Margaret Floy Washburn

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Margaret Floy Washburn

Birthdate: (68)
Birthplace: New York, New York, United States
Death: October 29, 1939 (68)
Poughkeepsie, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Francis Washburn and Elizabeth Floy Washburn

Managed by: Gene Daniell
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Margaret Floy Washburn

Margaret Floy Washburn (July 25, 1871 – October 29, 1939), leading American psychologist in the early 20th century, was best known for her experimental work in animal behavior and motor theory development. She was the first woman to be granted a PhD in psychology (1894).


Born July 25, 1871 in New York City, she was raised in Harlem by her father, Francis, an Episcopal priest, and her mother, Elizabeth Floy, who came from a prosperous New York family. She was an only child, entered school at age 7 and at age 9 moved to Ulster county, New York when her father was placed in a parish there. She graduated from high school in June 1886, at age fifteen, and that fall she entered Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, as a preparatory student. She there became a member of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority and graduated in 1891. She became determined to study under James McKeen Cattell in the newly established psychological laboratory at Columbia University. As Columbia had not yet admitted a woman graduate student, she was admitted only as an "auditor." She did well and Cattell encouraged her to enter the newly organized Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University, which she did in 1892.

At Cornell, she studied under E. B. Titchener, his first and only major graduate student at that time. She conducted an experimental study of the methods of equivalences in tactual perception and earned her Master's degree in absentia from Vassar College in 1893 for that work. She did her doctor's thesis on the influence of visual imagery on judgements of tactual distance and direction. This work was sent by Titchener to Wilhelm Wundt and published in Philosophische Studien (1895). In 1894, she became the first woman to receive a PhD in psychology as Mary Calkins was denied her PhD because she was a woman, and was elected to the newly established American Psychological Association.

She then took teaching posts, in turn, at Wells College, Cornell’s Sage College, and University of Cincinnati. At Cincinnati, she was the only woman on the faculty. In 1903, she returned to Vassar College as Associate Professor of Philosophy, where she remained until 1937 when a stroke necessitated her retirement (as Emeritus Professor of Psychology). She never fully recovered and died at her home in Poughkeepsie, New York on October 29, 1939. She never married, choosing instead to devote herself to her career and the care of her parents

Professional career

Washburn was a major figure in psychology in the United States in the first decades of the 20th century, substantially adding to the development of psychology as a science and a scholarly profession. Washburn used her experimental studies in animal behavior and cognition to present her idea that mental (not just behavioral) events are legitimate and important psychological areas for study in her book, The Animal Mind (1908). This, of course, went against the established doctrine in academic psychology that the mental was not observable and therefore not appropriate for serious scientific investigation.

Besides her experimental work, she read widely and drew on French and German experiments of higher mental processes stating they were intertwined with tentative physical movements. She viewed consciousness as an epiphenomenon of excitation and inhibition of motor discharge. She presented a complete motor theory in Movement and Mental Imagery (1916). During the 1920s she continued to amass experimental data from around the world to buttress her argument. She remained anchored in behaviorist tenets but continued to argue for the mind in this process. She took ideas from all major schools of thought in psychology, behaviorism, structuralism, functionalism, and Gestalt psychology, but rejected the more speculative theories of psychodynamics as being too ephemeral. In current psychology research, echoes of Washburn's insistence that behavior is part of thinking can be seen in dynamic systems approach that Thelen and Smith (1994) use to explain the development of cognition in humans.

Washburn's published writings span thirty-five years and include some 127 articles on many topics including spatial perception, memory, experimental aesthetics, individual differences, animal psychology, emotion and affective consciousness. At various times in her career, she was an editor for the American Journal of Psychology, Psychological Bulletin, Journal of Animal Behavior, Psychological Review, and Journal of Comparative Psychology. She was the president of the American Psychological Association in 1921, an honorific title at that time. She was the first woman psychologist and the second woman scientist to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1932.

