Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930)

Mary Whiton Calkins

Mary Whiton Calkins was a late 19th and early 20th century psychologist and philosopher who introduced the field of self psychology. She was the first woman to become president of the American Psychological Association. 

Professional Life

Calkins was born in Hartford, Connecticut on March 30, 1863. She was raised in Buffalo, New York until the age of 17, when her family moved to Massachusetts. Calkins began studying at Smith College in 1882, and she graduated in 1885 with a bachelor's degree in philosophy.

After graduation, Calkins family took an extended trip to Europe. Calkins studied Greek during her travels, and when the family returned to the states in 1887, she became a Greek tutor at Wellesley College. The college was planning to begin offering a course in psychology, and one of the philosophy professors recommended Calkins to teach the class, provided she study the subject first. Calkins attended graduate seminars at Harvard, although women were specifically prohibited from studying at Harvard. Calkins received special permission to attend the courses, but she was denied full admission.

Calkins returned to Wellesley as a psychology instructor in 1891. Over the next few years, she continued to attend Harvard, and her psychology professors pressured the administration to allow Calkins to be admitted as a doctoral student. While she was never allowed to formally enroll as a student, Calkins completed PhD requirements and was granted an unsanctioned doctoral examination in 1895. Her professors again petitioned Harvard to award her the degree, but the petition was denied.

In 1902, Radcliffe College, a women’s college, offered Calkins a PhD, but she declined the offer based on the contention that Harvard would never accept women as students as long as schools like Radcliffe continued to offer degrees to women like herself.

In an era in which formal education almost completely excluded women, Calkins found success in her academic career, even without formal credentials. She helped establish the first lab dedicated to the study of psychology at Wellesley, with a budget of only $200. She ultimately became a full professor at Wellesley College and was granted honorary degrees from Columbia University in 1909 and Smith College in 1910. Calkins became the first woman president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1905, and she was elected president of the American Philosophical Association in 1918. Politically, she supported the Consumer's League and the Civil Liberties Union. She died of cancer in 1930. 

Contribution to Psychology

Calkins devoted much of her research to the concept of the self in psychology. She believed that the self is a conscious and mobile force in the context of psychology. Calkins identified self psychology as the study of the conscious organism, focusing on the subject (or self), the object, and the relationship between the two. She introduced her theories in her first book, An Introduction to Psychology, in 1901, and she delivered an in-depth address on self psychology in her presidential address to the APA. Calkins emphasized the importance of the experience of the self in its environment and the social role of the self. Her analysis of the self contributed immensely to the development of self psychology.

During her college career, Calkins conducted a two-month intensive study on dreams. Using her own dreams and those of a colleague, Calkins recorded and analyzed over 350 dreams. Her findings were impressive enough to be noticed by Sigmund Freud, and he made reference to her work when he began his foray into dream analysis.

Calkins also developed the paired-association technique for her doctoral dissertation. In this process, a series of numbers is paired with a series of colors, increasing the subject's ability to remember each.

A pioneer, Calkins broke barriers for women in the field of psychology. She wrote extensively about women's inequality, even conducting research into its consequences. As a psychologist at a time when women were denied the right to vote, she spoke at several women's suffrage conventions. Calkins pushed not only for advancement in her field, but also advancement for women.


  1. Mary Whiton Calkins. (1944). Dictionary of American Biography. Retrieved from
  2. Mary Whiton Calkins, APA's first woman president. (2011, March). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from
  3. Young, Jacy L. (2010). Mary Whiton Calkins. Psychology’s Feminist Voices. Retrieved from

Last Update: 07-07-2015

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