Mary Whiton Calkins

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Mary Whiton Calkins

Birthplace: Hartford, Hartford County, Connecticut, United States
Death: Died
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Phineas Wolcott Calkins and Charlotte Otis Grosvenor Calkins
Sister of Maud Calkins; Lighton Calkins; Raymond Calkins and Grosvenor Calkins

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About Mary Whiton Calkins

Mary Whiton Calkins (1863–1930) was an American philosopher and psychologist. Calkins was also the first woman to become president of the American Psychological Association.

Early life

Mary Whiton Calkins was born on March 30, 1863 in Hartford, Connecticut; she was the eldest of five children. She moved to Massachusetts in 1880 with her family to live for the rest of her life; this is also where she began her education. In 1882, Calkins entered into Smith College as a sophomore. She studied for the year, but in 1883 with the death of her sister she took the year off from college and studied on her own. She then returned to Smith College in 1884 to graduate with a concentration in classics and philosophy.

Upon graduation, Calkins and her family took a sixteen month trip to Europe. When she returned to Massachusetts, her father set up an interview with the President of Wellesley College, an all women’s college, for a tutoring job. She worked as a teacher in the Greek department for three years until a professor in the Psychology department took notice of Calkins’ excellent teaching and offered her a teaching position, as long as she studied psychology for a year prior to teaching. Mary accepted the position and began to look for places to expand her knowledge of psychology.

There were not many options for women at the time looking for a place to study and graduate with a degree in psychology. Calkins decided to take classes at Harvard Annex, taught by Josiah Royce. Royce influenced Calkins to take regular classes through Harvard, taught by William James, with males as her peers. The president of Harvard, Charles William Eliot, was opposed to this idea; a woman learning in the same room as a man. With pressure from James and Royce, along with a petition from Mary’s father, Eliot finally gave in and allowed Calkins to study in the regular classes, with the stipulation that she was not to be a registered student.

During the next year, Calkins worked alongside Edmund Sanford, of Clark University, to set up the first psychology lab at Wellesley College. The next few years, Calkins continued to excel in the field of psychology, working on more graduate work. In 1894, Harvard was petitioned to admit Mary as a Ph.D. candidate; they declined. She was then offered a Ph.D. from Radcliffe; however, she declined to accept it due to the lack of relativity it had towards her major studies.


Calkins published writings based on both philosophy and psychology.[citation needed] The Persistent Problems of Philosophy (1907) and The Good Man and The Good (1918) were two publications where she got to express her philosophical views. Calkins was interested in memory and later on the self.[citation needed] She spent many years trying to define the idea of the self, however concluded that she could in no way define the self. She stated that even though the self was indefinable, it was

a totality, a one of many characters... a unique being in the sense that I am I and you are you...

Mary Calkins continued to work her way through the positions at Wellesley College; beginning as a professor of Psychology, becoming an Associate Professor, followed by being a Professor, and finally having the title of Research Professor until she retired in 1929. In 1905, Calkins was elected president of the American Psychological Association, following it with becoming the president of the American Philosophical Association in 1918. Along with the honors of being named president, she was also offered a Doctors of Letters in 1909 from the University of Columbia and a Doctors of Laws in 1910 from Smith College.

Dream research

When Calkins was tutored by Sanford, she was given the opportunity to conduct a research project that involved studying the contents of Sanford and her dreams recorded during a seven-week period. She recorded 205 dreams and Sanford 170. While analyzing these dreams Calkins concluded that there was a “close connection between the dream-life and the waking-life." Calkins research was cited by Sigmund Freud when he created his conception of the dream.


One of her contributions to psychology was her system of self-psychology. In a time where there were several schools of thoughts, Calkins established the school of the ‘self-psychologist.’ Self-psychology was influenced by the works of James Baldwin and Josiah Royce, two people who influenced her during her studies at Harvard. Calkins self-psychology explains that the self is an active agent acting consciously and purposefully.

While at Harvard, Calkins invented the paired-associate technique, a research method where colors are paired with numbers, and the colors are presented again for recall. In 1903, Calkins ranked twelfth in a listing of fifty top-ranked psychologists, an achievement that happened after James McKeen Cattell asked ten psychologists to rank their American colleagues in order merit. In 1905 she was elected president of the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association in 1918. She was the first woman to hold a position in both societies. In 1909 she received an honorary degree from Columbia University and another one in 1910 from Smith. She was also the first woman elected to honorary membership on the British Psychological Association. Calkins served as a faculty member at Wellesley College for forty years until she retired in 1929. Calkins died in 1930 after writing four books and over a hundred papers that are evenly divided between the fields of psychology and philosophy. She is best known for her accomplishments within the field of psychology and her struggles to achieve. After being rejected for a degree from Harvard, Calkins continued to work and strive for equality.

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Mary Whiton Calkins's Timeline

Hartford, Hartford County, Connecticut, United States
Age 67