5 Mary Whiton Calkins

Natasha Borden; Shelby Fien; Nicholas Gayer; Angelo Martinez; Ethan Ostrea; Cassidy Still; Bridgette Garcia; and Anthony Gomez

*Note: This chapter includes two versions written by 2 different groups of students.

Version 1: Natasha Borden, Shelby Fien, Nicholas Gayer, Angelo Martinez, and Ethan Ostrea

General Biography

Mary Whiton Calkins was a pioneering American Philosopher and Psychologist who made tremendous contributions to these fields that many still recognize today. Calkins was born in 1863 in Hartford, Connecticut but ended up moving with her family to Massachusetts where she completed most of her studies (Mary Whiton Calkins: American philosopher and psychologist, 2023). Calkins’s father, Wolcott Calkins, was a Protestant clergyman and her mother, Charlotte Whiton, a social activist. Calkins began her undergraduate studies at Smith College in 1882 but returned home shortly after her younger sister, Maud, passed away. Calkins then returned to Smith, getting her degree in Classics and Philosophy in 1885 (Johnson, 1999). Upon returning, went on to complete the requirements for a Ph.D. from Harvard University, but her degree was never awarded to her as the result of being a woman (Mary Whiton Calkins, n.d.). According to Calkins’s autobiography, she never let her disappointment with Harvard’s decision distract the gratitude she had for the education she received (Calkins, 1930).

In the early 1890s, Calkins studied with some of the greatest philosophers and psychologists of those times, including Hugo Munsterberg and William James (Johnson, 1999). She was considered by many to be extremely hard-working; Münsterberg claimed that “she was the strongest student in his laboratory since he had arrived at Harvard” (Mary Whiton Calkins: 1905 APA president, n.d.). While attending Harvard, when Calkins was studying under William James, she discovered her interest in the topic of association. She would eventually pursue this interest and go on to create the paired-associates approach. Calkins continued to make contributions to the theory and research of memory, dreams, consciousness, and the self. She authored four books and over a hundred academic publications on philosophy- and psychology-related subjects over her career. Not only did she go on to become a professor of psychology at Wellesley, but she gained recognition for establishing the first psychology laboratory at an American Women’s College, and was elected the first female president of the American Psychological Association (Mary Whiton Calkins, n.d.).

Important Achievements

Mary Whiton Calkins was most known for both her work in self-psychology and the paired associates technique. She proposed the self-psychology theory with the idea that psychology is based on the conscious self. The paired associates method was the connection between two unrelated words: a stimulus word and a response word. The study of paired associates learning has been important for a number of reasons, and psychologists view it as representative of the kind of learning that people engage in every day (“Paired-Associate Learning, Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology, 1967).

According to the Women’s History Museum, Calkins was in the first group of originating American psychologists. In 1908, Calkins became the first female president of the American Psychological Association, a major accomplishment for the developing world of psychological study. Another major accomplishment was her ranking in the top 50 psychologists of the time. Not only did Calkins develop new techniques to improve memory, she also published four books and over 100 articles. While accomplishing all of this, she also founded laboratories to continue furthering the field.

With these great accomplishments came an impossible struggle, her education. Calkins achieved a doctoral degree from Harvard University which she was never awarded based on the gender limitations during this time period. As late as 2015, scholars were still petitioning for the posthumous awarding of Calkins’s doctoral degree with unsuccessful effort.

Historical Impact

Mary Whiton Calkins was one of the first to believe that self-psychology should be the focus of study within psychology. Calkins’s research began by stating that the self was indefinable. “Calkins’ (1915, 1917a) description of the self included the self that remains the same, the self that is changed, the self that is unique, the self that is a unity of perceptions, memories, thoughts, and feelings, and, finally, the self that is related to the larger social and physical community in which it lives” (Wentworth, 1999). Thus, Calkins’ description of the self was divided into different parts of one whole. Calkins managed to work her beliefs of self-psychology into personalistic introspective psychology, believing that impersonalistic introspective psychologists overlooked oneself as a definition of psychology. Due to the self being overlooked, personalistic introspective psychology could not contribute to social psychology, which is where Calkins believed knowledge of the self was prominent. Calkins later went on to connect self-psychology to other aspects of psychology, including behaviorism and psychoanalytic psychology.

