Mary Whiton Calkins
Researched and written by: Holly DiFebo
|I attest that the following biography is a
product of my own original work..
"The student trained to reach
decisions in the light of logic and of history will be disposed to
recognize that, in a democratic country, governed as this is by the
suffrage of its citizens, and given over as this is to the principle
and practice of educating women, a distinction based on difference of
sex is artificial and illogical."
pursuit of personalistic psychology is imperatively needed today for
the gournding and the upbuilding of the still unsystematized and
eclectic disciplines roughly grouped as the social sciences."
|Mary Whiton Calkins was definitely a woman before
her time. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, this woman put forth
the effort and determination to become someone to inspire others and to
help advance the new science of Psychology. Being a woman at this time
did not make life easier, but that did not hinder Calkins from setting
goals, reaching them, and speaking up about women’s rights. <>Mary
was born in Hartford, Connecticut on March 30, 1863, but grew up in Buffalo, New
York to a close-knit white family. Her father
was a Presbyterian minister in Buffalo,
but in 1880 he became part of a Congregational church in Newton, Massachusetts
where the family resided permanently (Zedler, 1995). Mary had four
younger siblings to whom she had a close relationship.
Mary’s education, like many
scholars, was obtained through varies institutions. Mary finished high
school in Massachusetts and began
undergraduate work at Smith
Due to the unfortunate death of her sister, Maud, Mary took off a year
from Smith. During that year, Mary tutored two of her brothers and also
studied Greek. She returned to Smith with senior-standing and graduated
with the rest of her class one year later. After completion of her
undergraduate work with a concentration in Philosophy and Classics in
1885, Mary spent about a year traveling Europe, partly with her family
and partly with Abby Leach, a teacher from Vassar College
(Zedler, 1995). During this time they visited Italy and Greece, along with other
places of interest.
Mary then began teaching as a
Greek tutor at Wellesley
a liberal arts college for women, until she was approached by a
professor in the Philosophy department to consider teaching a new sub
discipline of Philosophy called Psychology (Zedler, 1995). Mary decided
to rise to this challenge with the requirement being that she study for
one year in a psychology program. Women at this time were not treated
equally and even though Mary had much support from family, male
professors, and friends, she still had a difficult time getting the
education she desired.
Mary considered studying abroad, but after
reading a letter from another female student who was abroad, she
decided against it (Bumb, n.d.). It appeared that the woman was not
satisfied with the system in Germany. The woman was not
being treated equally and felt there was no hope for changes;
therefore, Mary felt no need to travel out of the country if she was
not going to benefit from the experience.
Calkins then began searching in the United States for a program
that might fit her needs. She looked into the University of Michigan
to study under John Dewey and Yale to study under G. T. Ladd, but both
of these institutions did not have a psychology laboratory. One place
that caught Calkins attention was Harvard because it did have a
laboratory (Bumb, n.d.). Two professors, William James and Josiah
Royce, even invited her to sit in on their lectures, but just on an
informal basis. Mary decided Harvard had the potential and the people
to help her get the information she needed about psychology, so she
wrote to the president of the university asking to sit on lectures on a
formal basis. Mary received a refusal letter but with help of her
father writing a petition letter and the president of Wellesley College stressing the importance
of her being able to gain more knowledge in psychology, she was
permitted to attend the lectures on an informal basis (Bumb, n.d.).
Mary attended each lecture and was pleased to find that she was the
only student present at these lectures. The pettiness of the
students at Harvard, who refused to maintain their attendance because
of a female being present, allowed for her to gain knowledge in a more
She also began working with Edmund Sanford at Clark University.
During that time they focused on dreams using systematic introspection.
Through work with Sanford,
Calkins came to believe that people do dream even when they wake and
cannot recall dreaming. She said she could base that notion on strict
empirical grounds (Author Unknown, 1930).
After one year of study, Calkins returned to Wellesley
the instructor for Psychology and even created a laboratory with help
(Author Unknown, 1930). This psychological laboratory was the first in
any college for women (Zedler, 1995).
Finding that Calkins enjoyed Psychology, she
began planning to study at Harvard once more in order to gain further
knowledge from Hugo Munsterberg (Zedler, 1995). She was lucky to find
that Munsterberg would not be remaining in Germany, but relocating to the United States,
specifically to the Harvard area. Consequently, Mary petitioned to be
permitted formally, but was only granted permission to study
Even so, Calkins studied Psychology under Munsterberg for nearly three
years. In the spring of 1895 she presented her thesis, Association:
An Essay Analytic and Experimental, to her Harvard professors who
collectively agreed she met all the requirements for a Ph.D. (Bumb,
n.d.).To much dismay, Calkins was ultimately refused her degree by
Harvard officials due to her gender. Three years later, Radcliffe College offered her the
opportunity to be awarded a Ph.D. Being that Calkins was a woman driven
by equality and believed in her values, she declined, mostly likely due
to the fact that she did not earn a Ph.D from Radcliffe. Had Harvard
granted her Ph.D three years later, she probably would have taken it,
but considering Radcliffe (an all woman, undergraduate college) seemed
illogical. Holding a certificate for a degree from a college that does
not offer that degree is quite meaningless and apparently Calkins would
only settle for what she earned. Twenty-five years later (three years
before her death), a petition was sent to Harvard asking that Calkins
be granted the degree she earned from Harvard (Author Unknown, 1980).
