek. This would not be the only time her father would intervene on her behalf and influence her professional career.

Her natural intelligence and talent as a teacher did not go unnoticed. In 1889, she was promoted to the rank of instructor. But Calkins' intellectual interests were moving away from the classics towards more modern disciplines. She was increasingly drawn to the new study of psychology, which then constituted a subfield of philosophy, and was offered a position in the Department of Philosophy on the condition that she study psychology for a year.

To that end, she approached the Department of Philosophy at Harvard, which was headed by the brilliant William James. Harvard was also one of the few institutions in the United States that possessed a laboratory for experimental psychology. At that time, psychology was primarily a laboratory science directed at exploring and explaining the workings of the mind and behavior. Most pioneering university psychologists studied human and animal behavior, sensation and perception, and learning and cognition. Though William James and Josiah Royce, another noteworthy professor in Harvard's philosophy department, agreed to accept Calkins as a student, she met with resistance from Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot who, backed by the trustees, roundly opposed co-education. Her request to attend seminars was refused because of gender. Her father once again interceded on her behalf. With a letter of support from the president of Wellesley, he petitioned Harvard on the grounds that his daughter's "admission did not involve the question of co-education in general, and cannot be quoted as an embarrassing precedent. For we ask only post-graduate and professional instruction for one who is already a member of a college faculty." On October 1, 1890, Harvard agreed to admit Calkins but noted that "by accepting this privilege Miss Calkins does not become a student of the University entitled to registration."

Mary Calkins credited the year she spent at Harvard as the most stimulating and rewarding intellectual experience of her life. The seminar she attended with William James, together with his monumental The Principles of Psychology, profoundly influenced her thinking and the trajectory of her career. She later wrote that her seminar with James and "my absorbed study of those brilliant, erudite and provocative volumes was my introduction to psychology." It was also under James' intellectual guidance that Calkins wrote her first important paper on association, which was subsequently published in the July 1892 edition of the Philosophical Review.

In 1890, Calkins also began working in the psychology laboratory at Clark University under the supervision of Edmund Sanford, her second important teacher. Calkins credited Sanford with educating her in the "details of laboratory experiments." Together, they conducted an experiment on dreams. Their conclusions, that dreams reproduce "in general the persons, places and events of recent sense perception" and that the dream is rarely "associated with that which is of paramount significance in one's waking experience," would later run counter to Sigmund Freud's theories of dreams, which would eventually dominate psychological thought.

In the fall of 1891, Calkins returned to Wellesley as an instructor in psychology in the Department of Philosophy. That same year, she established at Wellesley one of the first laboratories for experimental psychology in the country and the first ever at a women's college. Most of her laboratory work during this time was devoted to color theory, animal consciousness, space consciousness, association, and emotion.

I am a personalistic, introspective psychologist because in introspection I find the self.

—Mary Whiton Calkins

In 1892, Calkins again petitioned to enter Harvard University, this time to study under the German psychologist Hugo Munsterberg who was then beginning a three-year appointment. With Munsterberg's letter of support, Harvard granted permission, and she began to study with him in his laboratory in 1893 while concurrently holding her teaching position at Wellesley. In 1894, Calkins was named associate professor in psychology but took a leave of absence from Wellesley for the 1894–95 academic year to work full time with Munsterberg.

It was during this year at Harvard that she embarked upon an original laboratory investigation into the factors influencing memory. Her experiment demonstrated the importance of associative learning. Her technique, which was later modified by other psychologists and became known as paired-associate learning, showed that when certain objects, such as numerals, repeatedly appeared in conjunction with other objects, such as specific colors, they were more likely to be remembered later. Experimental subjects therefore could more consistently re-call a number when they associated it with a corresponding color than in situations when numbers appeared by themselves and paired-associated learning was lacking.

By 1896, Mary Whiton Calkins had published dozens of scholarly articles on a wide variety of topics, including association, dream research, the conception of the psychic element, the doctrine of relational elements of experience, and a series of papers on the paired-associate technique she had invented. That same year, she presented a thesis on "experimental research on the association of ideas" to the philosophy department at Harvard. Though she had completed all the requirements for a Ph.D. and was recommended wholeheartedly by the Harvard faculty, the university declined her degree application because of her gender. Later, when she was offered a Radcliffe degree instead, she turned it down on the grounds that she had not attended Radcliffe College.