Calkins’s belief in the self further led to her connecting self-psychology to the soul. As fields of science during this time period, such as biology, rejected the soul for the souls conception as life itself, Calkins fought against this belief and argued that the soul was a conscious being which should be viewed as none other than the self. Calkins’s focus on the soul within the self led her to suggest that morals and religion went hand and hand with social psychology. This connection was brought about by the idea of the spiritual self, introduced to her by one of her professors at Harvard (William James). The idea of the spiritual self suggested that there was a force greater than ourselves that connects oneself to their full potential. Calkins’s notion of the self showed a greater meaning to her professors at Harvard, leading them to believe that the self should have more of a focus within the field of psychology.

Historical Context

Mary Whiton Calkins was at the forefront of late 19th century Psychology, and the science of psychology was only beginning to emerge as a formal scientific discipline at this time. Calkins went on to create her own views on themes such as association, memory, and the self after being significantly impacted by the work of William James, with whom she studied at Harvard. Her work on memory and association had a considerable impact on the development of behaviorism, and her notion of self-psychology is seen as a forerunner to the mid-century humanistic psychology movement (Scarborough, 1987). Calkins’ influence on psychology was also felt through her students, many of whom went on to become significant psychologists in their own right, including Leta Hollingworth and Helen Thompson Woolley (Gale, 2018).

The accomplishments of Calkins also took place in the United States during a period that was marked by tremendous social and cultural shifts. Movements for women’s suffrage and growing societal awareness of issues relating to gender and race came to define the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century. Throughout her career, Calkins encountered considerable obstacles and discrimination due to the fact that she worked in an area that was dominated by men (Scarborough, 1987). She did not give up, and as a result, she produced significant advancements in the area of psychology, advancements that continue to have an impact on both study and practice to this day.


Calkins, M.W. (1930). Autobiography of Mary Whiton Calkins. History of Psychology in Autobiography Vol. 1, pp. 31-61. Clark University Press.

Editors of Encyclopaedia (2023, February 22). Mary Whiton Calkins: American philosopher and psychologist. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-Whiton-Calkins

Johnson. (2000). Calkins, Mary Whiton (1863 – 1930), Philosophers, Psychologists. In American National Biography Online. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.2000140

Mary Whiton Calkins: 1905 APA president. (n.d.). American Psychological Association. Retrieved February 24, 2023, from https://www.apa.org/about/governance/president/bio-mary-whiton-calkins

Mary Whiton Calkins. (n.d.). Harvard University. Retrieved February 24, 2023, from https://psychology.fas.harvard.edu/people/mary-whiton-calkins


Version 2: Cassidy Still, Bridgette Garcia, and Anthony Gomez


Mary Whiton Calkins, a first-generation American psychologist and philosopher, dedicated her life to her work.  She was the first woman who made a distinction between philosophy and psychology. Her work was key in informing theory, studying memory, dreams, and self-psychology. Calkins grew up the oldest of five children. Her father was a Presbyterian minister and was one of her biggest supporters. Calkins was born on March 30th, 1863, in Hartford, Connecticut and passed away on February 26th, 1930, in Newton, Massachusetts (Furumoto, 1980). Calkins was not deterred by being a woman and preserved throughout her life.

Calkins’s educational journey began by attending Smith College in Massachusetts, where she earned her B.A. in classics and philosophy. Her interests in research were the concept of the conscious self and memory. The concept of conscious self is what she spent most of her time researching. Her research focused on the assumption that the self or selves “may be treated as facts for Science,” since “they are taken for granted without inquiry about their bearing on ‘reality,’ and…. are critically observed and classified on the basis of their relationship with each other and with facts of every other order” (Calkins, Psychology as Science of Selves, 1915). Calkins defended self-psychology as the way that psychology should be organized as a science of selves and not as a study of ideas. Calkins also invented the paired-associated technique, which was a classic memory paradigm.

The remarkable contributions of Calkins led to a job offer in 1887 to teach philosophy at Wellesley College (National Women’s History Museum, 2021). In an effort to expand her knowledge, Calkins attended Harvard University in 1890. Psychology was not well established at the time, and as a result, Harvard was only one of the few universities that offered it as an area of study. Calkins’s time at Harvard started when she was allowed to audit courses as a favor to Wellesley College. Therefore, she was never actually formally admitted to Harvard because it was an all-male university at the time. In 1890, Calkins began attending seminars by William James, regarded as the Father of American Psychology (National Women’s History Museum, 2021). Not only was James considered the father of psychology, but he was also a philosopher. He was one of the first people to teach psychology at Harvard. The male students of William James had all dropped out; therefore, Calkins was the only person for James to teach individually. As a result, Calkins excelled.

