Mary Whiton Calkins was born on March 30, 1863 in Buffalo, NY; she was the eldest of five children. Her parents were Wolcott and Charlotte Whiton Calkins; Mary came from a very close-knit family and it is said that her personal life revolved around them. She moved to Newton, Massachusetts in 1880 with her family to live for the rest of her life; this is also where she began her education. Her family moved from New York to Massachusetts because her father, who was a Presbyterian minister, got a new job there. Mary's father took an active role in overseeing his children's education, and when she graduated high school, he had planned her studies so that she was able to enroll in college. In 1882, Calkins entered into Smith College as a sophomore. She studied for the year, but in 1883 with the death of her sister she took the year off from college and studied on her own. While taking time off from school, Calkins received private tutoring lessons in Greek. During this year, she also tutored two of her brothers and studied Greek. She then returned to Smith College in 1884 to graduate with a concentration in classics and philosophy.
Upon graduation, Calkins and her family took an eighteen-month trip to Europe and Calkins was able to explore Leipzig, Italy and Greece. As a major in Classics, Calkins took advantage of the opportunities and spent several months traveling and studying modern Greek and classics. When she returned to Massachusetts, her father set up an interview with the President of Wellesley College, an all women's college, for a tutoring job in the Greek department. She worked as a tutor and eventually as a teacher in the Greek department for three years. A professor in the philosophy department took notice of Calkins' excellent teaching and offered her a position to teach the subject of psychology, which was new to the philosophy department's curriculum. Calkins accepted the offer on the contingency that she would be able to study psychology for one year.
Calkins was born in a time when women were being given more opportunities, such as the opportunity to attend college and teach at those colleges. However, she still faced some opposition and inequality in her career. There were not many options for women looking to earn a degree in psychology. Calkins contemplated psychology progams at the University of Michigan (with John Dewey), Yale (with G.T. Ladd), Clark (with Granville Stanley Hall), and Harvard (with William James). Calkins expressed interest in studying in a laboratory setting, and the only schools with that specification at the time were Clark and Harvard. Likely due to its proximity to her home in Newton, Calkins sought admission to Harvard. Harvard did not permit women to study at their institution. Her father and the president of Wellesley sent letters to Harvard requesting that she be admitted to the school. Though Harvard did not admit Calkins as a student, the school did allow her to sit in on lectures. Calkins decided to take classes at Harvard Annex (predecessor of Radcliffe College), taught by Josiah Royce. Royce influenced Calkins to take regular classes through Harvard, taught by William James, with males as her peers. Harvard president Charles William Eliot was opposed to this idea of a woman learning in the same room as a man. With pressure from James and Royce, along with a petition from Mary's father, Eliot allowed Calkins to study in the regular classes, with the stipulation that she was not to be a registered student.
Calkins began her serious study of psychology under William James, shortly after his highly-renowned textbook, The Principles of Psychology, was printed in 1890. Calkins highly regards one of her first experiences with James in her autobiography, claiming "what I gained from the written page, and even more from tete-a-tete discussion was, it seems to me as I look back upon it, beyond all else, a vivid sense of the concreteness of psychology and of the immediate reality of 'finite individual minds' with their 'thoughts and feelings'". Although Calkins was very impressed by James' philosophies and he had initiated her into the field of psychology, James was not an experimentalist, and that was more of Calkins' area of interest. Following her training under James, Calkins worked alongside Edmund Sanford of Clark University, who later assisted her in setting up the first women's psychology lab at Wellesley College. Sanford trained Calkins on experimental laboratory procedures, as well as helped in the creation and assembly of numerous laboratory instruments for Wellesley's psychological laboratory.
In 1891, Calkins returned to Wellesley as an instructor of psychology in the philosophy department. After the laboratory was established, it quickly gained popularity; Calkins' first laboratory seminar yielded over fifty students. Calkins began to make plans for furthering her education in psychology. Advice from Sanford discouraged her from schools like Johns Hopkins and Clark, suggesting they were not likely to admit women as students, much like her experience at Harvard. Sanford did encourage Calkins to explore programs in Europe, making an inference that Hugo Munsterberg admitted female students to his laboratory in Freiburg, Germany (after seeing a picture of Munsterberg in his lab with a woman). After expressing her desire to work with Munsterberg to James, he revealed that Munsterberg would soon be coming to work at Harvard.
In the three years that Calkins studied under Munsterberg, several of her papers were published, including research she conducted with Sanford on dreams and her first paper on association. During this time, Calkins also studied memory, leading to her invention of the right associates method, now known as the paired-associations technique. Calkins explains in her autobiography that "by showing series of colors paired with numerals, I found that a numeral which has repeatedly appeared in conjunction with a given color was more likely than either a vividly colored numeral or than the numeral last paired with the color, to be remembered, on a reappearance of the given color".
