Mary Calkins

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated July 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When people think about the history of psychology, the women that defined and advanced the field may not be at the forefront of their minds. While several psychological scientists are women, despite barriers of prejudice and discrimination, one forged a significant path of "firsts" for women in the field of psychology: Mary Whiton Calkins. 

In 1905, Mary Whiton Calkins was elected the 14th President of the American Psychological Association (APA) and the first woman to serve in this seat. She was also the first woman president of the American Philosophical Association. Refused a degree at Harvard (who did not accept women at the time), Calkins opened one of the first laboratories devoted to psychology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. To understand how psychology has developed, it can be helpful to look at one of the most prominent psychologists and the founder of self-psychology, who paved the way for diversity in the field.

The human mind is complex and psychology is ever evolving

Childhood and Smith College

On March 30th, 1863, scientist Mary Whiton Calkins was born in Hartford, Connecticut. She was the first of several children born to her parents, Wolcott Calkins and Charlotte Whiton Calkins. Her childhood was spent in Buffalo, New York, where the family was close and the center of Mary's personal life. In 1880, 17-year-old Mary and her family moved to Newton, Massachusetts. 

Mary's family placed significance on education. Her father was active in his children's education, helping them plan their future studies with an emphasis on college education. He encouraged Mary to attend college after high school, which was a progressive request for that period. Being a bright student, she entered Smith College as a sophomore in 1882 to study philosophy. 

However, in 1883, Mary's younger sister died, and she took a year off to grieve with her family. There, she continued to study on her own. In 1884, she returned to Smith College and graduated one year later with a bachelor's degree in philosophy with a concentration in the classics.

Teaching career and introduction to William James

When Mary and her family returned to Massachusetts, her father arranged for her to interview at Wellesley College, a women's college. After meeting with the university president, Calkins was hired as a tutor in the Greek Department. 

Mary worked in the Greek Department for the next three years, first as a tutor and later as a teacher. A professor noticed her skills in teaching and offered her the opportunity to teach a new course on psychology for the philosophy department. Before teaching, Calkins negotiated with her peers to earn an advanced degree. 

Mary considered psychology programs at various institutions, including Harvard, where she could study under the prominent psychologists at the time and research in a psychological laboratory. Her first choice was Harvard, but Mary still faced the oppressive forces of inequality for women. Until then, Harvard had not allowed women to study there. Mary's father and the president of Wellesley College sent recommendation letters on her behalf, but Harvard refused her admission, only allowing her to attend lectures. She could learn, but she could not earn a degree.

For a time, Mary decided to take classes at Harvard Annex. However, her professor, Josiah Royce, encouraged her to attend Harvard proper. There, Calkins studied under William James (a prominent psychologist who is considered the father of American psychology), whose approach to psychology Mary admired.

Later education and work in experimental psychology 

While studying under William James, Mary learned about concepts related to consciousness, feelings, and the self. However, Mary was most interested in laboratory and experimental work. She decided to attend nearby Clark University simultaneously, where Calkins worked with Edmund Sanford in his laboratory, who trained her on experimental procedures.

Mary returned to Wellesley in 1891 and started her post as an instructor of psychology for the philosophy department. With Sanford's help, Mary established the first psychology laboratory at Wellesley College, where women could easily research and study. The psychology lab quickly became popular with students, who conducted experiments on sensory stimuli and other phenomena. Over 50 enrolled for the first seminar.

Despite these successes, Mary wanted to continue to study psychology. Given the barriers for women in academia at that time, she decided to look toward studying in Europe. Calkins considered going to Germany to study under Hugo Munsterberg, but learned he would be coming to teach at Harvard, so she stayed. 

While studying under Munsterberg at Harvard, Mary was able to conduct dream research. She published papers on dreams and association, as she and Munsterberg studied dreams with themselves as subjects. They would use alarm clocks to awaken at night and record what they had been dreaming of. They learned that dreams were similar to memories of events from the day. Their findings were outlined in an article published in the American Journal of Psychology.

Mary also started studying memory, which led to her inventing the paired associations technique, a test used to study psychological processes. This technique represented a significant contribution to experimental psychology, and it continues to inform our understanding of the learning process. Calkins used this research as the basis for her doctoral dissertation, later published in 1896, an indicator of her intellect. However, Harvard would not Grant Calkins the degree she had earned, despite the recommendations of William James, Josiah Royce, and other professors.

While she did not have a formal degree, Calkins returned to Wellesley as an associate professor of psychology. Within two years, she advanced to professor status and continued her research. Calkins published more papers on psychological topics and research findings. 

