Mary Whiton Calkins

1905 APA President

Mary Whiton CalkinsMary Whiton Calkins was the 14th President of APA and the first woman to serve in that office. Although she earned her PhD at Harvard under William James, Calkins was refused the degree by the Harvard Corporation (who continues to refuse to grant the degree posthumously) on the grounds that Harvard did not accept women. This, despite the praise of all who worked with her, including the German-American psychologist Hugo Münsterberg who wrote that she was the strongest student in his laboratory since he had arrived at Harvard. Now, Calkins is considered as one the most important first-generation American psychologists. She established one of the first psychological laboratories in the country at Wellesley College, she published four books and over a hundred papers in psychology and philosophy, and she was ranked 12th in a list of the 50 most eminent psychologists in the United States in 1903.

Although her dissertation was an experimental study of the association of ideas in which she initiated the paired-associates technique of studying memory, Calkins spent a large part of her career developing a system of scientific self psychology to which she was ardently committed. Calkins based her system on the conviction that the foundational unit of study for psychology should be the conscious self.  She defined personalistic introspective psychology as the study of conscious, functioning, experiencing selves that exist in relationship to others. In her autobiography, published in 1930, the year of her death, she attributed her conception of the self as social to the influence of Royce and James. She also wrote, “For with each year I live, with each book I read, with each observation I initiate or confirm, I am more deeply convinced that psychology should be conceived as the science of the self, or person, as related to its environment, physical and social” (Calkins, 1930, pp. 42-43).

Calkins was part of the controversy that arose over John Watson’s now famous  Psychological Bulletin article published in 1913, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It.” In the article he argued that introspection forms no part of scientific psychology. Calkins was opposed to the wholesale elimination of introspection as a psychological method, and remained certain that some psychological processes could be studied only by introspection. She pointed out that introspection is itself a method for studying behavior, especially complex behavior such as that of imagining, judging, and reasoning. However, she was sympathetic to Watson's observation that psychology had become too far removed from the problems of everyday life. All in all, Mary Whiton Calkins was a remarkable scientist, scholar, APA President, and human being.