What Did Margaret Floy Washburn Contribute To Psychology?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox
Updated February 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Few women were recognized in the psychological industry while it was still being developed. Many were barred from entering the profession or from earning a doctorate. Often, women who wanted to become psychologists found they did not have the support of their families or spouses. Women who did work in psychology often faced sexism or unhealthy power dynamics from others in the field. 

In 1894, Margaret Floy Washburn became the first woman to earn her doctoral degree in the US and subsequently became one of the most influential psychologists of her time. If you are interested in the history of psychology and the minds that paved the way for today's psychologists, you may enjoy learning more about Margaret Floy Washburn.

Do you ever feel like something is holding you back?

Margaret's childhood and early education

Margaret Floy Washburn was born in New York City on July 25, 1871. She grew up an only child in Harlem with her parents, Francis Washburn, and Elizabeth Floy. Her father was an Episcopal priest, and her mother came from a wealthy family. She had few friends her age and spent much of her time reading or socializing with adults.

Margaret began attending public school at the age of 11, and by 15, she had graduated from high school. She entered Vassar College as a preparatory student immediately after graduating.

Continued education and early career

As an undergraduate student, Washburn became interested in studying philosophy, poetry, and literature. She was also introduced to the new field of psychology. When she graduated from Vassar in 1891, Washburn wanted to study with James McKeen Cattell in his psychology laboratory at Columbia University. However, Columbia University had not previously admitted any female graduate students, so she could only attend under the status of an auditor. 

Despite these rules, Cattell treated Washburn like any other student and served as her mentor while she attended his lectures and worked in his lab. After a year at Columbia, Washburn was encouraged to apply to Cornell University's Sage School of Philosophy. Cattell informed her that she could obtain her doctorate there, which would not be possible for her at Columbia University.

Washburn was accepted to the program on a scholarship. There, she studied psychology with E.B. Titchener, ultimately becoming his most famous graduate student. She conducted experiments on tactual perception, and after successful research, she was awarded a master's degree without a ceremony by Vassar College. She continued her research in perception, which was accepted for publication. In 1894, Washburn became the first American woman to officially receive a doctorate in psychology and philosophy.

After her graduation, Margaret was elected to join the newly formed American Psychological Association (APA). E.B. Titchener also sent her dissertation research to Wilhelm Wundt, who translated the work and published it overseas. Margaret was then offered a job as the Chair of Psychology, Philosophy, and Ethics for Wells College, where she spent the next six years. She also worked at Sage College at Cornell University. After two years, she left for a new position at the University of Cincinnati, where she stayed for one year before returning to work at Vassar College.

Margaret's career  

At Vassar College, in addition to being the head of the psychology department, Washburn held the Associate Professor of Philosophy role. She worked with many students as a professor and mentor, supervising and advising their research. During this time, she published 68 studies, the largest body of work from any American university. Her students were often fond of her, and many had successful careers.

Margaret experienced a stroke in 1937. The physical effects she was living through compelled her to retire. Following her retirement, she was given the title of Emeritus Professor of Psychology. She didn't recover from the effects of her stroke and died on October 29, 1939. Margaret never married and had no children, having dedicated herself to her career and her parents. 

Getty/Luis Alvarez

Significant accomplishments

During her lifetime, Washburn was considered an influential force in psychology. She helped develop the field as a science and a profession through her scholarly research. 

Washburn focused much of her research on animal behavior and cognition. She hoped to prove that mental events could be as legitimate and worthy of study as other behavioral events. This idea ran counter to popular views at the time, as many psychologists believed that mental states could not be observed and should not have been scientifically investigated.

Washburn gathered research from all over the world to support her line of research. She used French and German research on mental processes, studying ideas from various psychological schools of thought, including behaviorism, structuralism, functionalism, and Gestalt psychology. She considered but was skeptical about the views of psychoanalytic and psychodynamic psychology.

Through her research, Washburn came to believe that consciousness is due to certain motor discharges that could be excitatory or inhibitory. She wrote about this in her work, Movement and Mental Imagery. Washburn's ideas also influenced recent approaches to understanding development and cognition, known as the Dynamic Systems Approach, conceived by psychologists Esther Thelen and Linda Smith.

Washburn published approximately 127 articles over 35 years. Her topics included memory, spatial perception, experimental aesthetics, animal psychology, individual differences, emotion, and affective experiences. Throughout her career, she served as editor for journals like the American Journal of Psychology, Psychological Review, Psychological Bulletin, Journal of Animal Behavior, and Journal of Comparative Psychology. In these roles, she evaluated and published the articles of others, bringing their findings to the broader field of psychology and the public.

Washburn twice served as the Representative of Psychology for the Division of Psychology and Anthropology of National Research (from 1909 to 1910 and again from 1925 to 1928). She was the second woman to serve as the president of the American Psychological Association (APA).

In addition, Margaret was vice president and chairperson for the American Association for the Advancement of Science psychology section and served on the International Committee of Psychology. She was the first female psychologist and the second woman scientist to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. She also served as the United States Delegate for the International Congress of Psychology in Copenhagen in 1932.

The legacy Margaret Floy Washburn left behind

Washburn did much for the field of psychology, including being a trailblazer for women in the field. Some of her works are considered highly influential and helped create a legacy for her research. One of these influential contributions was her book, The Animal Mind: A Textbook of Comparative Psychology, published in 1908. The book was a compilation of her experimental research on animals and was used as the standard textbook for comparative psychology for the next 25 years.

Throughout her career, Washburn studied and considered others' research studies on many different animals besides the typical rats. She studied various types of insects, clams, frogs, jellyfish, shellfish, sea anemones, and other mammals. From this research, she considered all functions, such as the senses, sensation, perception, and kinesthetic movement.

She also studied higher mental processes such as consciousness. Further, Washburn informed others how to interpret animal research and apply that to understanding human processes. She concluded that similarities in neuroanatomy meant there were similarities in capabilities for thinking and behaving.

Another significant contribution from Washburn was her attempt to link structuralist and behaviorist traditions. Washburn developed a motor theory stating that thought or consciousness could be seen in bodily movements. She believed that consciousness was the result of sensation and motion. With this theory, she aimed to explain the human ability to learn through association. 

Do you ever feel like something is holding you back?

Counseling options 

Despite barriers at the time, Margaret Floy Washburn excelled in psychology. She could do this with her passion for her studies and the people in her life who supported her goals. She was also able to pass on the support she received by becoming a mentor to the student psychologists working in her laboratory. 

If you're struggling to find someone to speak to about mental health concerns, career questions, or other areas of life you don't understand, you might benefit from talking to a therapist. The psychology industry has changed significantly since Margaret's contributions, and therapy can now be conducted online and in person. Therapy through an online platform like BetterHelp can help clients work past barriers they may be facing, offering resources that they can acquire from home.  

An article published in Frontiers in Psychology found that online social therapy helped reduce symptoms of stress in young people with mental health conditions. The study authors found that online therapy interventions could provide emotional support for those living with depression and anxiety. In addition to studies on the topic, online therapy is considered a trustworthy and effective resource for many concerns. This flexible and convenient format allows clients to reach out to their therapist via phone, video, or chat sessions. 

If you are interested in learning more about psychology as a career or are experiencing mental health concerns, consider contacting a therapist for support. Many women are working in the field of psychology in the present day, and you can now choose the gender of your therapist to find someone who may understand your experiences within your gender identity. 

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Margaret Floy Washburn was the first woman to achieve a doctorate in psychology but led the way for other influential women worldwide to do the same. Her accomplishments and esteemed research have carried forward modern psychological techniques.

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