Helen Bradford Thompson was born
on November 6, 1874 in Chicago Illinois. She was one of three daughters
born to David Wallace Thompson, a shoe manufacturer and Isabella Perkins
(Faxon) Thompson, a homemaker. Helen grew up in a supportive home and her
parents encouraged all three of their daughters to pursue their academic
interests. Helen attended Englewood High School in Chicago Illinois
(Ragsdale; Schultz & Schultz, 2000).
Personal Adult Life
In 1905, Helen Bradford Thompson
married Paul Gerhardt Woolley, a physician and moved to the Philippines,
where Paul was working as director of a laboratory (Ragsdale). After
the birth of their first child in 1908, the couple returned to the United
States. They lived in Nebraska for one year, before relocating to
Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1921, the Woolley family relocated again, this
time to Detroit, Michigan. By the mid 1920’s, Paul was away in California
and Helen accepted a position in New York City, where she initially flourished,
but then began to feel alienated and isolated from the network of family
and friends that she had enjoyed in earlier years (Ragsdale).
Helen experienced several traumatic
events in her personal life during her years in New York. These personal
strains included a painful divorce from her husband due to their extended
separation and careers in different parts of the country (Scarborough &
Furumoto, 1987). In addition, Woolley was trouble be the separation
from her daughters, with whom she had always been very close. Her
daughters were, at this time, away at school, therefore Woolley was often
unable to see them. Furthermore Woolley suffered the loss of a close friend
to cancer, and underwent a hysterectomy (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987).
In 1926 she began to become emotionally distraught and gradually became
unable to fulfill her duties. In 1930, she was asked to step down
from her position at Columbia in New York City. From 1930 to 1947
she resided in Pennsylvania at her daughter’s home until she died of cardiovascular
disease on Christmas Eve, 1947 at the age of 73 (Ragsdale).
After graduating from high school,
Helen obtained her undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago
in 1897 at the age of 22 (Schultz& Schultz, 2000). She then entered
the Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago, from which she graduated
summa cum laude in 1900. During her graduate work at the University
of Chicago she conducted the first major research regarding gender differences.
At this time women were believed to be innately inferior to men in intellectual
abilities, affective processes, etc. For her doctoral dissertation
she conducted research using 50 participants (25 female, 25 male).
She administered several tests aimed at measuring motor abilities, sensory
thresholds, intellectual abilities, and personality traits (Schultz&
Schultz, 2000). Her results indicated no differences between the
emotional abilities of men and women and only non-significant difference
in intellectual capabilities (Schultz & Schultz, 2000). In addition,
she was the first to suggest that these differences were due to social
conditioning rather then innate biological factors (Ragsdale). Helen
published her dissertation under the tutelage of James Rowland Angell (1869-1949)
in 1903 (Schultz & Schultz, 2000; Ragsdale). Although many male
psychologists doubted her findings, her work impacted psychology in that
they were now less apt to focus on what was earlier believed to be inferiorities
in the female mind (Ragsdale).
Helen was a pioneer and forerunner
in the research of visual-spatial stimuli response and difference in gender,
which continues to be a focus of current research. Woolley
was strongly supported by Angell and John Dewey (1859-1952) during her
graduate career. After receiving her Ph. D. from the University of
Chicago she received a postgraduate fellowship for a year in Paris and
Berlin (Schultz & Schultz, 2000). Upon her return she taught
at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where she became the director
of the psychological lab and began teaching psychology. After entering
her marriage to Paul Woolley she left her position at Mount Holyoke and
moved to the Philippines (Ragsdale). While in the Philippines she
worked as an Experimental Psychologist in the Philippines Bureau of Education
before again relocating to Bangkok in 1907. In Bangkok, Helen served
as the chief health inspector for a year, before returning to the US after
the birth of her daughter (Ragsdale). In 1909, Helen resumed her
teaching career at the University of Cincinnati, where she was only a professor
for one year.
According to Rosenberg (1982),
Helen faced difficulties in gaining work in academia following the birth
of her children. At this time she dedicated her time to social reform,
child welfare and women’s rights. Between the years of 1911 and 1921,
Helen served as a member and chair of the Ohio Woman Suffrage Association
and served as the director for the Bureau for the Investigation of Working
Children (Rosenberg, 1984; Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987). Woolley
became a strong proponent and advocate of reform in child labor practices.
Helen impacted psychology, more specifically, child development with her
research regarding the effects of school and work on children. In
1921, Helen and her family moved to Detroit, where she obtained a position
as a staff psychologist at the Merrill-Palmer Institute. While at
the Merrill-Palmer Institute, Helen began one of the earliest nursery schools
aimed at researching the development of children and the training of teachers.
At the Merrill-Palmer Institute, Helen continued to provide contributions
to the area of child development and also provided instruction for undergraduate
and graduate students in Child Psychology and Guidance. During this
time Helen gained tremendous respect in the academic and scientific community
(Ragsdale). In 1924, Helen accepted a position as professor of Education
at Columbia University in New York and also served as director of the Institute
of Child Welfare Research (Schultz& Schultz, 2000). During the
following six years, Helen suffered a series of personally traumatic experiences
and was asked to relinquish her positions at the University of Columbia
(Schultz& Schultz, 2000; Ragsdale).
Although, Woolley suffered many
painful personal occurances, she will be remembered for her impact on both
Psychology and society as a whole. Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley
was instrumental in social reform and women’s rights within our society.
In addition, Woolley made an impact on the field of psychology through
her work and research regarding child development, gender differences and
visual spatial stimuli response.