Mary Whiton Calkins & Psychology: Biography & Theory

Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, you'll read about Mary Whiton Calkins, a pioneer in the budding field of psychology and the first female president of the American Psychological Association. Learn about her contributions to the study of memory, dreaming, and self-psychology.

Who Was Mary Whiton Calkins?

The psychologist Mary Whiton Calkins was, among other things, the first female president of the American Psychological Association. During a time when women were almost universally excluded from her profession, she made made important theoretical contributions to the new field of psychology, including the study of the self.

Mary Whiton Calkins
picture of Mary Whiton Calkins


Calkins was born in Connecticut in 1863. At an early age, she became interested in obtaining an education and studied a variety of subjects at a number of universities, including Wellesley University and Smith College. Upon graduation, Calkins began teaching Greek at Wellesley. Other instructors took notice of Calkins' teaching ability and approached her about teaching a new course called psychology.

Psychology was a relatively new field at this point. It was still considered a branch of philosophy, and very few universities had programs or laboratories where Calkins could study. One of the only universities with a laboratory that could accommodate Calkins' interests was Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So off she went to Harvard, where she studied memory and recall. Later, these findings would be used by psychologists who did not give Calkins credit for her work.

Although Calkins wrote a dissertation while at Harvard, which was approved by her faculty advisors, Harvard University refused to grant her a Doctor of Philosophy degree, on the grounds that it did not admit women at that time. Even though she didn't get the degree, Calkins was the first woman to complete the requirements necessary for a doctorate degree in psychology.

Calkins was refused a degree by Harvard University, who still refuses to give it to her posthumously
Harvard University

Throughout her career, Calkins was consistently ranked as one of the most sophisticated thinkers in the field of psychology. In 1905, she was elected president of the American Psychological Association, the largest professional association for the study of psychology. Calkins continued to fight for women's rights and equality in professional settings until her death in 1929.

Dream Research

Mary Whiton Calkins studied several different phenomena during her career. One of her areas of research was dreaming. With one of her mentors, Calkins woke herself with an alarm clock each night at different times and recorded her dreams the moment she awoke. The point of this research was to study the relationship between a state of dreaming and a state of consciousness. Calkins concluded that there was indeed a close connection between a person's dream state and the conscious state, meaning that dreams often resemble our waking thoughts very closely. This contribution is key because it provided a counterpoint to the theory of another, very famous psychologist you may have heard of: Sigmund Freud.

Sigmund Freud had a very different take on dreams than Calkins
Sigmund Freud

For Freud, dreams are not really what they seem. In his opinion, dreams reflect not our reality but rather a conflict that needs to be resolved within our subconscious. Therefore, dreams, Freud believed, needed interpretation, a method for which Freud is well known.

Calkins' work also challenged the claim from many people that 'I don't dream!' According to Calkins, it is not that humans do not dream, but that we might not remember our dreams if we aren't waking ourselves up several times in the middle of the night.

Memory Research

Calkins also studied memory. She conducted a series of experiments in order to discern how well people are able to recall items. She devised a series of experiments in which she paired numerals with colors. When asking subjects to recall the numerals, she found that people were able to remember those numerals that were repeatedly paired with the same color. For example, if you saw the number 2 paired with hot pink, blue, and yellow, but saw the number 3 paired with only with green, and Calkins asked you which numbers you remembered, you'd likely say 3. Calkins called this method of memorizing (pairing something with something else multiple times as an aid to recall it) the method of right associates.

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