Mary Whiton Calkins' Influence on Psychology

Mary Whiton Calkins history

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Mary Whiton Calkins was an American psychologist who became the first female president of the American Psychological Association. While she rightfully earned a doctorate degree in psychology from Harvard, the university refused to award her a degree because she was a woman. In spite of this, she became an influential figure in the development of early psychology and taught many students through her position at Wellesley College.

Best Known Work

  • Self-psychology
  • Inventing paired-associate technique
  • First woman APA President

Timeline of Events

  • Born on March 30, 1863 in Hartford, Connecticut
  • 1884 - Graduated from Smith College
  • 1887 - Began teaching Greek at Wellesley College
  • 1890 - Began attending lectures at Harvard taught by William James and Josiah Royce
  • 1892 - Admitted to Harvard as a "guest"
  • 1895 - Presented thesis to Harvard faculty, but was denied a degree
  • 1927 - Retired from Wellesley College
  • Died on February 26, 1930 of cancer

Early Years

Mary Whiton Calkins began Smith College in 1882 as a sophomore. The 1883 death of her sister led to a year-long break from school, although she continued to study through private lessons. Calkins returned to Smith College in 1884 and graduated with a concentration in classics and philosophy.

Calkins' Pursuit of Psychology

After graduating from Smith College, Mary Whiton Calkins was hired to teach Greek at Wellesley College. She had been teaching for three years when she was offered a position teaching in the new area of psychology.

In order to teach in psychology, she needed to study the subject for at least one year. The difficulty with this was that there were few psychology programs available at the time, and even fewer that would accept women applicants. She initially considered studying abroad but abandoned that idea. Distance and lack of a psychology lab dissuaded her from attending programs at Yale and the University of Michigan.

After being invited by William James to attend some of his lectures at Harvard, Calkins formally requested that she be allowed to sit in on these lectures. She was initially refused by the administration of Harvard, but both her father and the president of Wellesley College wrote to Harvard on her behalf.

The request was approved in 1890, although university records noted that "by accepting this privilege Miss Calkins does not become a student of the University entitled to registration" (Furumoto, 1980). While at Harvard, she attended lectures given by William James and Josiah Royce and studied experimental psychology with Dr. Edmund Sanford of Clark University.

Still interested in pursuing her psychology studies, Calkins again requested that she be allowed to study at Harvard with Hugo Munsterberg. Her request was granted in 1892, but with the provision that she was admitted only as a guest, not as a student.


At Harvard, Calkins invented the paired-associate task which involved showing study participants a series of paired colors and numerals, then testing recollections of which number had been paired with which color. The technique was used to study memory and was later published by Edward B. Titchener, who claimed credit for its development.

In 1895, she presented her thesis, An experimental research on the association of ideas, to a graduate committee that included William James, Josiah Royce, and Hugo Munsterberg. Despite unanimous approval from the thesis committee, Harvard still refused to grant Calkins the degree she had earned.

Later that same year, Calkins returned to Wellesley College where she continued to teach until her retirement in 1927.

Calkins' Contributions to Psychology

Over the course of her career, Calkins wrote over a hundred professional papers of topics in psychology and philosophy. In addition to being the first woman president of the American Psychological Association, Calkins also served as president of the American Philosophical Association in 1918.

Among her major contributions to psychology are the invention of the paired association technique and her work in self-psychology. Calkins believed that the conscious self was the primary focus of psychology.

Despite Mary Whiton Calkins' contributions, Harvard maintains its refusal to grant the degree she earned and her influence on psychology is often overlooked by both scholars and students.

Selected Works

Calkins, Mary Whiton. (1892). Experimental Psychology at Wellesley College. American Journal of Psychology, 5, 464-271.

Calkins, Mary Whiton (1908a). Psychology as Science of Self. I: Is the Self Body or Has It Body? Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, 5, 12-20.

Calkins, Mary Whiton. (1915). The Self in Scientific Psychology. American Journal of Psychology, 26, 495-524.

Calkins, Mary Whiton. (1930). Autobiography of Mary Whiton Calkins. In C. Murchison (Ed.), History of psychology in autobiography (Vol. 1, pp. 31-62). Worcester, MA: Clark University Press.

2 Sources
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  1. Mary Whiton Calkins. American Psychological Association.

  2. Furumoto L. Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930). Psychology of Women Quarterly. 1980;5(1):55-68. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.1980.tb01033.x

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."