Mary Whiton Calkins was a woman who dedicated her entire life to the field of psychology and philosophy. She is best known as the first woman president of both American Psychological and Philosophical Associations and for being denied her doctorate from Harvard. Her courage, and her ability to tide over all the obstacles that she faced up through her education and career, gave hope to many women fighting for equality. In a society that graduate education was an uncatchable dream for women, Calkins achieved access to Harvard’s seminars and laboratories. After she was deprived of her Ph.D., she opened a psychological laboratory at Wellesley College in 1891, one of few in United States and the first to a women college. Her most important works are her research on dreams, the invention of the paired-associate technique for studying memory and the development of a form of self-psychology.
Mary Calkins was born the 30th of March, 1863 in Hartford, Connecticut. She was the eldest of the five children of Wolcott, a Presbyterian minister, and Charlotte Calkins. Mary was particularly close to her family, and especially to her mother. In Hartford she attended the local elementary school and got private lessons in German. In 1880 at the age of seventeen, she moved to Newton Massachusetts where she entered Newton High School and her family built a home, in which she lived her entire life.
In 1882 she joined Smith College with advanced standing as sophomore. Although, the next year, the illness and subsequent death of her sister Maude, obligated her to stay at home and look after her mother, who started to collapse mentally and physically and her younger siblings. During that year she took private lessons in Greek. However, her thirst for learning leaded her back to Smith, where she re-entered as a senior and graduated with a double major in the classics and Philosophy in 1885.
In 1886 she followed her family on a -sixteen month- trip to Europe. This voyage gave her the opportunity to expand her knowledge of the classics. While studying languages on the trip, she met an instructor from Vassar named Abby Leach. This woman was the person who gave her the idea to pursue a teaching career. Right after her return to Massachusetts and with the intervention of her father, she got an interview with the President of Wellesley College, an arts college for women, which was located close to her home. In the fall of 1887 she began tutoring students in Greek.
During her stay at Wellesley, her interest in philosophy was noticed, and she was offered a position in the experimental psychology department of the college, even thought she didn’t have any training in this field. Because of her gender, petitions were made to get her hired and with the condition to keep the job for one year. Also she was required to study for a year in a Psychology program. Once again the fact that she was a woman made necessary some special arrangements for being able to attend seminars as a “guest” at Harvard, under William James and Josiah Royce. Although, the university administration made clear that Calkins was restricted of registration as a student.
In the same time Mary started taking lessons of experimental psychology at Clark University, under Dr. Edmund Sanford. While her time there, she worked on a research, studying the contents of dreams. With Sanford, they were recording each night for a period of seven weeks, immediately after waking from a dream, everything that they could remember of it. At the end of seven weeks Mary had 205 recorded dreams and Sanford 170, which results an average of four dreams recorded per night.
Calkins observed that dreams were influenced by the waking life and got to the result that dreams reproduce the most recent stimulations the person receives. This theory afterwards got opposite with the Freudian dream analysis something that made her feel that her work wasn’t so good and detailed enough compared to others. However when in 1980 Freud’s work was badly received because of the emphasis he gave on sexuality, Calkins work became central.
At the end of 1891, Wellesley College greeted her as Instructor of Psychology in its Philosophical Department. The same year she created a psychological laboratory at the college. From 1892 until 1895 she attended Harvard University, getting the necessary skills to teach. Unfortunately her presence in James class provoked the reaction of the students who dropped out immediately. That led her to an individual study with her tutor. Within one year Mary had published a work on association which was enthusiastically received by James.
After another arrangement she got the authorization to get in the psychological laboratory of Harvard and be tutored by Hugo Munsterberg. Through this study she made a research on the factors influencing memory and when she returned to Wellesley, reliant on that research, she invented the paired-associate technique.
This technique is based on an experiment of recalling memory, in which a series of colors paired with numbers is presented to individuals, testing their ability of recalling the numbers when the previous colors appear again. The results showed that bright color paired numbers are memorized easier than numbers paired with neutral colors and most importantly that the central factor in memorizing was the number of repetition of the experiment. At this point Calkins realized that she discovered a new memorization method which after its publishing in 1896 became one of the basic ways for human learning to be studied.
Back in Harvard, although she completed all the supplies for the Ph.D. as well as passing exams, and she was suggested by her professors for the degree, she was deprived of the honor just because she was a woman. Her mentor James, really disappointed of that decision, said that her performance was the best Ph.D. examination that Harvard ever had. Later on she was offered a degree from Radcliffe, a Harvard’s college for women but Mary rejected the offer, standing on the fact that she had already done the work at Harvard.
In 1898 she became a full professor, a position that she didn’t abandon until her retirement. She never left Wellesley College, dedicating her career on teaching and publishing at the same time great works, in the fields of psychology and philosophy.
But most of all, Calkins was interested on her system of self-psychology. In 1900 she published an article entitled “Psychology as Science of the Selves.” (Rev, 1900, p. 4913f) To her autobiography she said: “here I once and for all renounced the misleading treatment of the self as metaphysical presupposition and maintained that selves may be treated as facts for Science, since they are taken for granted without inquiry about their bearing of ‘reality’, and are critically observed and classified on the basis of their relation with each other and with facts of every other order.” (Rev, 1900, p. 4913f) This work was criticized by the psychological circles but Calkins answered to the objections in an address read in 1905, at the meeting of the American Psychological Association and in some of her later publications.
For the next thirty years she developed her ideas remaining loyal to her initial position and defended her theory writing that “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.” (.M, 1930, p. 42)
During her life Mary Calkins published about sixty-eight psychological and thirty-seven philosophical articles, and several books. In 1901 she published her first book An Introduction to Philosophy, which was followed by The Persistent Problems of Philosophy in 1907, A First Book of Psychology in 1909 and in 1918 The Good Man and The Good. Also, her autobiography was edited in 1930. On the year of 1905, she was nominated president of the American Psychological Association and thirteen years later, in 1918, president of the American Philosophical Society. In 1910 Smith College and Columbia University honored her with degrees and in 1928 the British Psychological Association made her honorary membership. Also it’s referable that in 1908 in a list of leading psychologists she was in the number twelve in United States. Regardless of her achievements and the apperception she received all this years, she never obtained her degree from Harvard.
Beyond her academic career Calkins was a supporter of the Consumers League and the American Civil Liberties Union.
In 1929, three years after she got diagnosed with inoperable cancer, she retired from Wellesley College where she was teaching for over 20 years, with the title of research professor. She was planning to stay at home persisting in writing and spending some time with her mother but unfortunately, those dreams never came true. One year after her retirement at the age of seventy-one, she died in her house in Newton, Massachusetts. It was February 27, 1930.