Mary Whiton Calkins


Her Story

Mary Whiton Calkins was among the very first generation of American psychologists. In 1905 she served as the first female President of the American Psychological Association and in 1908 was ranked twelfth on a 1908 list of the top 50 psychologists in the country. Calkins also served as President of the American Philosophical Association in 1918. Scholarly accomplishments include inventing the paired-associates technique for studying learning and memory, founding one of the first laboratories in psychology, and writing four books and over 100 articles on topics related to memory, dream analysis, self-psychology, consciousness, and philosophy.

Despite her record of achievements, Calkins is best known today for something she never received--a doctoral degree from Harvard University. The story has become a legend in academic psychology circles. Calkins was from Massachusetts, where she earned her B.A. from Smith College in 1885, majoring in the classics and philosophy.

In 1887 she was hired to teach philosophy at Wellesley College. Psychology was historically part of "mental philosophy" but in the 1880s an empirically-based experimental psychology was growing.

Wellesley wanted Calkins to learn more about the topic to teach a course in the new psychology. With the support of Harvard's psychology faculty, Harvard's president allowed Calkins to audit courses as a favor to Wellesley College and to her father, a prominent Presbyterian minister. It was understood by all that Calkins was not being formally admitted--Harvard was a male-only institution at that time.

In 1890 Calkins began attending seminars by William James, regarded as the father of American psychology. Notably, the male students dropped out, leaving William James to tutor Calkins individually. The Harvard psychology faculty held an unofficial dissertation defense for Calkins in 1895. Afterward, they recommended her for a doctorate but Harvard refused to award the degree. A few years later Calkins turned down the offer of a substitute doctoral degree from Harvard's sister institution, Radcliffe.

As of 2015, petitions to award Calkins a posthumous degree from Harvard have proved unsuccessful.