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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Self-Remembrance: Mary Whiton Calkins’s Adventures Among the Atomists.

By 1910, the woman whose brilliance had forced the doors of Harvard University open to women (if only in an unofficial capacity) and who had overseen the development of the nation’s first psychological laboratory for women was striving resolutely against a psychological establishment which held that virtually every one of her ideas was wrong. The Freudians and experimentalists, who usually couldn’t find a polite word to say about each other, were nonetheless united around the one principle, that Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930) was a pioneer, with a mountain of respectable work behind her, who was throwing her life away on philosophical irrelevancies.

By 1960, some three decades after her death, those very same philosophical irrelevancies were roaring to life again, part of a vanguard of “new” ideas propelling psychology past its various atomist, behaviorist, and psychoanalytic tribalisms into a new psychological landscape dominated by thoughts of the unitary self, the role of exterior feedback in the generation of personal psychology, and a growing skepticism about deep abstraction in explaining the motivations of individuals.

Whereas time is the great enemy for most psychologists, who live to see their ideas grow a bit dimmer in the public imagination with every passing year, victims of new trends and fresh data, Calkins is, if anything, more popular and esteemed now than she was a century ago, leaving us to wonder how it was that a mind so ahead of its time ever found its way through the stifling orthodoxies of her era.

Calkins was born in Connecticut on March 30, 1863, at a time when the armies of Robert E. Lee stood at the high water mark of their northward advance, threatening a full-scale invasion that was not staved off until the Gettysburg conflict of early July. It was a frightening world to be born into, but the great conflict raging at the time little touched Calkins’s family. Her father Woldcott was a Presbyterian pastor, and a graduate of Yale who was away studying in Germany at the war’s start, only returning in 1862. Mary was the first child of eight, all born safely outside the possibility of military service. Protected by profession and status from war service, Wolcott was able to devote himself to organizing the education of his children, teaching Mary German alongside English, a bi-lingualism that would serve her well as a psychologist during a time when many of the landmark texts in the field originated in Germany. Throughout her life, he was a strong advocate of her achieving whatever level of higher education she desired, and had no fear of approaching the nation’s greatest educational authorities directly with his pleas to win her access to lectures and institutions historically barred to women.

In tension with this broadening of horizons during Calkins’s early years, however, were two events that narrowed them precipitously. When she was around the age of ten, her mother suffered a profound breakdown after seeing her children through a wave of illnesses that left her own health ever afterwards in a precarious state. That alone would have not been enough to determine the confines of Calkins’s future, however, because of the existence of her sister, Maud, who could be counted on to take up the traditional youngest sister role of parental caretaker. But in 1880 Maud died suddenly of rheumatic fever, leaving Mary the sole daughter of the family, and therefore as the presumptive familial caretaker, it being out of the question in that era for any of the sons to take up that role.

The caretaker role would eventually place strict limits on Calkins’s radius of movement, a limitation which would have been more impactful had the family not moved, just prior to Maud’s death, to Newton, a town near Boston and therefore to one of the beating hearts of early American psychology, Harvard University. As Calkins graduated high school, however, psychology and Harvard lay well on the horizon. At the time of her matriculation at Smith College in 1882, her eyes were fixed upon philosophy and classical literature, particularly the Greek tradition. She studied Greek privately in Greece during the year off from college she took following the death of Maud, and again while on a European tour with her family following her Smith graduation in 1884.

Almost immediately upon returning from Europe, Calkins was offered a position as a Greek instructor at Wellesley to fill a last minute vacancy. She proved so competent and popular as a teacher that the administration selected her for a new position they were creating, that of professor of psychology. Up to that point, Calkins’s training in psychology consisted in precisely one class taken at Smith, and she understandably felt herself under-prepared to take on the responsibility for teaching classes in the topic, insisting that, if she were to accept, she could not begin until after taking advanced courses from whatever institutions might accept her.

Were she a man, the obvious course, given her facility with German, would have been to take a year and study in Germany with Wilhelm Wundt, but most of the people she approached for advice warned her off Germany as an environment not yet accepting of women students. That left her with the United States, where she considered the University of Michigan (where John Dewey was located) or Yale (where G.T. Ladd was located) as institutions where women could gain experience in psychology of a variously official nature. The best of all worlds, however, would have been to study at Harvard, which would allow her to stay with her family, and to study with one of America’s (and the world’s) reigning psychological and philosophical superstars, William James.

