Mary Whiton Calkins

Psycology (1863 - 1930)

Mary Whiton Calkins was a pioneer in psychology. She was responsible for the creation of a method of memorization called the right associates method. She founded the psychology department at Wellesley College. She was the first female president of both the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1905, and the American Philosophical Association in 1918. She developed and advocated a self-based psychology, even as behavioral psychology began to dominate the field.

Calkins was born in Hartford Conn. in 1863, to German speaking parents from non-Germanic background (father was Welsh, mother was Puritan). She was the oldest of five children, all of whom seemed to do very well in school. Their parents encouraged their education, especially the study of languages and cultures. One source said that Reverend Calkins distrusted the traditional educational system and preferred boarding his children with French and German families. However, Calkins did graduate from high school in Newton Mass., and wrote a graduation essay entitled "The Apology Plato should have written: a vindication of the character Xantippi." This title is an indication of her interest in philosophy.

In the fall of 1882 Calkins entered Smith College at the sophomore level. Unfortunately, her sister's illness and subsequent death caused her to decide to study Greek at home the following year. However Calkins went back to Smith as a senior and, in 1885, graduated with a double major in the classics and philosophy. Afterwards, the Calkins family went on a years sojourn to Europe. While there, Calkins may have studied at the University in Leipzig. She spent some time tutoring her three younger brothers, which may be why she decided she would become a private Greek tutor upon her return. However, when she returned to the U.S. there was a change of plans.

Within a week of her return, Wellesley College asked Calkins to fill a temporary vacancy in their Greek department. She had been there for a year when they began talking about expanding their philosophy department to include the new, more experimental, less theoretical psychology that was beginning to break off from the field of philosophy. Although Calkins had no training in psychology, she was considered for the new position because of her interest in the subject and her success at Wellesley as a professor. In 1890 Wellesley finally offered Calkins the position, with the stipulation that she study psychology for a year.

Unfortunately, in 1890 there were very few places for a woman to do graduate work in psychology. Calkins looked into possibilities in Germany as well as Yale, Harvard, Clark and the University of Michigan. What she heard back from her mentors and other women was that most often women were not warmly received. Michigan was an exception, but she eliminated that possibility because of the lack of opportunity to study physiological psychology, which was very important to her. She decided to try to take classes at the Harvard Annex taught by Josiah Royce, a Harvard professor, because the Annex was not an official part of Harvard University. Royce, however, pushed her to try to attend regular Harvard classes because not all of his classes were available through the Annex and none of the courses taught by William James were. However, Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard, believed strongly that the two sexes should be educated separately. It was not until the pressure applied to him from both James and Royce was combined with a petition from Calkins father and a letter from the president of Wellesley College that Eliot finally conceded. Calkins would be allowed to attend James and Royce's seminars on psychology and Hegel, but it was officially stated that she would not be a student of the University entitled to registration.

During the following year Calkins also worked unofficially at the psychology laboratory at Clark University with Edmund Sanford. He also assisted Calkins in the creation of a psychology lab for Wellesley College, equipped with state of the art equipment. That psychology lab officially opened in 1891, the same year that Calkins began teaching psychology at Wellesley. After teaching for one year, however, she felt like she needed to do more graduate work. She was thinking about applying to study with Hugo M FCnsterberg in his laboratory in Germany when she found out that he was coming to Harvard. Calkins continued teaching while simultaneously studying with M FCnsterberg until 1894 when she studied full-time for a year. At that time M FCnsterberg petitioned Harvard to admit Calkins as a Ph.D. candidate, but was refused. The Harvard psychology department held an informal examination of Calkins, which she passed. In 1902 Calkins was offered a Ph.D. from Radcliffe, the women's equivalent to Harvard which was founded in 1894, but she refused, partially because it didn't exist for the majority of her studies.

In 1895 she returned to Wellesley as an associate professor, and in 1898 she became a full professor, a position she held until she retired in 1927.

Calkins was a prolific writer in both psychology and philosophy, publishing four books and over a hundred papers divided among the fields.

The topics that she wrote on (in psychology) covered a wide range including dream research, animal consciousness, memorization, and more. In 1892 she presented a report on a dream study that she had worked on with Sanford at the first meeting of the APA. Thirteen years later she was elected president of that same organization.

In 1900, Calkins published her first article on a system of psychology of the self, a topic which became her primary focus. A year later she published an Introduction to Psychology, which was then used as a text in colleges and universities nationwide. Over the next (nearly) 30 years, Calkins continued to present, develop, and defend her theory of self-psychology, gradually moving more towards philosophy and away from the psychological trend towards behaviorism.

In 1930 Calkins died of inoperable cancer, one year after retiring from Wellesley and turning over that department to Eleanor Gamble. She died with two honorary degrees, a doctor of letters from Columbia University and a doctor of laws from Smith College. However, she never received the degree that she worked for at Harvard. In 1927 a group of Harvard alumni petitioned the university to grant Calkins her degree, but they were denied.

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