Mary Whiton Calkins

Mary Calkins was among the first generation of women to enter psychology. Because of the many obstacles that she overcame throughout her education and career, her accomplishments and breakthroughs undoubtedly gave hope to all women struggling for equality. While graduate education was unheard of for women before 1900, Calkins fought for access to Harvard’s seminars and laboratories. Her gender prevented her from receiving her Ph.D., despite the fact that she was a highly regarded doctoral student. With her tenacious attitude, she moved on and opened one of the first psychological laboratories in the United States at Wellesley College in 1891. Her numerous contributions to society included the invention of the paired-associate technique for studying memory, groundbreaking research on dreams, and the development of a form of self-psychology. Furthermore, she became the first female president of both the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association.

Family, Education, and Career

Mary was born in Hartford, Connecticut on March 30, 1863 to Wolcott and Charlotte Calkins (Zusne, 1984). The oldest of five children, Mary was extremely close to her New England Puritan family, especially to her mother. As the Calkins1s greatly valued education, Mary attended the local elementary school and learned German in private lessons. The Calkins called Buffalo, New York their home for much of Mary’s life. However, when her father, a Protestant minister, was offered a job in a town near Boston in 1881, he uprooted the family to Newton, Massachusetts. At the age of 17, Calkins entered Newton High School (Furumoto, 1980).

In 1882, Calkins ventured out on her own for the first time to attend Smith College. She was forced to stay home her junior year, though, to tutor her younger siblings after her sister’s death in 1884. Then, as her mother’s mental and physical health began to deteriorate, Calkins took on increased responsibilities for her younger siblings, as well as her mother. During her year home, she opted to study Greek, which was a supplement to her classics major. Finally, upon receiving degrees in both philosophy and the classics in 1885, she returned home in order to join her family on a yearlong excursion to Europe. While studying languages on the trip in such institutions as the University in Leipzig, Mary decided that she would return home and tutor students in Greek. Abby Leach, an instructor from Vassar, was introduced to Calkins while in Europe and encouraged her to pursue a teaching career. When September 1887 rolled around, Calkins tutoring plans were altered; she was granted the chance to teach Greek at Wellesley College, a women1s college that was located close to her family’s home (Furumoto, 1980).

Calkins proved her teaching skills while she instructed students in the fields of Greek, psychology, and philosophy. That, paired with her interest in philosophy, allowed Calkins to be appointed to a newly created position in the experimental psychology department of Wellesley, though she had had no training in psychology (Furumoto, 1980). Since many schools did not even admit women as students at that time, petitions were made before she was hired and she had to agree to hold the job for one year. She also had to further her education, attending Clark University for psychology and Harvard University for philosophy. Special arrangements were made for her to attend seminars under Edmund C. Sanford at Clark University and William James and Josiah Royce at Harvard.

By 1891, Calkins had set up a psychological laboratory and had also introduced scientific psychology to the Wellesley1s curriculum. From 1892 to 1895, she attended Harvard University in addition to teaching. After she was enrolled in William James1s seminar, four men enrolled in the class dropped it in protest. Attendance in the seminar led to individual study with James, and within a year Calkins had published a paper on association, suggesting a modification to James1s recently published Principles of Psychology. Her paper was enthusiastically received by her mentor, who referred to it when he later revised his book. She also found herself studying in the psychological laboratory of Harvard under Hugo Munsterberg investigating the factors influencing memory (Hilgard, 1987). During her return to school, her research in this area led to her invention of the paired-associate technique.

Still, she was a “guest” at Harvard, as women could not officially register; Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard, believed strongly that the two sexes should be educated separately. Although she completed all of the requirements for the Ph.D., including passing exams, and though her Harvard professors recommended her for the degree, she was denied the honor simply because she was a woman (Furumoto, 1980). James was astonished, calling her performance “the most brilliant examination for the Ph.D. that we have had at Harvard” (Hilgard, 1987). When Radcliffe, Harvard’s college for women, offered her a degree, Calkins politely turned down the offer, citing the fact that she had done the work at Harvard. This gesture made Calkins one of the first four women to be offered the Ph.D., as Radcliffe College did not open its doors until April, 1902.

Calkins spent her entire career at Wellesley College teaching and publishing in the areas of both psychology and philosophy. She became a full professor in 1898, a position she held until her retirement. When ten leading psychologists were asked to rank their colleagues in order of merit regarding the importance of their work in 1903, Calkins was listed as twelfth out of fifty (Furumoto, 1980). By 1905, her reputation led to her being named president of the American Psychological Association. Then, in 1918, she became president of the American Philosophical Society. She also received honorary degrees from Columbia University in 1910 and from Smith, her alma mater, in 1910. Finally, she was elected to honorary membership in the British Psychological Association in 1928.

Achievements and Contributions:

Psychological Laboratory

The psychological laboratory at Wellesley College was a milestone in that there were only twelve others in North America when it opened in September 1891. It was also the first psychology laboratory at a women’s college. Of the dozen existing labs, none were more than a few years old and only one other at the McLean Asylum outside of Boston was not a part of a major university. Calkins opened the Wellesley College Laboratory in an attic room with only $200 to spend. She consulted with other professors while setting it up. William James gave her advice on things like dissecting and storing sheep’s brains, while Edmund C. Stanford gave help and technical advice about various apparatuses (Furumoto, 1980).

Fifty-four students worked under Calkins in the laboratory in 1891-1892. They dissected sheep1s brains and conducted studies on sensation, association, attention, space perception, memory, and reaction time. In 1892, G. Stanley Hall, editor of the American Journal of Psychology, asked Calkins to write an article describing her experimental psychology course. She reported that she used simple experiments to provide first-hand material for the study of a number of topics. For several years she wrote a series of articles reporting the results of experiments conducted by herself and her students. Their studies covered a broad spectrum of topics including dreams, psychological aesthetics, synesthesia, and children’s emotional life, moral consciousness, stories, and drawings (Furumoto, 1980).