The problem, however, was that Harvard was one of the most resistant American universities to the idea of women’s education, going so far as to create a separate program and location, referred to as the Annex, where women could learn material from Harvard professors, segregated from the actual university, and without the ability to earn university credit for their studies and work. While talking with noted Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce (1855-1916) about what classes she might take from the Annex, he recognized that her situation was not like that of most undergraduates. She was a university instructor seeking higher level courses for the purpose of augmenting her own lectures, not some prospective freshman off the street. He felt she should be granted special access to study at Harvard itself, and William James agreed with him.

Her initial application was turned down by the university, but upon her father’s renewed pleas to Harvard’s president to reconsider, she was ultimately given permission to attend Harvard seminars, as long as it was understood that she was doing so as a guest and not a member of the Harvard student body. Perhaps predictably, all the male undergraduates who were signed up for the William James seminar she would be attending dropped out of the class, which was both discouraging, as a none-too-subtle sign about how her presence on campus was regarded by other students, and a boon, as it gave her one-on-one time working directly with James at precisely the moment when his influential two volume The Principles of Psychology was emerging into print.

Simultaneous with the incredible opportunity to study individually with one of the titans of early psychology, Calkins also studied with Edmund C. Sanford at Clark University, who taught her about experimental psychology, and was instrumental in suggesting the equipment she would need to outfit the psychology lab at Wellesley she was responsible for creating. Together, they performed an early experiment on cataloguing the content of dreams, each keeping a record of the dreams that they had, the contents of those dreams, their vividness, the locations and topics involved, the times of night they occurred, and so on, generating thereby one of the first data-based, rather than theory-based, accounts of what humans dream. Calkins would later publish their results in “Statistics of Dreams” (1893), which laid out their conclusion that dreams are, for the most part, either manifestations of events happening directly to the sleeper (as when a person dreams that they are being buried alive when a pillow happens to fall over their face) or continuations of events, places, and themes experienced throughout the course of regular waking life, and generally the most mundane of those events, rather than the big dramatic moments of life. We dream about reading books or riding subways or doing homework, not about the time that our father died in our arms, or our wedding nights.

It was an important result which would go on to be almost entirely submerged in the wave of deep dream interpretation brought about by Sigmund Freud’s publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, but which would rise to the surface again after the passage of many decades brought with it some skepticism about the omnipotence of psychoanalytic theory to explain the underlying structure of all dream content in terms of ego-mediated expressions of the id.

On the strength of her studies with some of America’s most prominent psychological minds, Calkins felt confident in setting up Wellesley’s own psychological laboratory and teaching its first psychological classes in the fall of 1891, bringing women students for the first time into regular, credit-granting contact with the methods and findings of modern experimental psychology. For the better part of a decade, she and her students working in her lab produced a paper a year detailing phenomena including synaesthesia, dreams, memory, aesthetics, and children’s intellectual development, including a pair of 1896 papers on association that developed the paired-association technique that has become a mainstay of psychological testing since.

In “Association: An Essay Analytic and Experimental,” Calkins outlined a series of experiments seeking to determine whether frequency, vividness, recency, or primacy is the most important in causing humans to associate two objects together. In this experiment, subjects were seated before a white screen, and shown colors followed by numbers, and were tested later on their recall of which colors were associated with which numbers. She found that subjects were able to associate “green” with “14” better if those two were displayed several times together during the observation part of the experiment (frequency) than if that pairing was the first thing they saw (primacy) or the most recent thing they saw (recency), and further that varying the physical properties of the numbers (their physical size, or the number of digits) instead of their colors did not compete for memorability next to frequent association. The result was interesting, but the technique was what the psychological community truly latched onto, and is found in university psychological experiments to this day.

While carrying on this work at Wellesley, Calkins continued her studies at Harvard, now under Hugo Münsterberg, until she had reached the point where she had done enough work to earn a PhD. Both James and Royce once again approached the university, asking them in 1895 that she be given the degree that her studies had merited. The university refused, offering her a PhD only in 1902 under the provision that it be considered a “Radcliffe” PhD and not a “Harvard” PhD (Radcliffe College had evolved from the Harvard Annex in the mid 1890s and was primarily an undergraduate institution at the time). Calkins turned the degree down, noting correctly that this was simply Harvard’s way of trying to get out of offering Harvard PhDs to women who deserved them, by recasting them as degrees from an institution that didn’t even have a graduate school, a deception of which she wanted no part, even if it meant not receiving the doctorate that she deserved.

