Washburn, Margaret Floy (1871–1939)

views updated

Washburn, Margaret Floy (1871–1939)

American experimental psychologist, one of the premier women in the field in the early 20th century, who was the second woman selected to the National Academy of Sciences. Born Margaret Floy Washburn on July 25, 1871, in Harlem, New York; died of a cerebral hemorrhage on October 29, 1939, in Poughkeepsie, New York; daughter of Francis Washburn (a businessman and Episcopal cleric) and Elizabeth (Floy) Davis Washburn; attended Ulster Academy, Kingston, New York; Vassar College, A.B., 1891; Cornell University, Ph.D., 1894; Wittenberg College, honorary D.Sc., 1927; never married; no children.

Was professor of psychology, philosophy and ethics at Wells College (1894–1900); was a warden at Sage College and instructor of social psychology and animal psychology at Cornell University (1900–02); headed the psychology department at the University of Cincinnati (1902–03); was associate professor (1904–08) and then professor of psychology (1908–37) at Vassar College, where she established (1912) and served as first head of the psychology department; Washburn Commemorative Volume of the American Journal of Psychology issued (1927); became the second woman elected to National Academy of Sciences (1931).

Selected writings:

"Some Apparatus for Cutaneous Stimulation," in American Journal of Psychology (vol. 6, 1894, pp. 422–426); "Über den Einfluss der Gesichtassociationen auf die Raumwahrnehmungen der Haut," in Philosophische Studien (vol. 2, 1895, pp. 190–225); (trans. with E.B. Titchener and J.H. Gulliver) Wilhelm Wundt's Ethical Systems (1897); "The Psychology of Deductive Logic," in Mind (vol. 7, 1898, pp. 523–530); "The Genetic Function of Movement and Organic Sensations for Social Consciousness," in American Journal of Psychology (vol. 14, 1903, pp. 73–78); The Animal Mind: A Text-Book of Comparative Psychology (1908); "The Physiological Basis of Rational Processes," in Psychological Bulletin (vol. 6, 1909, pp. 369–378); "The Function of Incipient Motor Processes," in Psychological Review (vol. 21, 1914, pp. 376–390); Movement and Mental Imagery: Outlines of a Motor Theory of the Complexer Mental Processes (1916); "The Social Psychology of Man and the Lower Animals," in Studies in Psychology: Titchener Commemorative Volume (Wilson, 1917); "Some Thoughts on the Last Quarter Century in Psychology," in Philosophical Review (vol. 26, 1917, pp. 46–55); "Introspection as an Objective Method," in Psychological Review (vol. 29, 1922, pp. 89–112); "A Questionary Study of Certain National Differences in Emotional Traits," in Journal of Comparative Psychology (vol. 3, 1923, pp. 413–430); "Emotion and Thought: A Motor Theory of Their Relations," in M.L. Reymert, Feelings and Emotions: The Wittenberg Symposium (Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, 1928, pp. 104–115); "Autobiography: Some Recollections," in C. Murchison, A History of Psychology in Autobiography (Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, 1932, vol. 2, pp. 333–358); (with C. Wright) "The Comparative Efficiency of Intensity, Perspective, and the Stereoscopic Factor in Producing the Perception of Depth," in American Journal of Psychology (vol. 51, 1938, pp. 151–155); (with Richard Albert and Edward Brooks) The Diary of Michael Floy Jr. Bowery Village 1833–1837 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1941).

Margaret Floy Washburn, considered one of the most prominent women psychologists in America, devoted her lifelong work to the understanding of human and animal emotions. One of the few women to earn a Ph.D. in the nascent field of psychology in the 19th century, she was so influential that she became the second woman ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Her intellectual awakening came early, she recalled, when on her fifth birthday she was walking along the path of her family's large garden and suddenly realized that "thinking about myself was agreeable." This epiphany would lead to increased self-awareness and later to her professional training as an experimental psychologist.

