Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley
Researched and written by:  Susan Patricia Pfeiffer
I attest that the following biography is a product of my own original work.

Childhood/Family Life 
       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). 

Professional Accomplishments
       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. 

       Rosenberg, R. (1982). Beyond separate spheres. The intellectual roots of modern feminism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

       Scarsborough, E. & Furumoto, L. (1987). Untold Lives: The first generation of American women psychologist. New York: Columbia University Press.

       Schultz, D.P. & Schultz, S.E. (2000). A history of modern psychology. Orlando: Harcourt College Publishers.

       Ragsdale, Samantha, Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley, found at



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