Her study on paired associates learning under Munsterberg constituted her doctoral dissertation that was published in 1896. Harvard refused to approve the recommendation of the Department of Philosophy and Psychology to grant Calkins her doctoral degree. Eliot believed strongly that the two sexes should be educated separately and, although he allowed Calkins to be a “guest,” he and the rest of the board refused the grant her the degree. Calkins had completed all of the requirements for the Ph.D., including passing exams and completing a dissertation, and all of her Harvard professors had recommended her for the degree. Yet, solely due to her sex, she was denied the honor of a conferred degree. James was astonished and described her performance as "the most brilliant examination for the Ph.D. that we have had at Harvard."
With her supplemental education completed, she returned to Wellesley in 1895 as an associate professor of psychology. Two years after her return she became a professor of psychology and philosophy. This addition allowed her to return to her lectures on the classics and Greek. Her experimental work continued throughout this time. Beginning in 1900, Calkins began to publish a series of papers in which she described psychology as a "science of the self" - this would be a premise to the development of her system of self-psychology.
As it can be seen in her writings, although she was very grateful for the individuals who accepted her, she did not hold resentment against those who did not. For instance, instead of expressing disdain towards the Harvard board for not accepting her application for degree, she conveyed her appreciation toward Harvard for allowing her to partake in the courses, conduct research under her professors, and work with individuals such as James, Sanford and Munsterberg. In addition, when the episode with the waiter refusing her admission took place, she stated in her autobiography that “he correctly insisted against her admission.”
Calkins published four books and over one hundred papers in her career, in both the fields of psychology and philosophy. Calkins' first textbook, An Introduction to Psychology, was published in 1901. The Persistent Problems of Philosophy (1907) and The Good Man and The Good (1918) were two publications in which she expressed her philosophical views. Calkins was interested in memory and later in the concept of the self. She spent many years trying to define the idea of the self, but she concluded that she could in no way define it. She stated that even though the self was indefinable, it was "a totality, a one of many characters... a unique being in the sense that I am I and you are you..."
In 1903, Calkins ranked twelfth in a listing of fifty top-ranked psychologists, an achievement that happened after James McKeen Cattell asked ten psychologists to rank their American colleagues in order merit. In 1905 she was elected president of the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association in 1918. She was the first woman to hold a position in both societies. She was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters in 1909 from the University of Columbia and a Doctor of Laws in 1910 from Smith College. She was also the first woman elected to honorary membership on the British Psychological Association. Calkins served as a faculty member at Wellesley College for forty years until she retired in 1929. Calkins died in 1930 after writing four books and over a hundred papers that are evenly divided between the fields of psychology and philosophy. She is best known for her accomplishments within the field of psychology and her struggles to achieve. After being rejected for a degree from Harvard, Calkins continued to work and strive for equality.
When Calkins was tutored by Sanford, she was given the opportunity to conduct a research project that involved studying the contents of Sanford and her dreams recorded during a seven-week period. She recorded 205 dreams and Sanford 170. They woke themselves by the use of alarm clocks at different hours of the night and recorded their dreams at the instant of waking They slept with a note pad right by their bed so as to be able to take note of any dreams as quickly as possible. Each morning, they studied all the records regardless of whether they seemed slight and trivial or significant. They also took account of the different types of dreams and they discovered elements of all various emotions As part of the project, they also considered the relation of the dream to the conscious, waking life, distinguishing the individuals and places in their dream experiences. Calkins explains in her autobiography that the dream "merely reproduces in general the persons and places of recent sense perception and that is it rarely associated with that which is of paramount significance in one’s waking experience". Another conclusion of Calkins and Sanford address the loss of identity in dreams as "not a loss but a change or a doubling of self-consciousness . . . yet all the time one is conscious that it is oneself who has changed or whose identity is doubled". Calkins' research was cited by Sigmund Freud when he created his conception of the dream.
One of Calkins' experiments under Hugo Munsterberg was concerned with the concept of recency as it pertains to a person's ability to remember something. Her paired-associates technique showed that recency yields to vividness and both vividness and recency yields to frequency. Her method consisted of showing a series of colors paired with numerals, followed by testing for recall of the numbers when the colors with which they were previously paired are flashed again. The findings of her study revealed that numbers paired with bright colors were retained better than those associated with neutral colors. Yet, the prime factor influencing memory was not color but frequency of exposure. Calkins admitted that even more significant that her results was the technical memorizing method that she used that is known as that of “right associates." The formula where a subject is presented with a stimulus and asked to provide the appropriate response became a standard tool for studying human learning. Although G. E. Muller sharply criticized her method, he refined it and adopted the method calling it Treffermethode and it has been widely used ever since. Edward Titchener paid Calkins the high compliment of including her research in his Student's Manual, and in her autobiography, Calkins refers to a Professor Kline who selected the paired-associates method for his textbook, Psychology By Experiment. The paired-associates technique was also included in psychology textbooks published by Herrnstein and Boring. Although the paired-associates technique is highly recognized as one of Calkins' biggest contributions to psychology, this is not the work that Calkins herself attached very much importance to.