Born on July 25, 1871, at her family's home in Harlem, New York, she was the only child of Francis and Elizabeth Floy Davis Washburn . Her father, a businessman, was intellectual and temperamental, noted Washburn, while her mother was well balanced, strong, and kind. Both were educated, and the family was wealthy from the fortune Elizabeth Washburn had inherited. The Harlem of Margaret's happy childhood was one of mansions; the Washburns' frame house at 125th Street, surrounded by several acres of land, had been built by her great-grandfather Michael Floy, a prominent florist and nurseryman who had emigrated from Devonshire, England. A woman physician was among the conglomeration of Europeans and professionals from whom she was descended. Washburn was a humorous and perceptive child who enjoyed reading books at an early age. Her parents encouraged her academic pursuits, and without siblings for company, she had plenty of quiet time to read and think. She also wrote stories, although she did not think she had talent as a writer. Formal schooling was not so pleasant. In 1878, when her father became an Episcopal cleric for Hudson Valley parishes, the family moved upstate to Walden, where, Washburn claimed, "I learned very little." She attended the Ulster Academy in Kingston, New York, from 1883 to 1887, considering the school dull and examinations "below contempt."

After graduating from high school, 16-year-old Margaret decided to attend Vassar College, where her aunt had been a member of the first graduating class. Her mother's inheritance meant that she had ample funds to pay for her undergraduate and graduate education. During her freshman year, she became intrigued by chemistry and French. She then explored classes in biology and philosophy. "At the end of my senior year I had two dominant intellectual interests, science and philosophy," she wrote. "They seemed to be combined in what I heard of the wonderful new science of experimental psychology." In college, Margaret also developed a love of poetry, embraced ideas regarding freedom of religion, and grew to dislike sanctimonious people. To respect her family, she publicly attended Episcopal services, but privately considered herself to be agnostic. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with an A.B. degree in 1891.

Washburn focused on the emerging field of experimental psychology. Aware of James McKeen Cattell, an American leader of experimental psychology who had studied with Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig in Germany and established a psychological laboratory at Columbia University, she "determined to be his pupil," because he had come "from the fountain-head, the Leipzig laboratory." Most graduate schools of the era did not admit women, and administrators refused to allow Washburn to become a full-time graduate student when she applied to study at Columbia. She persisted, trying to convince Cattell to let her attend his classes as a "hearer" even if she were unable to enroll at the school formally. Columbia's trustees debated for an entire semester before agreeing to permit her to audit Cattell's lectures. He welcomed her and treated her as an equal, expecting her to do the same work as male students in addition to independent study and reading. "While I was thus being initiated into Cattell's objective version of the Leipzig doctrine," Washburn recalled, "the influence of William James' Principles was strong." She also noted, "I feel an affectionate gratitude to [Cattell], as my first teacher, which in these later years I have courage to express; in earlier times I stood too much in awe of him."

Both Cattell and Washburn realized the gender limitations at Columbia, and he recommended her to Edward Bradford Titchener, who had established a psychological laboratory at Cornell University, a school which both permitted women to enroll as regular graduate students and offered scholarships. Titchener "did not quite know what to do with me," she wrote. Having recently received training at Oxford and at Leipzig with Wundt, he was in his first year at Cornell, and Washburn was his only graduate student. They were also about the same age, which helped her feel more comfortable with him and less in awe. A second student, Walter B. Pillsbury, arrived the following year, and the trio worked closely together. Margaret "was a brilliant conversationalist," said Pillsbury. "Her keen sense of humor was fully developed at this time." Titchener was attempting to establish psychology on a scientific basis, and he discussed with his two students the introspective experimental psychology Wundt had taught him. According to Pillsbury, Titchener had not yet worked out the theories of structuralism for which he later would become well known. "When the more rigid system developed, Miss Washburn showed a lack of sympathy with the more extreme tenets," said Pillsbury.

During her three years at Cornell, Washburn studied philosophy as well as psychology. Her dissertation research analyzed the skin's perception of distances and directions, revealing the influence of visual imagery on tactile judgments. Of her final doctoral oral examination, said Washburn, "the occasion was a pleasant one." She was honored when Wundt published her dissertation in his German journal. Receiving her Ph.D. in 1894, Washburn became the experimentalists' first eminent student. She would remain in contact with these men as well as several Cornell philosophers throughout her career.

