Margaret Floy Washburn


Researched and written by:  Rita Manu
I attest that the following biography is a product of my own work.

      Margaret Floy Washburn was born on July 25, 1871 in New York City to Rev. Francis and Elizabeth Floy Washburn.  She was born in a house built for her mother by her father.  She was the only child, and the first eight years of her life were spent in the house where she was born. Even though she did not start school until she was seven, she learned to read and write before that.  Her first school was held in the home of a retired Presbyterian minister along with his three daughters who lived next door from her.  In her year and half there, she learned arithmetic, foundations in French and German, and learned to read music and play the major and minor scales from memory.  She attended public school when she was eleven years old.  Her father joined the Episcopal ministry and for two years he had a parish at Walden, Orange County.  Her family then moved to the Hudson River in Kingston, where she received her high school education.  She graduated from high school at the age of fifteen in 1886 (Boring, 1971).
      At the completion of high school, she attended Vassar College where she focused on Chemistry and French.  Even though, Chemistry and French were her concentration, by the time she graduated her interest had changed to philosophy and science.  Philosophy and science appeared to be combined in a new science called experimental psychology.  Washburn was determined to study under the leadership of Cattell at Columbia University psychological laboratory even though Columbia was not granting admissions to females.  Three months later, she was allowed to register in Cattell’s classes just to sit in.   For the time that she was at Columbia, Cattell treated her as a regular student and required of her the same thing he required of the men.  Washburn and other four male students listened to Cattell’s lectures, wrote reports on experimental work, and one paper on a theoretical subject.  After she completed one year, Cattell advised her to transfer to Cornell University, where she might not only be awarded a doctorate but also a scholarship. 
     In the fall of 1892,Washburn attended Cornell University, where Titchener had just arrived from Oxford and Leipzig. According to Washburn, he was only twenty-five years old, but seemed older at first sight because of his square-cut beard. In his first two years at Cornell he read his lectures in a German fashion.  The students acknowledged Titchener as a brilliant young man who would give them the latest news from Leipzig, rather than as one to be heard for his own sake.   She became E.B. Titchner’s first and major graduate student for that year (Annin, Boring, & Watson, 1968).  Since Washburn had some experience in work on tactual space perception, Titchner suggested that she do an experimental study on the method of equivalents.  She wrote a paper on it that was accepted at Vassar for an M. A. in absentia.  According to Washburn, Cornell University was an inspiring place to work because the faculty members were so young.  In 1894, she was awarded a Ph.D. by Cornell University.  It was the first Ph.D. that Titchner recommended.   Therefore, she was the first woman to complete her Ph.D. in the area of psychology. 
     After obtaining her doctorate, she went to Wells College representing a Professor of Psychology, Philosophy, and Ethics.  She stayed there for about six years.  In her sixth year at Wells she became restless, and sensed that a year at the Harvard laboratory would be a stimulating change for her. She was granted a leave of absence because of this in the spring of 1900, but a telegram from President Schurman changed her mind. She was asked to come to Cornell as Warden of Sage College, with the opportunity for her own psychological work and what then seemed to be a great salary of fifteen hundred dollars and a home. Therefore, she returned to Cornell for two years. At first, she tried to work out in the physics laboratory the problem of the flight of colors, but did not do well in acquiring good results from any controllable source of light. She had to spend too much time and energy at social functions, which, however, gave her much rewarding experience in other directions.  In the physics laboratory she served as an observer for Frank Allen's research on the fusion rate of retinal impressions from different regions of the spectrum (Conable,1977). And she got an additional glimpse of the futility of elaborate introspection. She was grateful to Frank Allen for being the first on allowing her to be the first time observer skilled in introspecting sources of error (Annin, Boring, & Watson, 1968). 
     When she left Wells College, she went back to Cornell’s Sage College as a resident advisor for the women’s dormitory while lecturing in psychology.  In 1902, she accepted a position at University of Cincinnati as an assistant professor.  She was the only woman faculty member. 
Washburn returned to Vassar College as Associate Professor of Philosophy in 1903. Part of the reason was that she was only 16 miles away from her parents and because it was also her alma mater. Her return to Vassar College, in 1903, marked a significant point in her career. In this year she was acknowledged as one of the most important people in science.  She was also appointed as a cooperating editor of the American Journal of Psychology. She held that title until she died.  In 1908, while Washburn was the leader of the American Journal of Psychology, an independent department of psychology was formed at Vassar.  She was appointed to be a Professor in that department.   She remained at Vassar for the rest of her life.  She retired as Emeritus Professor of Psychology in June 1937. During her years at Vassar she was an admired professor.  Washburn’s students said that her lectures were sparkling, exact, and clear.  When she reached the highest point of her success as an educator, she received $16,000 from her students after completing twenty-five years of service for Vassar with which they wanted her to spend entirely on herself. However, she established scholarship funds for students of psychology. 
     Indeed, Washburn was a notable a teacher.  She worked in many areas of psychology but she is well known for her contributions in theory development, experimental work, animal behavior, and professional services. She published over 200 scientific articles and reviews (Murchison, 1930).  In addition to that, she translated Wundt's Ethical Systems in 1897, and wrote two books: The Animal Mind in 1908, and Movement and Mental Imagery in 1916. Between the years of 1905 and 1938, she published sixty-eight studies from the Vassar Psychological Laboratory with the help of 117 students as cooperative authors. She taught psychology in the summer sessions at Columbia University. She was cooperating editor of the Psychological Bulletin from 1909 to 1915. She was the Associate Editor of the Journal of Animal Behavior in 1911 through 1917. She was also the Advisory Editor of the Psychological Review in 1916 to1930.  From 1921 to 1935 Washburn was the Associate Editor of the Journal of Comparative Psychology.   In 1921, she was president of the American Psychological Association.  During that same year, she was honored a prize of $500 by the Edison Phonograph Company for the best research on the effects of music. The study was of "The Emotional Effects of Instrumental Music" in partnership with a colleague in the Department of Music at Vassar. In 1932, she was the U.S. delegate to the International Congress of Psychology in Copenhagen (Bernard, J. 1974). 
     Margaret Floy Washburn died from an illness that began on March 17, 1937 when she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. She died on October 29, 1939 at her home in Poughkeepsie, New York, at the age of sixty-nine.  Indeed, Margaret Floy Washburn was a notable woman and made major contributions to the world of psychology. 


     Annin, E.L., Boring, E.G. & Watson, R.I. 1968. Important Psychologist, 1600-1967. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 4, pp. 303-315. 
     Bernard, J. 1974. Academic Women. New York: New American Library. 
     Boring, E.G. 1971. Margaret Floy Washburn. In E.T. James Ed., Notable American Women, 1607-1950 (Vol.III). Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press. 
   Conable, C.W. (1977). Women at Cornell, the Myth of Equal Education. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
    Murchison, Carl. Ed. 1930. History of Psychology in Autobiography Vol. 2, pp. 333-358. Republished by the permission of Clark University Press, Worcester, MA.



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