In 1898, Mary Calkins was promoted to full professor at Wellesley College. Two years later, she published an important paper, "Psychology as a Science of Selves," which was her first attempt to provide a systematic analysis of her emerging theory of the conscious self as the central fact of psychology. This new theory of "self psychology" was to be her most important contribution to psychology and one to which she devoted the next ten years of her life.

In 1901, she published her first book, An Introduction to Psychology, which offered a more detailed treatment of experience from the perspective of "self psychology." The book argued against the prevailing behaviorist psychology, which denied the actual existence of a self and which held that consciousness consisted of bodily reactions. Not surprisingly, her book drew considerable professional criticism, attacking Calkins' concept of the self as unscientific and unverified. Despite the criticism, her emerging position in the field of psychology could not be denied. In a 1903 list of the 50 most prominent psychologists in America, Calkins ranked 12th, and in 1905 she was the first woman elected president of the American Psychological Association.

She modified and defended her theories of self psychology in papers published in 1907 and 1908 in the Journal of Philosophy and in her 1909 book A First Book in Psychology, which went through four revised editions. In it, she championed the analytical integrity of the self and argued for introspection or self examination as the starting point in psychology. She offered a definition of the self as "persistent, unique, complex" and that which experiences, and which drives or is driven. As she later explained in an essay in the book A History of Psychology in Autobiography:

Whenever I try to take the opposite point of view, when, in other words, I attempt the study of mental processes, experiences and the like, I invariably find not a mere process, an experience, but a mind in process, a someone who is experiencing.

The first half of Mary Calkins' professional career was preoccupied with the study of psychology; the last half was devoted to philosophy, especially metaphysics. Influenced by philosopher Josiah Royce's idealism, she created her own system of "personalistic absolutism," which had two main principles: the first, that "the universe is through and through mental in character, that all that is real is ultimately mental, and accordingly personal in nature," and the second, that "the universe literally is one all-including (and accordingly complete) self of which all the lesser selves are genuine and identical parts, or members." She had already produced one book in philosophy in 1907, The Persistent Problem of Philosophy, which was reprinted five times, and over the next 20 years she published numerous articles in philosophical journals. In 1918, she published a study in ethics, The Good Man and The Good, which aimed at the general reader as well as professionals. That same year, she received further professional recognition as the first female elected president of the American Philosophical Association.

Throughout her life, Mary Whiton Calkins sought to achieve a balance between professional and social responsibilities. She allied herself with the political left and became involved in pacifist and socialist movements as well as causes such as the Sacco and Vanzetti case. As a woman who had enjoyed enormous professional success despite routine and institutionalized sexism, she was also highly sensitive to the obstacles that confronted all women in the workplace. She was an active suffragist and an outspoken feminist who decried the belief that there existed inherent differences in mental abilities of men and women.

Mary Whiton Calkins retired from Wellesley after more than 40 years of teaching with the title of research professor. She died the following year on February 26, 1930, in Newton, Massachusetts.


Brozek, Josef. Explorations in the History of Psychology in the United States. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1984.

Calkins, Mary Whiton. An Introduction to Psychology. NY: Macmillan, 1901.

——. The Good Man and the Good: An Introduction to Ethics. NY: Macmillan, 1918.

Furumoto, Laurel. "Mary Whiton Calkins (1863–1930)," in Psychology of Women Quarterly. Vol 5, no. 1. Fall 1980, pp. 55–68.

Hilgard, R. Ernest. Psychology in America: A Historical Survey. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Vol 1. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Murchison, Carl, ed. A History of Psychology in Autobiography. Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, 1930.

Scarborough, Elizabeth, and Laurel Furumoto. Untold Lives: The First Generation of American Women Psychologists. NY: Columbia University Press, 1987.

Suzanne Smith , freelance writer, Decatur, Georgia