A young woman when she completed her Ph.D., Washburn had no immediate career plans and briefly considered marrying a philosophy professor. Rejecting this idea, she instead set out to pursue experimental psychology full time. In 1894, she joined the American Psychology Association, becoming one of its first women members. For six years, she taught psychology, philosophy, and ethics at nearby Wells College, visiting the library, laboratories, and seminars at Cornell weekly for intellectual stimulation. As well, she collaborated with Titchener and Julia Henrietta Gulliver in translating Wundt's three-volume Ethical Systems from the German, and also indexed the revised text. Providing English-language philosophy students with access to this germinal treatise for the first time, the translation was considered excellent and faithful to the original work. Washburn lectured at Cornell on social psychology, and began work on animal psychology while teaching a course on the subject there in 1901. Motivated by her own "almost morbidly intense love of animals," especially cats, and interest in their behavior, she began investigating whether animals have any conscious experiences. In the same years, from 1900 to 1902, she also served as warden of a women's dormitory at Sage College. Women scientists often were expected to perform such supervisory tasks in addition to their academic work, but Washburn intensely disliked her warden role, which involved monitoring female students' behavior and social functions and took valuable time away from research. Eager to quit, late in 1902 she accepted a year's position in charge of psychology at the University of Cincinnati.

Washburn believed that women's education should be the same as men's education, and so when she was approached by Vassar College about a faculty position she had to be convinced to teach at a women's college rather than at a coeducational institute. Nonetheless, in 1904, she returned to Vassar as an associate professor of philosophy. Four years later she became Vassar's first professor of psychology, and, after establishing a department of psychology there in 1912, its first department head. She also taught psychology at Columbia University's summer school. She was considered a good teacher and administrator, and her Vassar department became a premiere psychological center. Washburn pioneered lectures in social psychology, and according to Elizabeth M. Hincks , "Her lectures were brilliant, exact, clear, with such a wealth of references and citing of original sources as almost to overwhelm a student as yet unable to appreciate the breadth of the scholarship and the painstaking labor involved in the construction of a single lecture," while Edwin G. Boring, a Harvard psychology professor who disliked most women in the profession, noted that "Her clear, incisive mind made her classroom lectures effective and popular." Vassar president Henry Noble MacCracken praised her because "she loved and stimulated her pupils." Many students enrolled at Vassar solely to obtain their undergraduate training under Washburn; though somewhat fearful of her demanding, scholarly demeanor, they found her stimulating and fair.

A prolific writer of over 200 articles and book reviews, Washburn was known as a thorough scholar, and was considered by colleague Herbert S. Langfeld as an "ideal experimenter" who "never acknowledged defeat." Her exuberance attracted supporters within both the Vassar and the psychological communities. "A woman of great personal charm," said Langfeld, "she also possessed in high degree the desire and ability to collaborate on terms of perfect equality with all colleagues, male and female, young and old." To familiarize her psychology majors with experimental research, she collaborated with them on psychological problems; she outlined a problem and method of research, and the assigned student conducted the experiment and tallied results. Washburn then wrote the article, and, unlike many of her colleagues, gave the student credit. In this manner she wrote 70 articles with joint authors in the well-known series Studies From the Psychological Laboratory of Vassar College. This successful collaboration resulted in many substantial professional contributions while also enabling Washburn to continue productive research despite a busy teaching schedule. By encouraging undergraduates to pursue meaningful research, she inspired many students to choose careers in psychology and to seek graduate training. She did not, however, develop a graduate program at Vassar, because she believed that coeducational schools provided a better environment for advanced study. She emphasized that students needed to interact with and be criticized by authorities and peers, most of whom were, at the time, male and at major universities. As well, Vassar lacked sufficient funds to subscribe to the professional psychological journals necessary for advanced training. She wrote, "I wouldn't have a graduate student under any circumstances," supporting instead a Vassar graduate fellowship for alumnae to use at other institutions. Without graduate students, however, she had few disciples to extend her experimental work, and her students' names are usually connected with those of their graduate school professors rather than Washburn herself.