During her time at Wellesley, Calkins developed a system called self-psychology, an extension of her dissertation focusing on the association of ideas and memory. According to Calkins, the foundational unit of study for psychology should be centered around the conscious self and focused on the introspective study of consciousness in relationship to others. 

The human mind is complex and psychology is ever evolving

Mary Calkins’ significant accomplishments

Mary Whiton Calkins made substantial contributions to the behavioral sciences, producing a significant amount of research related to dreams, memory, and the self. Throughout her career, Calkins wrote prolifically on psychological and philosophical topics, authoring over 100 papers, four books, and a textbook, all of which were published. In 1903, psychologist James McKeen Cattell asked ten fellow psychologists to rank their American colleagues according to merit. Mary ranked 12th on the list, despite not being allowed to complete her doctorate in psychology after fulfilling the requirements at Harvard. 

Though Calkins never received her Harvard degree, in 1909, Columbia University agreed to award her an honorary Doctor of Letters degree. In 1910, Smith College also awarded her with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. Mary became the first female president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1905. In 1918, she was also elected president of the American Philosophical Association. Calkins was the first female elected to that post at the American Philosophical Association. She was also the first woman to become a member of the British Psychological Association. 

Later career and death

Calkins served as a faculty member at Wellesley College for the rest of her career. She taught psychology there for 40 years, opening the doors for other young female psychologists to learn about psychology freely. In 1929, Mary Whiton Calkins retired, leaving a legacy of perseverance against barriers. Calkins died shortly after, in 1930.

The legacy left behind by Mary Calkins 

Mary Whiton Calkins made several significant accomplishments, even when others attempted to halt her study and progress. Further, she was a pioneer in a burgeoning field. Her work occurred when psychology was still a young form of science and research, so some of her work may have focused more on the unknown. At the time, Calkin's research on dreams, memory, and the self was groundbreaking. The findings Calkins disseminated in her papers enlightened people, offering a new understanding of the human mind.

One of Mary's most significant contributions to psychology (which was unpopular during her lifetime) was her system of self-psychology. This system offered an alternative perspective compared to the popular schools of Gestalt psychology, structural psychology, and functional psychology. By introspectively examining the self through philosophical and psychological principles, she offered new viewpoints, theorizing that people are conscious organisms with experiences and functions that drive them. She laid out these views in an article published in the APA’s Psychological Review, titled “A Reconciliation Between Structural and Functional Psychology”, as well as in her 1919 American Philosophical Association address, “Personalistic Conception of Nature”.

Outside of her work as a philosopher and psychologist, Mary also spoke out for women's rights. Mary was a suffragist, fighting for women's right to vote. She identified as a pacifist. Mary personally knew the significant impact inequality had on women. She also personally demonstrated her commitment to social justice in 1902. At that time, she and three other women were told they could be granted doctoral degrees from Radcliffe, a women's college with ties to Harvard. Calkins rejected the Radcliffe degree, expressing concern that accepting it would only further close the door for women at Harvard: “I still believe that the best ideals of education would be better served if Radcliffe College refused to confer the doctor’s degree. You will be quick to see that, holding this conviction, I cannot rightly take the easier course of accepting the degree.”

Overcoming obstacles and discrimination, Mary demonstrated that women were equally as capable as men. In addition, she achieved many firsts in the field of psychology and for women both at home and abroad.

Several books and articles have covered the life and work of Mary Calkins. The book Untold Lives: The First Generation of American Women Psychologists (Columbia University Press, 1987) covers the achievements of Calkins and other early female psychologists. In the article “The moral of her story: Exploring the philosophical and religious commitments in Mary Whiton Calkins' self-psychology” (History of Psychology, 1999), Calkins’ views on introspectivist psychology are explored.   

Lessons to learn 

Although Mary faced challenges, she tried not to let those challenges stop her from achieving her goals. One lesson to learn from the life of Mary Whiton Calkins is that there may be barriers to success, but barriers may open another opportunity. In addition, Mary didn't succeed alone. Her family, teachers, and peers built a circle of support in her life, helping her face these challenges. 

If you have faced obstacles that seem insurmountable and lack support, you might consider seeking support from a counselor. Therapists can help clients work past these barriers, offering resources and teaching skills that can be used to improve one's life. If setting up appointments and traveling to an office for therapy is difficult, you might try online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp. 

Online counseling allows you to choose your session format and find appointment times outside standard business hours. In addition, current research reveals that people who have tried both in-person and online therapy have found their online therapist as empathetic or more empathetic than their in-person therapist. 

Takeaway

Mary Whiton Catkins was one of the primary pioneers of psychology in the US. She persevered when others wanted her to give up and helped many other women learn about psychology. Many resources are available if you want to learn more about how psychology has grown since Mary's time. Consider reaching out to a counselor to get started.
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