Mary Whiton Calkins

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Mary Whiton Calkins
Mary Whiton Calkins.jpg
Born (1863-03-30)March 30, 1863
Hartford, Connecticut
Died February 26, 1930(1930-02-26) (aged 66)
Newton, Massachusetts
Nationality American
Occupation Philosopher, psychologist

Mary Whiton Calkins (/ˈkɔːlkɪnz, ˈkæl-/; 30 March 1863 – 26 February 1930) was an American philosopher and psychologist. Calkins was also the first woman to become president of the American Psychological Association.

Early life[edit]

Mary Whiton Calkins was born on March 30, 1863 in Hartford, Connecticut; she was the eldest of five children.[1] Her parents were Wolcott and Charlotte Whiton Calkins; Mary came from a very close-knit family and it is said that her personal life revolved around them.[2] She moved to Massachusetts in 1880 with her family to live for the rest of her life; this is also where she began her education.[1] Her family moved from Connecticut to Massachusetts because her father, who was a Presbyterian minister, got a new job there.[3] Mary's father took an active role in overseeing his children's education, and when she graduated high school, he had planned her studies so that she was able to enroll in college.[2] In 1882, Calkins entered into Smith College as a sophomore.[1] She studied for the year, but in 1883 with the death of her sister she took the year off from college and studied on her own.[1] During this year, she also tutored two of her brothers and studied Greek.[4] She then returned to Smith College in 1884 to graduate with a concentration in classics and philosophy.[1]

Upon graduation, Calkins and her family took an eighteen-month trip to Europe and Calkins was able to explore Leipzig, Italy and Greece. As a major in Greek and Classics, Calkins took advantage of the opportunities and spent several months traveling and studying modern Greek and classics.[5] When she returned to Massachusetts, her father set up an interview with the President of Wellesley College, an all women's college, for a tutoring job in the Greek department.[1] She worked as a teacher in the Greek department for three years until a professor in the Psychology department took notice of Calkins' excellent teaching and offered her a teaching position, as long as she studied psychology for a year prior to teaching.[6] Calkins accepted the opportunity and began her studies at Harvard.

Calkins was born in a time when women were being given more opportunities, such as the opportunity to attend college and teach at those colleges. However, she still faced some opposition and inequality in her career. There were not many options for women looking to earn a degree in psychology. She was making the choice between the University of Michigan, Yale University, and moving to Germany to study when she decided that she would much rather stay home and study at Harvard University. Harvard, though, did not permit women to study at their institution. Her father and the president of Wellesley sent letters to Harvard requesting that she be admitted to the school. Though Harvard did not admit Calkins as a student, the school did allow her to sit in on lectures. Calkins decided to take classes at Harvard Annex (predecessor of Radcliffe College), taught by Josiah Royce.[6] Royce influenced Calkins to take regular classes through Harvard, taught by William James, with males as her peers. Harvard president Charles William Eliot was opposed to this idea of a woman learning in the same room as a man.[6] With pressure from James and Royce, along with a petition from Mary's father, Eliot allowed Calkins to study in the regular classes, with the stipulation that she was not to be a registered student.[6]

While Calkins was at Harvard she studied memory and invented paired-associations tests. Through this she discovered that stimuli that were paired with other vivid stimuli would be recalled more easily. She also discovered that duration of exposure led to better recall. These findings, along with her paired-associations method would later be used by Georg Elias Müller and Edward B. Titchener without any credit given to Calkins.[7]

Calkins worked alongside Edmund Sanford of Clark University to set up the first psychology lab at Wellesley College.[6] Over the next few years, Calkins continued to excel in the field of psychology, working on more graduate work. In 1894, Calkins completed all requirements for a PhD from Harvard and Hugo Münsterberg, with whom she had worked for three years, petitioned the university to grant her this degree. Harvard refused. In 1902, Harvard instead offered Calkins a degree from the Radcliffe College, a women's institution associated with Harvard. Calkins refused this degree as she had earned a degree from Harvard, not from Radcliffe.[7]

Her study on pair associates learning under Hugo Munsterberg constituted her doctoral dissertation that was published in 1896. Harvard Corporation, though, refused to approve the recommendation of the Department of Philosophy and Psychology to grant Calkins her doctoral degree.[8] Eliot believed strongly that the two sexes should be educated separately and, although he allowed Calkins to be a “guest,” he and the rest of the board refused the grant her the degree. Calkins had completed all of the requirements for the Ph.D., including passing exams and completing a dissertation, and all of her Harvard professors had recommended her for the degree. Yet, solely due to her sex, she was denied the honor of a conferred degree.[9] James was astonished and described her performance as "the most brilliant examination for the Ph.D. that we have had at Harvard." [10]