One of her contributions to psychology was her system of self-psychology. In a time where there were several schools of thoughts, Calkins established the school of the 'self-psychologist.' The main schools of psychology at the time were structuralism and functionalism, which were quite competitive with one another; statements made by one school could expect a strong rebuttal from the other. Self-psychology was influenced by the works of William James and Josiah Royce; more specifically, James' theory of the idea of multiple selves (including the material self, social self, and spiritual self), and Royce's theory that human define themselves through interpersonal communication were of particular interest to Calkins.
Calkins considered her self-psychology to be a form of introspectionist psychology, involving examining one's own mental experience. Introspectionistic psychology was composed of two schools: impersonalistic, which denied the "self" in its definition of psychology, and personalistic, which defined psychology as the study of conscious, functioning, experiencing selves. Calkins' conviction was that a laboratory was essential for adequate instruction in psychology. Calkins claimed that self-psychology could be experimentally investigated, but did not personally involve herself in laboratory experiments relating to self-psychology. It was Calkins' desire that her school of self-psychology would be a theory on which functionals and structuralists could find common ground.
Calkins' self-psychology did not live without criticism from fellow psychologists of the era. James Angell, a founding father of functionalism, opposed Calkins' neglect of the body as part of the self. Following Calkins' Presidential Address (of the American Psychological Association), where Calkins publicly outlined self-psychology, he claims: "Such as functional psychology as I have been presenting would be entirely reconcilable with Miss Calkins' 'psychology of selves' . . . were it not for her extreme scientific conservatism in refusing to allow the self to have a body. . . The real psychological self, as I understand her, is pure disembodied spirit - an admirable thing of good religious and philosophic ancestry, but surely not the thing before which psychology is under any obligation to know". This was written despite its inaccuracy; Calkins did in fact leave considerable room for the body in her address, taking sensorimotor processes and physiological phenomena into account, however she did not consider the body as an essential "basal fact" of psychology.
Outside of her contributions to the field of psychology, Mary Whiton Calkins was an avid supporter of women's rights. Calkins was a suffragist - active in the fight for women's right to vote, disputing "in a democratic country, governed as this is by the suffrage of its citizens, and given over as this is to the principle and practice of educating women, a distinction based on difference of sex is artificial and illogical". Calkins was a pacifist and a member of the American Civil Liberties Union. While working at Wellesley around the time of World War I, a colleague of Calkins was fired for holding pacificistic views. Calkins offered her resignation, stating she held the same views as her colleague who was terminated, but her resignation from Wellesley was not accepted by the President or board.
Calkins' most notable instance of social justice for women was her rejection of a PhD from Radcliffe, a women's college in association with Harvard. In 1902, Radcliffe offered doctoral degrees to Calkins and three other women who had completed their studies at Harvard, but were not granted Harvard PhDs due to their sex. The three other women accepted the degree, and Munsterberg urged Calkins that she should also accept, claiming a PhD from Radcliffe held the same weight as a PhD from Harvard. Calkins rejected Radcliffe's offer, stating in a letter to the Radcliffe board, "I furthermore think it highly probably that the Radcliffe degree will be regarded as the practical equialent of the Harvard degree . . . and now that the Radcliffe degree is offered, I doubt whether the Harvard degree will ever be open to women". Calkins' rejection spoke volumes to her integrity and character, refusing to justify an unfair distinction between men and women based on sex.
The discrimination she experienced due to her sex was also illustrated in earlier episodes. In her autobiography, Calkins reminisces on a date in which, as a member in the Executive Committee of the American Psychological Association, Munsterberg and his students, including Calkins, were to attend a lunch meeting of the Committee at the Harvard Union. The waiter there, though, protested the group’s entrance stating that “no woman might set foot in the main hall; nor was it possible to admit so many men, balanced solely by one woman, to the ladies’ dining-room.” Although it seems like Calkins had a constant struggle as a female in her field, she expressed in her autobiography her gratitude for the individuals that did not discriminate against her. The “friendly, comradely, and refreshingly matter-of-fact welcome” that she received from the men working in Munsterberg’s laboratory as assistants and students is described in her book with great appreciation. She also expressed her indebtedness to Munsterberg who “swung the Laboratory doors” open to her without hesitation.
Calkins was the first female to complete all the coursework, examinations and research for a doctoral degree and, although it was never officially conferred, she is regarded as the first woman to get her doctoral degree in the field of psychology. In 1891, 12 years after the first psychology laboratory was established by Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig, Germany, Calkins established the first psychology lab to be founded by a female and also the first lab to be established at a women’s college. The lab was funded by $200, while all other labs were funded by $800 or more. Calkins had many of the apparatuses constructed at nearby venues. Her lab was in the attic spaces of the fifth floor of College Hall in Wellesley College. With the laboratory to work in, she also taught a course in "Psychology approached from the physiological standpoint". The fifty students who enrolled in this course were instructed in a number of areas of psychology and conducted experiments on such subjects as sensation and association. Her laboratory was situated near the physics laboratory and a fire broke out from the lab that burned down her laboratory along with the other labs. Neither students nor instructors were injured in the fire, but the first female psychology laboratory was destroyed. The laboratory was rebuilt and Eleanor Gamble later succeeded Calkins in running the laboratory.