Most of the projects on which Washburn collaborated with her laboratory students were explorations of topics related to her major research emphases, such as spatial perception, memory and emotions, differences between individuals, aesthetic preferences of colors and sounds of speech, and the color vision of animals. (In the summer of 1905, she had worked with Madison Bentley on observing the color vision of trout.) In her laboratory, Washburn pioneered the field of exploring emotional and temperamental traits, using methods to distinguish such personality characteristics as optimism and pessimism.

Her most important scientific publication, however, dealt with animal psychology. She had begun collecting scattered publications about animal behavior in 1901, with the intention of centralizing them in an accessible format. Washburn wanted to learn as much as she could not only about animals' external behavior but also about their conscious experiences, such as senses, space perception, memory, and problem solution. She realized that she would be unable to demonstrate conscious experiences in animals logically, but thought she needed to show that they existed, for example the manner in which animals reacted to changes in light. In The Animal Mind: A Text-Book of Comparative Psychology, first published in 1908, Washburn compiled and analyzed experimental work and literature on animal behavior. A pioneering treatise, the book helped to develop the field of animal psychology. In it she argued against her opponents, the behaviorists, who claimed that animals exhibited only behavior, not conscious experiences, and used human experiences as examples to test hypotheses in animal behavior. Washburn believed that consciousness and behavior were two different types of phenomena, but endorsed that psychologists should compromise and not exclude phenomena such as feeling or smelling odors from scientific research. Washburn would emphasize that the purpose of her book was "to organize the literature on the patterns of animal consciousness and to argue that they are both open to and worth investigation." Comparative psychological experimentation was in its formative stages, and her work to show evidence of animals' minds through sensory discrimination, reactions, perceptions, and subsequent modification of conscious processes filled a need for research methodology. Three revised editions appeared between 1917 and 1936, introducing new facts as advances in comparative psychology were made, further insights on conscious processes were revealed, and psychological schools of interpretation such as behaviorism were replaced by more subjective analyses like the configurational school. The Animal Mind was translated into Japanese, and in its various editions became a classic taught in courses throughout the world. It is still considered among the greatest psychological treatises, posing future research questions for scholars.

Washburn's next scientific achievement was the publication, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Vassar College, of her motor theory of consciousness in Movement and Mental Imagery: Outlines of a Motor Theory of the Complexer Mental Processes (1916). Similar to The Animal Mind in theory, her second book posited that mental functions, including all thoughts and perceptions, create some type of motor reaction, and that motor phenomena play an essential role in psychology. While stating, "No topic dealt with in the book is treated in anything like an exhaustive manner" because "I have not aimed at a thorough presentation of the literature of my subject, but simply at an outline development of my own views," Washburn allied psychology with physical sciences by suggesting that all perceived or imagined emotions arouse some bodily movement or muscle action. She noted that just as humans can revive their sensory impressions of how absent objects look, sound, or feel, they could reenact motor responses of approaching, manipulating, or avoiding different objects. Recalling her previous behavioral studies, she remarked, "the only sense in which we can explain conscious processes is by studying the laws governing these underlying motor phenomena," although she admitted, "The movements of a living being are of all forms of movements the most complicated and difficult to study." She connected mental and physical movement into a scientific aspect of psychology, and insisted that psychology must not focus solely on behavior but include movement as well as consciousness. Like her mentors Wundt and Titchener, Washburn believed that mind and matter—the conscious processes and behavior—were two different events, and that humans and animals reacted to perceptions by moving in some way, no matter how small. By examining the neglected motor processes of slight muscular contractions and consciousness, she transformed traditional psychology thought. Movement and Mental Imagery, while technical, was written to permit individuals lacking in psychological expertise to understand her ideas.

Despite her expertise and pioneering work, Washburn, like other female professionals, was excluded from the World War I Army Psychological Testing Program. This omission prevented Washburn and her female peers from securing important scientific and professional contacts that served male psychologists well in the postwar era, while also denying the army her valuable input. After the war, she worked with music professor George S. Dickinson on exploring "the emotional effects of instrumental music," winning the Edison Company prize of $500 in 1921. That same year, in a mark of respect from her peers, she became the second woman elected president of the American Psychological Association. In her presidential address, she argued her belief in a dualism of physical and mental processes. Washburn considered herself an experimentalist, not a theorist, and frequently emphasized that "The results of experimental work, if it is successful at all, bring more lasting satisfaction than the development of theories." Although she never established a psychological school of thought, she formed neutral ground between introspectionists, who studied only consciousness, and behaviorists.