With her supplemental education completed, she returned to Wellesley as an associate professor of psychology. Here she opened the first psychological lab at a women's school and began conducting experiments. Two years after her return she became a professor of psychology and philosophy. This addition allowed her to return to her lectures on the classics and Greek. Her experimental work continued throughout this time. She began to focus on the idea of the "self" and she is credited for creating "self-psychology".[11]

The discrimination she experienced due to her sex was also illustrated in earlier episodes. In her autobiography, Calkins reminisces on a date in which, as a member in the Executive Committee of the American Psychological Association, Munsterberg and his students, including Calkins, were to attend a lunch meeting of the Committee at the Harvard Union. The waiter there, though, protested the group’s entrance stating that “no woman might set foot in the main hall; nor was it possible to admit so many men, balanced solely by one woman, to the ladies’ dining-room.”[12] Although it seems like Calkins had a constant struggle as a female in her field, she expressed in her autobiography her gratitude for the individuals that did not discriminate against her. The “friendly, comradely, and refreshingly matter-of-fact welcome” that she received from the men working in Munsterberg’s laboratory as assistants and students is described in her book with great appreciation. She also expressed her indebtedness to Munsterberg who “swung the Laboratory doors” open to her without hesitation.[12]

As it can be seen in her writings, although she was very grateful for the individuals who accepted her, she did not hold resentment against those who did not. For instance, instead of expressing disdain towards the Harvard board for not accepting her application for degree, she conveyed her appreciation toward Harvard for allowing her to partake in the courses, conduct research under her professors, and work with individuals such as James, Sanford and Munsterberg.[12] In addition, when the episode with the waiter refusing her admission took place, she stated in her autobiography that “he correctly insisted against her admission.”[12]


Calkins published writings based on both philosophy and psychology.[citation needed] The Persistent Problems of Philosophy (1907) and The Good Man and The Good (1918) were two publications in which she expressed her philosophical views.[citation needed] Calkins was interested in memory and later in the concept of the self.[12] She spent many years trying to define the idea of the self, but she concluded that she could in no way define it. She stated that even though the self was indefinable, it was "a totality, a one of many characters... a unique being in the sense that I am I and you are you..."[13]

At Wellesley College, Calkins was an Associate Professor, then a Professor, and finally a Research Professor until her retirement in 1929.[14] In 1905, Calkins was elected president of the American Psychological Association. She became president of the American Philosophical Association in 1918.[1] She was awarded a Doctors of Letters in 1909 from the University of Columbia and a Doctor of Laws in 1910 from Smith College.[1] By 1908, she was ranked number twelve on a list of top psychologists within the United States.[4]

Dream research[edit]

When Calkins was tutored by Sanford, she was given the opportunity to conduct a research project that involved studying the contents of Sanford and her dreams recorded during a seven-week period.[15] She recorded 205 dreams and Sanford 170. They woke themselves by the use of alarm clocks at different hours of the night and recorded their dreams at the instant of waking [16] They slept with a note pad right by their bed so as to be able to take note of any dreams as quickly as possible. Each morning, they studied all the records regardless of whether they seemed slight and trivial or significant. They also took account of the different types of dreams and they discovered elements of all various emotions [17] As part of the project, they also considered the relation of the dream to the conscious, waking life, distinguishing the individuals and places in their dream experiences.[16] While analyzing these dreams Calkins concluded that there was a “close connection between the dream-life and the waking-life."[15] Calkins research was cited by Sigmund Freud when he created his conception of the dream.[15]


One of Calkins' experiments under Hugo Munsterberg was concerned with the concept of recency. She showed that recency yields to vividness and both vividness and recency yields to frequency. Her method consisted of showing a series of colors paired with numerals, followed by testing for recall of the numbers when the colors with which they were previously paired are flashed again. The findings of her study revealed that numbers paired with bright colors were retained better than those associated with neutral colors. Yet, the prime factor influencing memory was not color but frequency of exposure. Calkins admitted that even more significant that her results was the technical memorizing method that she used that is known as that of “right associates."[12] The formula where a subject is presented with a stimulus and asked to provide the appropriate response became a standard tool for studying human learning.[10] Although G. E. Muller sharply criticized her method, he refined it and adopted the method calling it Treffermethode and it has been widely used ever since.[18]


One of her contributions to psychology was her system of self-psychology. In a time where there were several schools of thoughts, Calkins established the school of the 'self-psychologist.'[15] Self-psychology was influenced by the works of William James and Josiah Royce, who both influenced her while she studied at Harvard.[15] Calkins self-psychology explains that the self is an active agent acting consciously and purposefully.