In the 1900s, Calkins’s focus shifted from experimental psychology towards what she would call “self psychology,” an approach to what psychology was fundamentally about that was also fundamentally out of step with its time. Instead of the atomist approach of Edward Titchener (1867-1927) who sought to reduce each mental event to its basic constituent elements, and saw no reason to talk about something as large, ungainly, subjective, and unmeasurable as a “self,” and unlike the later behaviorists who only dealt with outward phenomena they could quantitatively measure, Calkins proposed that all psychology should flow from the self, a unitary being not to be confused with the soul, and its interactions with other objects and individuals. When reviewing studies in recollection, for example, in her classic 1915 paper “The Self in Scientific Psychology,” she pointed out that, basically, recollection and recognition are about the self. When I see a copy of Amazing Spider-Man #349 I recognize it instantly as being a copy of the first comic book I ever bought - the recognition that it is not a foreign and new object is mediated by my previous engagement with it as a child, whole in my identity. We are caught in a dance with the objects around us, which we are constantly taking into ourselves in different degrees, and that whole nexus of self and object and the lines between them is something that can’t be, Calkins asserted, meaningfully reduced to atomized general mental events. Sometimes, we are more than the sum of our mental processes, and making sense of how we approach the world simply breaks down when we leave out our concept of ourselves as a single and continuous being.

Arguing for the virtue of thinking of a self that other psychologists were keen to throw away as subjective and unmeasurable dominated Calkins’s work during her last decades. In fact, when asked to provide an autobiographical sketch for the collection History of Psychology in Autobiography (1930), Calkins spent the bare minimum amount of space possible talking about the development of her ideas from 1890 to 1900, and the vast majority of the “autobiography” in a long and detailed argument for the validity of self-psychology, so sure was she of the basic correctness of her insight and the need to use every conceivable platform to present its virtues.

Calkins retired from her Wellesley post in 1929 after forty-two years of service to the university, years which saw her create a place where women could, unfettered by the need to scrape and beg for academic recognition, carry out modern experiments, and see their results in print, and which saw her personally author four books and more than a hundred articles on psychology, both in the experimental and self varieties. After her death in 1930, her ideas about our experience and mental models of ourselves as single indivisible units, and particularly her ideas about the importance of our interactions with external objects in the formation of our mental world would only grow more popular the more we learned about the brain and how it models itself and adapts to cues from the outside world. Even the psychoanalysts, who had looked down upon her early dream work as important but primitive, came around to aspects of her self psychology, with Melanie Klein in particular focusing on the importance of internalization in the formation of character and behavior. Over the course of her long and prestigious career, Calkins had achieved many firsts - the first woman to attend regular Harvard seminars, the first person to establish a psychological laboratory at a women’s university, the first woman president of the American Psychological Association (1905) and the American Philosophical Association (1918), but when it comes to legacy, that of Mary Whiton Calkins will, I think, always be this: she was the individual who kept psychology aware of the importance and indivisible features of the vast and seemingly unmeasurable self until technology could catch up and allow us to begin capturing that self at last, in all of its dream-having, color-associating, Spider-Man recognizing glory.


Calkins’s autobiographical sketch is a good source about her education and career during the 1890s, and is a great statement of her thoughts about self psychology going into her final year of life, but isn’t as great in providing details about her early life, and errs on the side of diplomacy in detailing her struggles with Harvard. To fill in those gaps, Laurel Furomoto’s essays about Calkins, found in Untold Lives and Women in Psychology are useful, with the former focusing more on the details of her attempt to gain admission to Harvard, and the latter containing more about the content of her work. Most of her articles are available for free on the internet, including those mentioned above and her paper “Synaesthesia” (1895) detailing the stability of synaesthetic properties over time in some two hundred surveyed individuals.

And in 2024, keep an eye out for my A History of Women in Psychology and Neuroscience, which tells Calkins' story and that of some 300 other pioneering women psychologists!


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