Mary Whiton Calkins, APA’s first woman president

After being rejected for a degree from Harvard, Calkins continued to work and strive for equality

Mary Whiton Calkins (1863–1930) was an American philosopher and psychologist born on March 30, 1863 in Hartford, Connecticut. She was the eldest of five children. In 1884, Dr. Calkins graduated from Smith College with a concentration in classics and philosophy (Zunes, 1984). Three years after graduating, Dr. Calkins took up a teaching position in the Greek department at Wellesley College. During her stay at Wellesley, a professor in the Psychology department took notice of her excellent teaching skills and offered her a teaching position with the stipulation that she study psychology for a year beforehand (Furmoto, 1980). Though Dr. Calkins accepted the position, there were not many options for women looking for a place to study and graduate with a degree in psychology, but in 1890, she began attending lectures on Psychology taught by Josiah Royce and William James at Harvard Annex (Bumb, n.d.). Royce influenced her to take regular classes through Harvard, with males as her peers. The president of Harvard, Charles William Eliot, was opposed to the idea of a woman learning in the same room as a man. With pressure from Royce and James, along with a petition from Dr. Calkin’s father, Eliot conceded and allowed her to study in the regular classes but she was not to be a registered student. (Furmoto, 1980). During the next year, Dr. Calkins worked alongside Edmund Sanford, of Clark University, to set up the first psychology lab at Wellesley College. The next few years, she continued to excel in the field of psychology. 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 (Bumb, n.d.).

Throughout her life, Dr. Calkins published writings based on both philosophy and psychology. 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. Though most of her work focused on memory, it would seem she was most interested in the self. After spending many years seeking to define the idea of the self, her work concluded that she in no way could define the idea. 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...” (Calkins, 1930).

Dr. 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 at her time of death in 1929 (Bumb, n.d.). In 1905, Dr. Calkins was elected president of the American Psychological Association and after her term, became 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.

Mary Whiton Calkins died in 1929 from cancer. She is best known for not only becoming the first woman president of the American Psychological Association but also 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.

Major Publications 

  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. 1892. "Experimental Psychology at Wellesley College. "American Journal of Psychology. 5, 464-271. 

  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. 1894. "Association." Psychological Review. 1, 476-483. 

  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. 1896. "Association."Psychological Review. 3, 32-49. 

  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. [1901] 2007. An Introduction to Psychology. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 0548200912 

  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. [1907] 1925. The Persistent Problems of Philosophy. Brooklyn, NY: AMS Press Inc. ISBN 0404590926 

  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. 1908. "Psychology as science of self. I: Is the self body Or has it body?" Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods. 5, 12-20. 

  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. 1910. A First Book in Psychology. 

  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. 1915. "The self in scientific psychology." American Journal of Psychology. 26, 495-524. 

  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. [1918] 2007. The Good Man and The Good: An Introduction To Ethics. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 0548164002 

  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. 1930. "Autobiography of Mary Whiton Calkins" History of Psychology in Autobiography. Worcester, MA: Clark University Press.

Calkins, M. (1930) Autobiography of Mary Whiton Calkins. Classics in the History of Psychology. Retrieved March 3, 2011.

Furmoto, L. (1980). Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930) Psychology of Women Quarterly, 5, 55-68.

Zusne, L. (1984). Biographical dictionary of psychology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Bumb, J. (n.d.) Women’s Intellectual Contribution to the Study of Mind and Society. Retrieved March 3, 2011.