Harvard held an unofficial dissertation defense for Calkins in 1895. Calkins wrote her dissertation on memory, developing the paired associates experimental paradigm. After the dissertation defense, the faculty recommended Calkins for a doctorate, but despite the recommendation by several prominent male figures, including William James, the university still refused to award her the degree. A few years later she was offered a substitute doctoral degree from a sister institution, Radcliffe College. Calkins turned down the offer because she wanted her degree from Harvard, as that is where she studied. Additionally, she feared that if she accepted, Harvard would never allow women to receive a degree. To this day, Harvard continues to refuse to grant the degree posthumously because women were not accepted at Harvard (APA, 2011) and finds no purpose in awarding her the degree, despite Calkins having rightfully earned her degree. This makes Calkins a very important historical figure for women, as she continued contributing to the field despite not receiving her degree from Harvard. Fortunately, women today are allowed to obtain higher education, regardless of what institution they attend.

Other achievements of Calkins included being elected the 14th president of American Psychological Association (APA), and the first woman to hold a seat in office. Calkins also established one of the first experimental psychology laboratories in the country at Wellesley College (Calkins, 1892), published four books and over a hundred papers in psychology and philosophy, and was ranked 12th in a list of the 50 most eminent psychologists in the United States in 1903 (APA, 2011).  After the refusal of her degree, Calkins continued to study and revolve her research around developing a system of scientific self-psychology.

Calkins published her final autobiography in 1930, the same year that she died. Her last words for her research were “For with each year I live, with each 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). This was a huge statement for her to make as she left the world. She truly believed in her research, and wanted people to know that psychology should be conceived as the science of self.


During Calkins’s lifetime, it was rare for a woman to be able to achieve a basic education, let alone pursue higher education. The traditional gender norm for a woman was to tend to the home and her children. Men had the greater advantage of pursuing a higher education. Calkins faced a constant struggle being a woman in her field. As previously mentioned, Calkins was the first woman to become president of the American Psychological Association and American Philosophical Association, despite not having received her Ph.D. from Harvard, and not being welcomed nor wanted by certain men that were members of the two associations. Calkins became president just 15 years into her career as a woman, which is highly impressive given that the majority do not become presidents until much later.

During her time at Wellesley College, Calkins began a psychological laboratory in an attic with just $200.00. Calkins excelled working in the laboratory, as she learned better through directly being involved. Experiments on sensation, perception, space, and time were conducted in the laboratory by students in their senior year of college (Madigan, S., & O’Hara, R., 1992). After Harvard, Calkins continued her education and career, giving courage and hope to other women to fight for equality. Alongside publishing many books and scholarly articles, one of her accomplishments included the invention of paired associates learning. This form of learning involves pairing two items, a stimulus and a response. When the learner is shown the stimulus word, they will then need to reply with the appropriate response word. Paired associates learning was important since it represented how people engage in everyday learning. For example, when someone learns a new word, the word must be paired to the concept that is representative of it (“Mary Whiton Calkins,” n.d.). Furthermore, this learning makes it possible for researchers to be able to study the interrelation between stimuli and responses.

Calkins also introduced the concept of self-psychology. As mentioned previously, self-psychology is still used today, helping patients internalize their own selves. However, self-psychology was unpopular during Calkins’s life. Self-psychology was introspection that was more personalistic, as it relied on understanding the person as a conscious organism through which experiences shape functions (Calkins, 1901). An example of self-psychology would be a child who is constantly being talked down to by their relatives. As a result, the child may grow up to become an insecure adult who is constantly trying to gain acceptance from others. Calkins considered self-psychology to be a reconciliation between structural and functional psychology (Wentworth, 1999).

Apart from self-psychology, Calkins also researched dreams (Calkins, 1893). While she was a student, she conducted a research project with the assistance of one of her professors. Dreams were recorded and analyzed by numerous people. Calkins conducted the first formal empirical study of dreams, where she would analyze her own dreams. Often, she would wake herself up with an alarm clock at different times and would record her own dreams upon waking. Calkins found a link between life experiences and dreams and believed dreams often resembled our thoughts. Calkins’s research opposed the infamous Freudian views at the time. According to Freud, dreams were not a reflection of our reality but a situation that must be resolved within our subconscious. When Freudian views came under attack, others began to understand Calkins’s viewpoint. Outside of her academic career, Calkins supported the Consumers League and the American Civil Liberties Union, both progressive causes. As a woman, she was denied the power to vote, and she spoke at numerous conventions regarding the topic. Calkins was successful and led with power in both the academic and non-academic worlds.


