Helen Thompson Woolley

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Helen Thompson Woolley
Born(1874-11-06)November 6, 1874
DiedDecember 24, 1947(1947-12-24) (aged 73)

Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley (November 6, 1874 – December 24, 1947) was an American psychologist and pioneer in the studies of gender differences as well as childhood education and welfare.[1]

Life and education[edit]

Woolley was born on November 6, 1874 in Englewood, Illinois as Helen Bradford Thompson. The middle of three children to parents David and Isabella (née Perkins) Thompson, she graduated first in her class from Englewood High School in 1893 with a ninety-seven percent average for her four years. Her interests in what would eventually turn into her future work peaked during her high school career as well, as evident by her self-written valedictory essay, "The Advance Towards Individual Freedom by the Aid of Intervention".[2]

Because of her high academic standing in high school, she earned a full scholarship to the University of Chicago, which she attended whilst living at home. After being offered a scholarship in psychology in her junior year and earning her bachelor's degree in the subject in 1897, she went on to do graduate work within her field (as well as philosophy and neurology) with professionals such as James Angell, John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, and Henry Donaldson. It was during this time as a graduate student that she published her first papers in all three fields.[2]

In 1900, Woolley graduated summa cum laude with a Ph.D., also from the University of Chicago. An already exceptional accomplishment, she also managed to be among the first generation of women to receive a doctorate degree in experimental psychology. Her doctoral dissertation assessed the differences between the sexes, a very controversial subject for a woman of her time to be writing about.[2]

In 1901, Woolley decided to leave Illinois and accepted a teaching position at an all women's school, Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Massachusetts. The college itself is considered to have been founded by an innovator in the area of women's education, Mary Lyon. She continued to work at the college until 1905, when she married Paul Gerhardt Woolley, MD and became Helen Thompson Woolley. The newly married couple moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Woolley's focus became geared toward vocational guidance. Also during her time in Cincinnati, Woolley served as the director of the Vocation Bureau of public schools from 1911 to 1921, and was both the first psychologist and the first woman to hold such a title.[2]

After her departure from Cincinnati in 1921, she and her husband moved to Detroit, Michigan where she eventually found herself working at the Merrill-Palmer School, and co-developing the Merrill-Palmer Mental Scale for Children[3] until 1926, when she moved to New York, New York to work at the Child Welfare Institute at the Teachers College, Columbia University.[2]

In 1930, an unexpected turn of events left Woolley with no choice but to resign from her job. Health problems, a divorce from her husband, and stress and anxiety stemming from the workplace took its toll on Woolley, and she suffered a serious mental breakdown and was unable to recover before her death.[2]

On December 24, 1947, Woolley died at the age of 73 due to an aortic aneurysm.[4]

Work on gender differences[edit]

Woolley published her doctoral dissertation The Mental Traits of Sex: An Experimental Investigation of the Normal Mind in Men and Women, in 1903. Being that it was the first known dissertation on sex differences, it received mixed reviews. However, she was praised extensively for her meticulous experimental methods and careful attention to detail.[5]

In her most known study, Woolley used twenty-five male and twenty-five female subjects, putting them through a series of extensive tests of sensory, motor, and cognitive function, as well as tests of personality. Woolley set out to measure anything possible, which turned out to be extremely time consuming and she ending up spending as much as twenty-four hours per subject. The results of her dissertation were quite controversial, with some researchers dismissing her conclusions, but other psychologists and researchers, such as Edward Thorndike, being impressed with her findings.[5]

The results from the study indicated that men performed better on most tests of motor ability while women tended to do better on some of the coordination tasks. Men showed more creativity, while women showed more acute senses, and better memory performance. Woolley found no evidence or confirmation of the belief that women are influenced by emotion more in life than men. In general, Woolley found more similarities between the sexes than differences.[5]

Work on childhood education and welfare[edit]

Woolley was one of the first psychologists to study the consequences of children dropping out of school. Woolley conducted a large longitudinal study of adolescents, including those who completed school and those who dropped out of school to begin working at an earlier age.[2][6]

The study suggested that there were indeed negative consequences of not completing school and child labor, but because this was merely a correlation, she could not determine exactly if the consequences of dropouts were due to their lack of education, or to outside forces. Even though the results of her study were less than pleasing in her eyes, Woolley received great compliments for her dedication to her research and for expanding the study of child education and welfare.[2][6]

Publications and research[edit]

During the course of her career, Woolley wrote and published three books and around fifty articles. These published works ranged in topic, and although the vast majority of her works were psychology related, she did publish some philosophy and neurology related articles as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. A list of some of her more well known published works, particularly those published early in her career, can be found below.

  • Woolley, Helen Thompson (1907). "Sensory affection and emotion". Psychological Review. 14 (5): 329–344. doi:10.1037/h0074333. ISSN 0033-295X.
  • Woolley, Helen Thompson (1910). "The development of right-handedness in a normal infant". Psychological Review. 17 (1): 37–41. doi:10.1037/h0074110. ISSN 0033-295X.
  • Woolley, Helen Thompson (1914). "The psychology of sex". Psychological Bulletin. 11 (10): 353–379. doi:10.1037/h0070064. ISSN 0033-2909.
  • Woolley, Helen Thompson (1915). "A new scale of mental and physical measurements for adolescents and some of its uses". Journal of Educational Psychology. 6 (9): 521–550. doi:10.1037/h0075644. ISSN 0022-0663.

References and further reading[edit]

  1. ^ King, D. Brett; Viney, Wayne; Woody, William. D. (January 2008), A History of Psychology: Ideas and Context (Fourth ed.), Allyn & Bacon, Inc.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Milar, K. S (1999). ""A coarse and clumsy tool": Helen Thompson Wooley and the Cincinnati Vocation Bureau". History of Psychology. 2 (3): 219–35. PMID 11623923.
  3. ^ Walsh, Bruce W.; Savickas, Mark (2005). Handbook of Vocational Psychology (Third ed.).
  4. ^ Milar, Katharine S. (2006) A Historical View of Some Early Women Psychologists and the Psychology of Women. Classics in the History of Psychology: Special Collections. Retrieved on 1 December 2008 from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Special/Women/characteristics.htm
  5. ^ a b c Benjamin, Ludy T. (2007). A Brief History of Modern Psychology.
  6. ^ a b Morse, Jane Fowler (2002). "Ignored But Not Forgotten: The Work of Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley". NWSA Journal. 14 (2): 121–147. doi:10.1353/nwsa.2002.0046. ISSN 1527-1889.