Contributions to Psychology

The Animal Mind

Washburn’s best-known work and, arguably, her most significant contribution to psychology was her influential textbook, The Animal Mind: A Textbook of Comparative Psychology. Originally published in 1908, this book compiled research on experimental work in animal psychology. Her range of literature was considerable, resulting in a bibliography of 476 titles in the 1st edition, which eventually grew to 1683 titles by the 4th edition. The Animal Mind covered a range of mental activities, beginning with the senses and perception, including hearing, vision, kinesthetic, and tactual sensation. The books’ later chapter focused upon consciousness and higher mental processes. However, the dominant focus of the book is animal behavior.

A noteworthy feature is the diversity of animal species considered. In an era when animal research was dominated by rats, Washburn references, "not fewer than 100 species, including ants, bees, caterpillars, cats, chickens, chubs, clams, cockroaches, cows, crabs, crayfish, dogs, dragonflies, earthworms, elephants, flies, frogs, goldfish, grasshoppers, guinea pigs, horseshoe crabs, jellyfish, lancelets, leeches, mice, minnows, monkeys, pigeons, pike, planarians, potato beetles, raccoons, salamanders, sea anemones, sea-urchins, shrimps, silkworms, snails, spiders, tortoises, wasps, water beetles, and (yes) rats." Indeed, she devotes an entire chapter to the mind of the simplest animal, the amoeba.

Also noteworthy is her introductory chapters, which detailed methods of interpreting the results of animal research. Although she was cautious about attributing anthropomorphic meanings to animal behavior and realized that animal consciousness could never be directly measured, she opposed strict behaviorism’s dismissal of consciousness and sought to comprehend as much as possible about animal mental phenomena. She suggested that animal psyches contained mental structures similar to that of humans and therefore suggested animal consciousness is not qualitatively different from human mental life. The greater the similarity in neuroanatomical structure and behavior between animals and humans, the more consciousness could be inferred. In her words:

“Our acquaintance with the mind of animals rests upon the same basis as our acquaintance with the mind of our fellow man: both are derived by inference from observed behavior. The actions of our fellow man resemble our own, and we therefore infer in them like subjective states to ours: the actions of animals resemble our less completely, but the difference is one of degree, not of kind… We know not where consciousness begins in the animal world. We know where it surely resides—in ourselves; we know where it exists beyond a reasonable doubt—in those animals of structure resembling ours which rapidly adapt themselves to the lessons of experience. Beyond this point, for all we know, if may exist in simpler and simpler forms until we reach the very lowest of living beings”

The Animal Mind went through several additions, in 1917, 1926, and 1936 and remained the standard textbook of comparative psychology for nearly 25 years. Although about 80% of the material from the first edition was retained in subsequent editions. Compared to later editions, earlier editions extensively covered anecdotal evidence. A chapter on emotions was added to the 4th edition.

Motor Theory

Washburn’s motor theory attempted to find common ground between the structuralist tradition of her mentor, Titchener, which focused exclusively on consciousness and the rising view of behaviorism, which dismissed consciousness in favor of visible actions. Washburn’s motor theory argued that all thought can be traced back to bodily movements. According to her theory, consciousness arises when a motion or a tendency towards movement is partially inhibited by a tendency towards another movement. In the presence of an object, the senses create an impression of it, including vision, sight, feel etc. This is accompanied by an incipient sense of movement, either towards or from the object. Different objects evoke different senses of motor readiness. When the object is not present, memory re-evokes those sensations. Learning consists of an association of movements into a set of regular series and combinations. When two movements become closely linked in quick succession, the sense of movement from the first primes the next, beginning a series. Ideas are organized the same way. Thinking becomes a derivative of movements of the hands, eyes, vocal cords, and trunk muscles (remember the thinker’s pose). In summary:

"While consciousness exists and is not a form of movement, it has as its indispensable basis certain motor processes, and… the only sense in which we can explain conscious processes is by studying the laws governing these underlying motor phenomena"

Washburn presented this theory in several of her major works, including her early papers and in chapters she contributed to several collections, including Feelings and Emotions: The Wittenberg Symposium and Psychologies of 1930 However, it was most clearly outlined in what she considered her greatest work, Movement and Mental Imagery: Outlines of a Motor Theory of the Complexer Mental Processes

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Margaret Floy Washburn's Timeline

July 25, 1871
New York, New York, United States
October 29, 1939
Age 68
Poughkeepsie, New York, United States