At a young age, Calkins became interested in getting an education, which was easier for her due to the supportive nature of her parents, especially her father. In 1866, Calkins went on a year-long trip with her family to Europe, where she had the opportunity to broaden her knowledge. Upon returning to Massachusetts, Calkins’s father scheduled an interview for her at Wellesley College, where she was later accepted.

Following her education, Calkins studied under some of the most prominent psychologists, including William James, who invited her to lecture at Harvard in an informal manner. During her time at Harvard, one of her professors, Josiah Royce, an idealist philosopher, encouraged her to continue her studies. Calkins also worked under Edmund Sanford, an early American psychologist, who provided her with the guidance regarding research at the first psychology laboratory, while researching dreams. All these prominent male figures guided her in her work, and in return, Calkins expressed in her autobiography how appreciative she was toward the men that were willing to help her on her journey.

Calkins’s views also became controversial since self-psychology opposed the predominant behaviorist views in the field of psychology (APA, 2011). American psychologist John Watson argued that introspection was not scientific, and introspection was largely the basis of Calkins’s self-psychology. During this time, psychology was prominently the scientific study of observable behavior, and any opposed thinking was not welcomed and often disregarded. It is also said that the death of Calkins’s sister during her junior year of college and the deteriorating health of her mother had a profound impact on Calkins’s way of thinking.


Mary Whiton Calkins made a lasting impact on the field of psychology. As the first female president of the American Psychological Association, Calkins opened a door for other females to pursue the same endeavors she sought out. Women were not given the same opportunities or resources that were granted to men due to the sexist prejudices of this time. Even after facing limited opportunities in her era, Calkins made an impact by founding the first experimental psychology laboratory at Wellesley College. Her work further impacted psychology through her discovery of the paired associates technique of memory (Madigan, 1992). The development of this technique is still used today for the study of memory. The work she published on the psychology of self progressed psychology down a different experimental path that did not consist of external observable behavior. Calkins focused on building a belief that psychology should be regarded as the science of the self. This represented a revolutionary approach that unified different schools of thought into one (Scherer, 2021).


APA. “Mary Whiton Calkins: 1905 APA President.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 2011, https://www.apa.org/about/governance/president/bio-mary-whiton-calkins.

Calkins. (1892). Experimental Psychology at Wellesley College. The American Journal of Psychology, 5(2), 260–271. https://doi.org/10.2307/1410869

Calkins. (1893). Statistics of Dreams. The American Journal of Psychology, 5(3), 311–343. https://doi.org/10.2307/1410996

Calkins. (1901). An introduction to psychology, by Mary Whiton Calkins. The Macmillan Company; Macmillan, 1901.

Foust. (2014). The Feminist Pacifism of William James and Mary Whiton Calkins. Hypatia, 29(4), 889–905. https://doi.org/10.1111/hypa.12115

Furumoto, L. (1980). Mary Whiton Calkins (1863–1930). Psychology of Women Quarterly, 5(1), 55–68. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.1981.tb01033.x

Madigan, S., & O’Hara, R. (1992). Short-term memory at the turn of the century: Mary Whiton Calkins’s memory research. American Psychologist, 47(2), 170–174. https://doi-org.unr.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/0003-066X.47.2.170

Mary Whiton Calkins. National Women’s History Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2022, from https://www.womenshistory.org/mary-whiton-calkins

Mary Whiton Calkins. (n.d.). Harvard University. https://psychology.fas.harvard.edu/people/mary-whiton-calkins

Scherer, N. (2021, November 26). Mary Whiton Calkins. Woman is a Rational Animal. Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://womanisrational.uchicago.edu/2021/11/26/mary-whiton-calkins/

Wentworth. (1999). THE MORAL OF HER STORY: Exploring the Philosophical and Religious Commitments in Mary Whiton Calkins’ Self-Psychology. History of Psychology, 2(2), 119–131. https://doi.org/10.1037/1093-4510.2.2.119


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Open History of Psychology: The Lives and Contributions of Marginalized Psychology Pioneers Copyright © 2023 by Natasha Borden; Shelby Fien; Nicholas Gayer; Angelo Martinez; Ethan Ostrea; Cassidy Still; Bridgette Garcia; and Anthony Gomez is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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