Despite the fact that he was Washburn's mentor, Titchener refused to allow her or any other professional female psychologist to join his Society of Experimental Psychologists, an informal round table where men discussed research in progress. Hiding her anger at being excluded from Titchener's club and the professional benefits of networking with eminent colleagues, she never protested publicly. Washburn, who was considered conservative and noncontroversial when compared to vocal psychologist Christine Ladd-Franklin , realized her omission had little to do with her ability but much to do with male psychologists' irrational fears that standards would be lowered if women were admitted to their society. She nonetheless continued receiving laurels from her peers, and in 1927 was elected vice-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That year she received an honorary D.Sc. from Wittenberg College, and a special issue of the American Journal of Psychology, entitled the "Washburn Commemorative Volume," celebrated her career. She also was starred as a distinguished psychologist in the first edition of American Men of Science. In 1929, Washburn's closest friend, Karl Dallenbach, with whom she edited a psychology journal, succeeded Titchener at Cornell and, despite the astonishment of male members, welcomed her into the Society of Experimental Psychologists. (Two years later, Washburn arranged for the group to meet at Vassar.)

In 1931, Washburn received the signal honor of becoming the second woman to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences (the first was anatomist Florence Sabin in 1925). Because women scientists received only minor professional encouragement, few women ever attained this status. Selection relied on having the male panel first recognize a scientist's merit and then support her or him despite peer resistance. Although ten to twenty men were elected to the academy every year, Washburn and Sabin would remain the only women so honored until 1944, when Barbara McClintock was chosen.

Washburn actively edited numerous journals, serving as one of four coeditors of the American Journal of Psychology and initiating Psychological Abstracts. She also contributed editorial advice to the Psychological Bulletin, Psychology Review, Journal of Comparative Psychology, and Journal of American Behavior. Although Vassar was well endowed, Washburn had scant access to research funds and, with a full teaching load, little time for research. After being denied either teaching assistance or a reduced courseload, she resigned her editorial duties, telling her editor-in-chief, "I doubt if anyone else on the board is teaching eighteen hours a week, as I am. I simply must cut down my work somewhere." She nonetheless accepted committee responsibilities to survey the academic status of psychology and its teachers, and was active in the New York Academy of Science and chaired psychology sections in the National Research Council and represented the United States at international psychology conventions.

Washburn's personality won her many friends. Boring described her thus: "In manner Miss Washburn was direct and frank, but her criticism was blunted sometimes by a gracious diplomacy, sometimes by a friendly humor. She was reserved but not shy, with a few devoted friends, a host of admirers, and some others who feared her a little." Said MacCracken: "The key to her personality was a unique attitude, in which were combined a detached objective devotion to experimental science and a passionate joy of living." He noted her love of literary, musical, and artistic efforts; she enjoyed oil painting, singing, dancing, piano playing, and amateur acting. She also collected 17th- to 19th-century manuscripts on English political history and had a scholarly interest in classical literature. According to Robert S. Woodworth, "She had a keen sense of humor and a cheerful and even buoyant disposition, though she was not blind to human frailties." Often aloof and private, enjoying quiet time to herself as she had when she was a child, Washburn believed that she was "never less alone than when alone." Throughout her life she shared a close relationship with her parents, who lived only 16 miles from Vassar, and her mother moved in with her after her father's death. A tactful, deliberate, and logical woman, she often served as a mediator on campus and in the psychological community. Washburn was not known as a feminist, and although she supported equal educational opportunities for women she criticized suffrage groups for what she believed were inconsistent methods of seeking the vote. Privately, she protested separate gender spheres, but publicly she did not demonstrate. One rare exception of sorts to this standard occurred in 1934, when she ate in the men-only dining hall during a meeting at the Harvard Faculty Club. This rupture of the rules upset Boring, whom she tried to soothe by saying that, far from being fueled by any feminist motives, she had mistakenly believed that women were allowed in the dining hall on that singular occasion.