In less than ten years, Calkins had set up a laboratory, trained hundreds of students in psychological research, and communicated to journals a vast number of findings collected by her students. By 1900, though, her interests moved more towards psychological theory and psychology.

Dream Research

While working under Edmund C. Sanford, Calkins worked on a research project that involved studying the contents of dreams recorded in a seven-week period in the spring of 1891 (Furumoto, 1980). The research involved recording each night, immediately after waking from a dream, every remembered feature of it.

After looking at the 205 dreams collected by Calkins and the 170 dreams recorded by Sanford, they concluded that an average of four dreams could be recorded each night. Also, Calkins1 major find was that there was a close connection between the dream life and the waking life. She stated that a dream was a reproduction of the persons, places, and events of a recent sense perception (Furumoto, 1980).

In 1892, Sanford reported the findings of Calkins and of his other students at Clark University to the first annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. In 1983, Calkins published her own account of her investigation. Forty years later, Calkins was seemingly embarrassed by her dream research, as it was in opposition to the newly- accepted Freudian view of dreams. She humbly stated that her findings were simply aimed at the manifest content of dreams; she felt that others1 research was more detailed and accurate. Freud, however, praised Calkins1 research and that of her students, Florence Hallam and Sarah Weed. Calkin’s findings that dreams had content traceable to either external or organic stimuli and her student findings on the relative proportions of disagreeable and pleasurable dreams were backed by Freud (Furumoto, 1980).

In the 1980s, When Freudian dream analysis was attacked because of its emphasis on hidden meanings, Calkins work with dreams became central. Dream researchers in the neurosciences praised her efforts.

Paired-Associate Technique

It can be argued that the research method employed by Calkins was of greater significance than the results of her doctoral research. Her method consisted of showing a series of colors paired with numerals, followed by testing for recall of the numbers when the colors with which they were previously paired are flashed again. Her findings revealed that numbers paired with bright colors were retained better than those associated with neutral colors. However, the prime factor influencing memory was frequency of exposure. Surprising herself, she found that she had discovered a new memorization method. She called this find her “one slightly significant contribution to experimental psychology” (Furumoto, 1980, p. 60). In 1896, she published a paper in which the methodology for what has been named paired-associates learning was presented. The research report was included as a supplement to Psychological Review. The formula where a subject, when presented with a stimulus, is asked to provide the appropriate response became a standard tool for studying human learning (Hilgard, 1987). The method was reinvented by Georg Muller a few years later and has been widely used ever since (Zusne, 1984).


Of all of her contributions, Calkins was most interested in her system of self-psychology. This school of thought prompted many followers. Self-psychologists following Calkins, including Kohut, Mischel, and Yardley and Honess, however, failed to credit her with any of their ideas.

A paper expressing her view that psychology is a science of the self was published in 1900. Criticism and objections by others immediately followed. She answered her criticisms in her 1905 presidential address at the American Psychological Association meeting and in subsequent papers (Zusne, 1984).

Calkins credited her emphasis on the social nature of the self to the influence of James Baldwin and Josiah Royce. William James and James Ward were also mentioned as influences on her self-doctrine. Hugo Munsterberg, finally, was acknowledged as the influence for her conception of the double standpoint in psychology, in which she claimed that every experience may be treated alike from the atomistic and the self-psychological standpoint (Furumoto, 1980). This was later dismissed when Calkins discovered single- track self-psychology.

Calkins transition from the dual to the single standpoint is highlighted in her books. In 1901, An Introduction to Psychology called psychology a science of succeeding mental events and of the conscious self. In 1909, Calkins dropped the double treatment in A First Book in Psychology (Furumoto, 1980). Its main theme was the blending of conceptions of psychology of the self and psychology of succeeding mental events into a single conceptual framework (Zusne, 1984). Calkins concept of the psychic element and the doctrine of rational elements of experience also appear in her other books.

Calkins first presentation of her self-psychology in 1900, then, was a departure from the classical school. For thirty years, she developed her system without altering her initial position. She did, however, clarify it, modify it, and defend it. The reality and importance of selves in everyday experiences was important to her.

Books and Writings

During her career, Calkins wrote around sixty-eight articles in psychology and thirty- seven in philosophy. She also published four books.

Calkins expressed her principal ideas in her books The Persistent Problems in Philosophy in 1907 and The Good Man and The Good in 1918. The universe, she said, contained distinct mental realities. Furthermore, though the mind emerged from a lower level of existence, it no longer belonged to that level, but rather to a new order of existence which had special laws of behavior. These mental realities were ultimately personal, as consciousness never occurred impersonally (Hilgard, 1987).

Calkins published an autobiography in 1930. Much of the book was aimed at converting psychologists into self-psychologists. She hoped to steer others away from Wundt and Titchener and their focus on elemental sensations, emotions, and images. Calkins came to regard the classical system as inadequate because it excluded from its subject matter psychological phenomena that she considered basic. She thought that classical psychologists were out of touch.


In her later years, Calkins was a supporter of the Consumers1 League and the Civil Liberties Union. The last years of her life were very painful. Calkins was diagnosed with inoperable cancer around 1926. She died four years later in her home in Newton, Massachusetts on February 27, 1930 (Zusne, 1984), one year after retiring and turning over her department at Wellesley to Eleanor Gamble. In 1927 a group of Harvard alumni petitioned the university to grant Calkins her degree, but they were denied.


Furumoto, L. (1980). Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930). Psychology of Women Quarterly, 5, 55-68.

Hilgard, E. R. (1987). Psychology in America: A historical survey. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Zusne, L. (1984). Biographical dictionary of psychology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.