Mary Whiton Calkins

Mary Whiton Calkins

Mary Whiton Calkins

Noted for:  Paired-associate learning paradigm in memory research; first female president of the American Psychological Association

Mary Whiton Calkins was ready for an academic career before the patriarchal academic world of the late nineteenth century was ready for her. After earning an undergraduate degree in 1882 from Smith College in classics and philosophy, Calkins began to teach Greek at Wellesley College. She found herself drawn to the nascent field of psychology, and in the late 1880’s Calkins was granted special permission to attend seminars at Harvard (then an all-male institution), including those offered by William James and Josiah Royce.  In fact, Calkins was the sole student in James' graduate seminar in 1890, the year he published his famous Principles of Psychology. Calkins also worked in Hugo Münsterberg's lab from 1892-1895. Of her studies with James, Calkins wrote in her autobiography:

“The Principles of Psychology was warm from the press; and my absorbed study of those brilliant, erudite, and provocative volumes, as interpreted by their writer, was my introduction to psychology. What I gained from the written page, and even more from tête-à-tête discussion was, it seems to me as I look back upon it, beyond all else, a vivid sense of the concreteness of psychology and of the immediate reality of "finite individual minds" with their "thoughts and feelings.” James's vituperation of the "psychologist's fallacy" -- the "confusion of his own standpoint with that of the mental fact about which he is making his report" -- results directly from this view of introspection as immediate experience and not mere inference from experience” (Calkins, 1930, p. 31).

 Calkins passed all the requirements for a Ph.D. at Harvard with distinction, and wrote her dissertation on memory, for which she developed the paired-associate experimental paradigm, one of the classic tools in memory research. In 1896 Münsterberg wrote to the president of Harvard that Calkins was, "one of the strongest professors of psychology in this country." A committee of six professors, including James, unanimously voted that Calkins had satisfied all the requirements, but she was refused a Harvard doctoral degree because she was a woman. She was later offered a special doctorate bearing the name of Radcliffe College (at the time, the woman’s college associated with Harvard), but turned it down. (The Department of Psychology is currently investigating the possibility of granting her the doctorate retroactively.)

This technical set-back did not prevent Calkins from pressing on with her work. She began to teach psychology at Wellesley, and established the first psychology laboratory at an American women’s college.  In 1898 Calkins was elected as the American Psychological Association’s first female president.  She authored several books and lectured widely during her distinguished, decades-long career in psychology.


Boatwright, K.J. & Nolan, B.B. (2005).  Executive summary: Proposal for a posthumous degree for Mary Whiton Calkins, the "Mother of Psychology": Archival evidence demonstrating completion of doctoral requirements for the Harvard doctoral degree.  Kalamazoo, MI.

Calkins, M.W. (1930).  Autobiography of Mary Whiton Calkins.  In Murchison, Carl [Ed.] History of Psychology in Autobiography Vol. 1, pp. 31-61.  Worcester, MA:  Clark University Press.

Furumoto, L. (1979).  Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930), Fourteenth President of the American Psychological Association.  Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 15, 346-356.