As Washburn's career wound down, her scientific writing tailed off, and she began to write the obituaries of her mentors and colleagues. She also began editing and annotating the diary of her grand uncle Michael Floy, Jr. (Vassar later would publish her unfinished transcription posthumously, in honor of the college's 75th anniversary.) After 25 years at Vassar, her students gave her a purse containing $15,407.04 for her personal enjoyment, which she in turn gave to the college, endowing the Margaret Floy Washburn Fund for Promising Students in Psychology. She retired in 1937. Her hand-picked successor Josephine Gleason did not have sufficient publications to her credit to be chosen chair of the psychology department, and a heated controversy ensued while the college tried to find a woman chair. Ultimately, a man named Lyle Lanier was selected as chair, demonstrating the profession's continued resistance to naming women to top psychological positions. Still, her influence in the field remained strong. Her professional legacy, according to colleagues, has endured: "she is best known for her dualistic psychophysiological view of the animal mind, and for her strongly argued view that all thought can be traced to bodily movement." A 1968 study by an international group of psychologists rated Washburn as one of the most prominent women in her field.

After having enjoyed good health most of her life, Washburn suffered a series of strokes and a cerebral hemorrhage the same year she retired. Her health deteriorated, and she lived in a nursing home at Poughkeepsie, New York, until her death on the afternoon of October 29, 1939. Her last intelligible words were: "I love every living thing." A memorial service was held in her honor at Vassar, to which she had willed her estate, and her ashes were buried in the Washburn family plot in a rural cemetery near White Plains, New York.


Dallenbach, Karl M. "Margaret Floy Washburn, 1871–1939," in The American Journal of Psychology. Vol. 53. January 1940, pp. 1–5.

Goodman, Elizabeth S. "Margaret F. Washburn (1871–1939): First Woman Ph.D. in Psychology," in Psychology of Women Quarterly. Vol. 5. Fall 1980, pp. 69–80.

Hincks, Elizabeth M. "Tribute of a Former Pupil," in Vassar Alumnae Magazine. Vol. 25. January 1940, p. 6.

Pillsbury, Walter B. "Margaret Floy Washburn (1871–1939)," in The Psychological Review. Vol. 47. March 1940, pp. 99–109.

Washburn Commemorative Volume. American Journal of Psychology, 1927.

Woodworth, Robert S. "Biographical Memoir of Margaret Floy Washburn, 1871–1939," in Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 25. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 1949, pp. 275–295.

suggested reading:

Boring, Edward G. A History of Experimental Psychology. NY: Century, 1929.

Mull, Helen K. "A Bibliography of the Writings of Margaret Floy Washburn: 1894–1927," in American Journal of Psychology. Vol. 39, 1927, pp. 428–436.

Kambouropoulous, Polyxenie. "A Bibliography of the Writings of Margaret Floy Washburn: 1928–1939," in American Journal of Psychology. Vol. 53. January 1940, pp. 19–20.

Rossiter, Margaret W. Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.


The Christine Ladd-Franklin Papers (includes correspondence with Washburn) are held in Special Collections, Butler Library, Columbia University, New York City.

The Edward Bradford Titchener Papers and Karl Dallenbach Papers are located at the Cornell University Archives and Regional History Office, Ithaca, New York.

The Edwin G. Boring Papers (includes correspondence with Washburn) are held in the Harvard University Archives, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The James McKeen Cattell Papers are held by the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Washington, D.C.

Washburn's biographical file is located in Deceased Members Records, National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council Archives, Washington, D.C.; faculty files and the Christine Ladd-Franklin Diaries are located at the Vassar College Archives, Poughkeepsie, New York; course notes are available in various collections of former pupils at the Archives of the History of American Psychology, University of Akron, Akron, Ohio; correspondence, manuscripts, lecture notes, photographs, and memorabilia are located in the Robert M. Yerkes Papers, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Elizabeth D. Schafer , Ph.D., freelance writer in history of technology and science, Loachapoka, Alabama