While at Harvard, Calkins invented the paired-associate technique, a research method where colors are paired with numbers, and the colors are presented again for recall. In 1903, Calkins ranked twelfth in a listing of fifty top-ranked psychologists, an achievement that happened after James McKeen Cattell asked ten psychologists to rank their American colleagues in order merit.[15] In 1905 she was elected president of the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association in 1918. She was the first woman to hold a position in both societies. In 1909 she received an honorary degree from Columbia University and another one in 1910 from Smith. She was also the first woman elected to honorary membership on the British Psychological Association.[15] Calkins served as a faculty member at Wellesley College for forty years until she retired in 1929. Calkins died in 1930 after writing four books and over a hundred papers that are evenly divided between the fields of psychology and philosophy.[15] She is best known for her accomplishments within the field of psychology and her struggles to achieve. After being rejected for a degree from Harvard, Calkins continued to work and strive for equality.[1]

An early female influence in psychology[edit]

Calkins was the first female to complete all the coursework, examinations and research for a doctoral degree and, although it was never officially conferred, she is regarded as the first woman to get her doctoral degree in the field of psychology. In 1891, 12 years after the first psychology laboratory was established by Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig, Germany, Calkins established the first psychology lab to be founded by a female and also the first lab to be established at a women’s college. The lab was funded by $200, while all other labs[clarification needed] were funded by $800 or more.[9] Calkins had many of the apparatuses constructed at nearby venues. Her lab was in the attic spaces of the fifth floor of College Hall in Wellesley College. With the laboratory to work in, she also taught a course in "Psychology approached from the physiological standpoint".[9] The fifty students who enrolled in this course were instructed in a number of areas of psychology and conducted experiments on such subjects as sensation and association. Her laboratory was situated near the physics laboratory and a fire broke out from the lab that burned down her laboratory along with the other labs. Neither students nor instructors were injured in the fire, but the first female psychology laboratory was destroyed. The laboratory was rebuilt and Eleanor Gamble later succeeded Calkins in running the laboratory. In 1903, after spending less than a decade in psychology, Calkins was ranked 12th on the list of the 50 leading psychologists in the United States. In 1905, Calkins was elected the 14th president of the American Psychological Association (APA) and was the organization's first female president. Following her term as APA president, she became president of the American Philosophical Association in 1918.[9] She was offered a Doctor of Letters in 1909 from the Columbia University and a Doctor of Laws in 1910 from Smith College.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Bumb, Jenn (n.d.). "Mary Whiton Calkins". Women's Intellectual Contribution to the Study of Mind and Society. Retrieved 3 November 2012. 
  2. ^ a b Furumoto, L. (1980). Mary whiton calkins (1863-1930). Psychology of Women Quarterly, 5, 55-68.
  3. ^ Bumb, J. (n.d.). Mary whiton calkins. Retrieved from
  4. ^ a b DiFebo, H. (n.d). Psyography: Mary whiton calkins. Retrieved from
  5. ^ Furumoto, L. (1980). Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930). Psychology of Women Quarterly, 5, 55-68.
  6. ^ a b c d e "Mary Whiton Calkins". 4000 years of women in science. Retrieved 3 November 2012. 
  7. ^ a b DiFebo, Holly (n.d.). "PSYography: Mary Whiton Calkins". PSYography: Internet Source for Biographies on Psychologists. Retrieved 30 April 2013. 
  8. ^ Furumoto, L. (1979). Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930) fourteenth president of the American Psychological Association. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 15, 346-356.
  9. ^ a b c d Furumoto, L. (1980). Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930). Psychology of Women Quarterly, 5, 55-68
  10. ^ a b Hilgard, E. R. (1987). Psychology in America: A historical survey. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  11. ^ Onderdonk, v. (1971). In Notable American Women: 1607-1950. 
  12. ^ a b c d e f Calkins, M. W. (1930). Mary Whiton Calkins. In C. A. Murchison & E. G. Boring (Eds.), A history of psychology in autobiography (Vol. 1, pp. 31-62). Worcester, MA: Clark University Press.
  13. ^ Calkins 1930
  14. ^ DiFebo
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h Furumoto, L. (1990). "Mary Whiton Calkins". In O'Connell, Agnes N.; Russo, Nancy Felipe. Women in psychology : a bio-bibliographic sourcebook (1. publ. ed.). New York: Greenwood Press. pp. 57–59. ISBN 978-0313260919. 
  16. ^ a b Calkins, M. W., & Gamble, E. A. McC. (1930). The self-psychology of the psychoanalysts. Psychological Review, 37, 277-304.
  17. ^ Calkins, M. W., & Gamble, E. A. McC. (1930) The self-psychology of the psychoanalysts. Psychological Review, 37, 277-304.
  18. ^ Zusne, L. (1984). Biographical dictionary of psychology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.


Educational offices
Preceded by
William James
14th President of the American Psychological Association
Succeeded by
James Rowland Angell