Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930)

March 1, 2016

Born March 30, 1863, Mary Whiton Calkins was the eldest of five children of Presbyterian minister P.W. Calkins and his wife Charlotte Grosvenor Whiton Calkins. Mary’s father, Minister Phineas Wolcott Calkins (1831-1924) took an active role in supervising his children’s studies, and this preparation enabled her to enter Smith College in 1882 with advanced sophomore standing.

Mary continued her education after graduating from Smith in 1885 by traveling through Greece and Italy.  Upon her return in 1887 she was offered a teaching position in the Greek Department of Wellesley College, where she remained until a vacancy was announced teaching Psychology in the Philosophy Department in 1890.

As Psychology was a new discipline, regarded as a sub-field of philosophy at the time, Mary was encouraged to take up graduate studies in the subject in order to better fulfill her role as an instructor in the burgeoning field. Wasting no time, Mary sought permission to sit in on seminars with Professors William James and Josiah Royce at Harvard University – one of the few institutions boasting a psychology laboratory and offering the opportunity for advanced work in the field in the early 1890s. In the fall of 1891, as instructor of psychology at Wellesley College, Mary introduced a new course in psychology and established one of the first dozen psychology laboratories in the United States.

Although she had fulfilled the requirements for the doctoral degree at Harvard University by 1895, Mary Calkins was nevertheless denied the award as the prevailing policy did not allow women to matriculate at that time.  Regardless, her talents were recognized by numerous members of her profession and she was granted full professorship at Wellesley College in 1901 and ranked 12 out of 50 leading psychologists in the country in 1903.  She went on to be elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1905, and of the American Philosophical Association in 1918.

Between 1892 and her retirement from Wellesley College in 1929, Calkins published over 100 articles and 4 books in psychology and philosophy, including an impressive treatise entitled, the Persistent Problems of Philosophy. Both Smith College and Columbia University bestowed honorary doctoral degrees upon Calkins and offered her faculty positions.  Her major contribution to the field of psychology is considered to be the development of self-psychology.

Mary Whiton Calkins is buried in Lot #171, Laurel Avenue at Mount Auburn.

Information on Mary Whiton Calkins originally appeared in “Biographical Note: Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930)” by Kathleen D. Leslie, Sweet Auburn, Fall / Winter 1987 and is further drawn from an article by Laurel Furumoto, published in “Untold Lies: The First Generation of American Women Psychologists,” Columbia University Press (c. 1989).

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