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Mary Whiton Calkins: Pioneer in Modern American Psychology and Contributions
Leslie Loveland
Troy University

Mary Whiton Calkins is an American philosopher and a noted psychologist who has made a tremendous contribution to modern psychology through her work, research, and promotion of the science. She was also the first woman to become the president of the American Psychological Association in 1893 and has ranked as one of the most influential people in America (Harvard Department of Psychology, 2018). Through her determination, hard work, and research on psychology, she was noted as one of the most prominent professors of psychology in America and gave various breakthroughs in dream works, the human psyche, and the role of science in the understanding of motivation among human beings. Because of this, her life and her work are noted as one of the most significant elements that have helped shape American psychology and feminism in the advent of academic professions and fields.
Calkins was born in 1863 and has attained a degree at Smith College obtaining classics and philosophy. She first began teaching Greek at Wellesley College and become interested in the science of psychology in the late 1880s. She was given a special grant and permission to attend Harvard seminars, especially those by William James and Josiah Price (Harvard Department of Psychology, 2018). She worked with James, as well as with Hugo Munsterberg’s psychology laboratory in 1892 to 1895, offering her a wider perspective on the field as well as in research and its applications. However, despite passing all requirements to obtain a Ph.D. at Harvard, she was never conferred. Her dissertation on memory, for example, made significant contributions to psychology and had opened a breakthrough in the science of the paired-associate technique (Young, 2010). Paired-associate technique involves the connection between two words. It allows researchers to study the correlation between a stimulus and its response. Researchers gained a greater understanding of the bond a result of her scientific influence and studies.
Her graduate years at Harvard University enabled Calkins to expand her knowledge about psychology further and helped her become one of the most prominent female students. She had studied James’ “Principles of Psychology” and was known to apply and participate explicitly in experimental work together with Edmund C. Sanford at Clark University (Young, 2010). Because of this, she was able to establish her laboratory for experimental psychology at Wellesley College, and it enabled her to approach psychology on a physiological level (Young, 2010), offering a more biological disposition on the advent of the science. Her major contribution, aside from her dissertation about memory, is also relevant to the experiments conducted on sensation and association (Young, 2010) and thus made her a significant and prominent proponent of modern psychology.
Contributions to Psychology
Her laboratory at the Wellesley College offered Calkins the freedom to conduct experiments regarding her interests – sensation, and association. She was also able to publish works on these experiments, making her one of the most important elements in modern psychology. Working with Munsterberg, she was able to classify paired-association as one of her breakthroughs in psychology, and this enabled her to expand her experiments further to gather information about the connection between the mind and the body and the associations it has with perception (Young, 2010).
The context of pioneering modern psychology is the physiological relationship between the body and the mind is given emphasis made Calkins contributions more relevant in the scientific field. Her gender did not hinder her from conducting experiments and from attending seminars at Harvard, which also enabled her to acquire a graduate degree (Furumoto, 2014). Her works also enabled her to pioneer in feminism, wherein the context of female psychology is emphasized according to her contributions to the discipline. Being the first female president of the American Psychological Association opened doors for more women in the academic field to penetrate the patriarchal academic institutions, and this offered another contribution which Calkins created – the start of feminist thought.
It is also evident that Calkins contributed to the importance of paired associates in the understanding of self-identity. Furomoto (2014) asserted that the concept of paired-associate technique enabled more experiments to apply its results on proving the connection of the physical body (sensation) to the mind (perception) and thus extended the value of psychology towards the understanding of human behavior. Calkins was also able to contribute to the concept of cognition with her paired-associate technique in that the psychoanalytic perspective of Sigmund Freud’s explanatory framework of the interpretation of dreams regarding psychology makes relevant suggestions.
Regarding social cognition, Calkin’s work in the context of a community of ideas as a Harvard Department of Psychology against the findings of psychologist Joseph Jastrow also held prominent contributions psychology. Together with her student Cordelia Nevers, they were able to refute the findings that women have less variability in their use and choice of words compared to women (Young, 2010). In refutation, Calkins and Nevers asserted that men are not evolutionary advantaged compared to women, in that sex differences is not a basis for word choices and the ability to communicate. Moreover, her works more relevant to philosophy, but the psychological framework is still defined especially in her works about the self. Using introspective psychology, Calkins was able to reveal the idea of self-psychology (Furumoto, 2014). Introspection and self-psychology have become one of her major contributions to modern psychology, which paved the way for Freud’s works to be relevant in the field of American psychology.
Calkins also made important impacts on how women are viewed in the American academe. Her position as president of the APA enabled more women to achieve higher education and to be known for their academic achievements and contributions, thus allowing the American psychology to include women as its pioneers (Beins, 2014). In her body of work, Calkins always emphasized the role of women in the field of science through her prominence, and this gave her the power to become one of the most successful American psychology pioneers.
In conclusion, Calkins is an indispensable pioneer in modern American psychology in that her works, her prominence, and her experiments made significant impacts on the physiology of the human mind, and how it can determine the power of psychology in understanding human intentions and motivations. Calkins contribution on paired-associate technique promoted the relevance of cognition, perception, and sensation, and thus allowed a more physiological attribute to the science of psychology. Moreover, her work on self-psychology and introspection helped generate a way to decrease the line dividing male and female dichotomies in social cognition, thus allowing a wider understanding of psychology in the modern American society.
Her prominence as a female pioneer in psychology also aided at the beginning of feminism in the academic field, which enriched the female population on such institutions to be supported on their studies, research, and experiments. This also catered to the expansion of the roles women have in science, in that her works and her contributions shows that there is no difference between males and females regarding intellectual pursuits for the benefit of the society (Furumoto, 2014).
Thus, Calkins use of the paired associate technique, her works on self-psychology and introspection, as well as her position as one of the female pioneers in American psychology made her one of the most important proponents of modern American understanding of psychology as a science. Her works, experiments, and her profession as a psychology professor enabled the female population of the academy to become known for their academic pursuits, thus showing an early sign of feminism in America.

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Beins, B. “A History of the History of American Psychology: Where It Has Been and Where It Is Now.” WD Woody, R. Miller, ; W. Wozniak, Psychological Specialties in Historical Context. Enriching the Classroom Experience for Teachers and Students (2016): 18-32.
Furumoto, L. (2014). From” paired associates” to a psychology of self: The intellectual odyssey of Mary Whiton Calkins. In Portraits of pioneers in psychology (pp. 83-100). Psychology Press.
Harvard Department of Psychology. (2018). Mary Whiton Calkins. Retrieved from
Young, J. K. (2010). Profile: Mary Whiton Calkins. Psychology Feminist Voices Multimedia Internet Archive. Retrieved from

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