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."

"...a scientific 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 College. 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 College, 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 individualized setting.

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 College as the instructor for Psychology and even created a laboratory with help from Sanford (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 informally.

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 own.

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 Contribution
            to the Study of Mind and Society. Retrieved April 3, 2005 from

Furumoto, Laurel (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 Psychological Association.

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.”  Retrieved
           March 31, 2005, from,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
(pp.103-123). Netherlands:  Kluwer Academic Publishers.



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