Even though the petition was sent by a prominent former student from
Harvard, the officials still refused.
Although Calkins was denied her
Ph.D, it did not hinder her involvement in Psychology (Author Unknown,
1930).Calkins was quite active in research and publication. She was
first to discover the paired associates technique involved in memory.
Through experimental investigation, she paired colors and numerals
together and found that people could remember numerals better when a
vivid color was consistently paired with the same numeral. Overall, she
found the amount of exposure affected memory the most. Frequency of
exposure (above vividness and how recent one was exposed to stimuli),
was found to be the strongest factor for correct recall. Calkins felt
this specific work was only a small significant contribution in
psychology, although G.E. Muller and Titchner took interest in her
finding and incorporated it into their work without giving her credit
(Author Unknown, 1930).
Calkins published as well. Along with her numerous articles as
co-author with James and Sanford, her
work at Wellesley
and her doctoral thesis, Calkins published books, some with multiple
editions. In 1901, An Introduction to Psychology was issued
with two editions following. Four years later Calkins summarized her
teaching in An Introduction to Psychology, which was printed in
German under a German title. In 1909, yet another book was published:
A First Book in Psychology, which had
four editions (Zedler, 1995). Calkins also had numerous publications in
Philosophy as well.
Considering Calkins’ abundant publications, she was interested in many
areas of Psychology. She focused on four major interests: association,
psychic element, elements of experience, and most importantly the self
(Author Unknown, 1930).
Calkins’ Self-Psychology was her passion. She incorporated much
philosophy into her system and also used introspection. She objected to
the other forms of psychology such as behaviorism, claiming that her
system incorporated all the important areas that the other forms only
focused on. Calkins felt there were three prominent concepts in her
Self-Psychology: the self, the object, and the relation of the self and
object (Author Unknown, 1930). Throughout much of her life, she
continued to develop her system and became deeply concerned with
defining psychology as the scientific study of the self in relation to
the environment (Furumoto, 1991).
Most psychologists of Calkins’ time did not share the same beliefs
about the way she defined psychology. Functional psychology was coming
into the mainstream as well as behavioral psychology, among others that
easily fit into the zeigeist of the 20th century. Although
there were many opposing views at that time, Calkins’ work did receive
some support; after all she was teaching, researching, and publishing.
Calkins taught at Wellesley
much of her life and was a major part of the psychological advancement
at that institution (Zedler, 1995). Not only did she set up the first
laboratory there, but she actively engaged students. She allowed many
of her students to do experimental work. Also, Calkins and Cordelia
Nevers challenged the variability hypothesis that Joseph Jastrow was
supporting. These woman found there was little difference between male
and female intellect and attributed this insignificant difference due
to environmental factors, while Jastrow was only viewing his results
from a male’s perspective (Author Unknown, 1980).
In addition to conducting research about women’s inequality, Calkins
spoke at a National Sufferage Convention in Baltimore. She clearly stated that
not allowing women to vote was illogical and artificial, especially
because women can use logic in decision making (Bumb, n.d.).
Calkins’ career advancement also took place at Wellesley. She first entered the
institution as an instructor of Psychology, then became an Associate
Professor, then Professor from 1898-1929, and the year before her death
she was Research Professor (Zedler, 1995). All of her titles included
Psychology and Philosophy, in which she was educated and interested.
Mary Calkins also served as the first female president of the American
Psychological Association in 1905.
Along with her position as president of APA, Calkins was also ranked
12th (in 1908) of a list of many other prominent psychologists in the United States.
Even Columbia University and Smith College
offered her positions as a faculty member, but she graciously declined
due to the desire to remain close to her family (Bumb, n.d.).
Interestingly, there was no information whether Calkins was ever in
romantic relationships or expressed a desire to start a family of her
With a life full of determination and success, Mary Whiton Calkins died
in 1929 due to cancer, leaving behind a career of teaching spanning
forty-two years and lasting impressions on those who she encountered.
Bumb, Jenn . “Mary Whiton Calkins.” (N.D.) Women’s Intellectual
to the Study of Mind and Society. Retrieved
April 3, 2005 from
(1991). Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology. In G.A. Kimble, M.
Wertheimer & C. White (Ed.),
From “Paired Associates” to a
Psychology of Self: The Intellectual Odyssey of
Mary Whiton Calkins”
(pp.57-72). Washington, DC: American
Author Unknown. (1980). Introduction to Section Ib: The
Variability Hypothesis [Electronic version]. In K.S. Milar
(Ed.), A Historical View of Some
Early Women Psychologists and the Psychology of Women.”
March 31, 2005, from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Special/Women/variability,htm.
Author Unknown. (1930). Autobiography of Mary Whiton Calkins
[Electronic version]. In C. Murchison (Ed.),
History of Psychology in
Autobiography, 1, 31-61. Retrieved March 31, 2005 from
Zedler, Beatrice (1995). “Mary Whiton Calkins.” In M.E. Waithe (Ed.), A
History of Women Philosophers: Vol. 4
Kluwer Academic Publishers.