Pioneering Women: The First Woman to Earn a PhD in Psychology

Pioneering Women: The First Woman to Earn a PhD in Psychology


Throughout history, women have made significant contributions to various fields, breaking barriers and challenging societal norms. In the field of psychology, one woman stands out as a trailblazer and a true pioneer. She was the first woman to earn a PhD in psychology, paving the way for countless others to follow in her footsteps. In this article, we will explore the life and achievements of this remarkable woman and the impact she had on the field of psychology.

Early Life and Education

The woman we are referring to is Mary Whiton Calkins. Born on March 30, 1863, in Hartford, Connecticut, Calkins showed great intellectual promise from a young age. She attended Smith College, where she studied classics and philosophy. Despite facing societal expectations that discouraged women from pursuing higher education, Calkins was determined to continue her studies.

After completing her undergraduate degree, Calkins pursued further education at Harvard University. However, at that time, Harvard did not admit women into its graduate programs. Undeterred, Calkins enrolled in the psychology program at Radcliffe College, which was affiliated with Harvard. She studied under the guidance of eminent psychologists such as William James and Hugo M√ľnsterberg.

Contributions to Psychology

Calkins’ contributions to the field of psychology were numerous and groundbreaking. One of her most significant achievements was the development of the paired-associate technique, a method used to study memory and learning. This technique involved presenting participants with pairs of words and measuring their ability to recall the associations between them. Calkins’ work in this area laid the foundation for future research on memory and cognition.

In addition to her research, Calkins also made important contributions to the field through her teaching and mentoring. She became a professor of psychology at Wellesley College in 1891, where she inspired and educated countless students. Calkins was known for her innovative teaching methods and her commitment to promoting women’s education.

Controversy and Recognition

Despite her significant contributions to the field, Calkins faced discrimination and controversy throughout her career. In 1902, she applied for a PhD in psychology at Harvard, hoping to become the first woman to earn a doctorate in the field. However, Harvard denied her the degree, citing their policy of not granting degrees to women.

Undeterred by this setback, Calkins continued her work and made significant strides in the field of psychology. In 1905, she was elected as the first female president of the American Psychological Association (APA), a testament to her standing and influence within the field.

Finally, in 1910, Calkins’ achievements were recognized when she was elected as the first woman president of the APA. This was a groundbreaking moment not only for Calkins but for women in academia as a whole. It marked a significant step forward in the recognition and acceptance of women’s contributions to the field of psychology.

Legacy and Impact

Calkins’ legacy extends far beyond her own achievements. Her determination and perseverance paved the way for future generations of women in psychology. Today, women make up a significant portion of the field, thanks in part to the barriers Calkins broke down.

Furthermore, Calkins’ research and teaching continue to influence the field of psychology. Her work on memory and learning laid the foundation for future advancements in cognitive psychology. Her dedication to education and mentoring also inspired countless students to pursue careers in psychology.


Mary Whiton Calkins was a true pioneer in the field of psychology. As the first woman to earn a PhD in the field, she faced numerous challenges and overcame significant obstacles. Her contributions to the field, both through her research and her teaching, continue to impact the field of psychology to this day. Calkins’ legacy serves as a reminder of the importance of perseverance and determination in the face of adversity.