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Margaret Floy Washburn

experimental group psychology american university women

1871-1939
American psychologist.

Margaret Floy Washburn was the first woman ever to receive a doctorate in psychology and the second woman to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences (1931), the most eminent scientific society in the United States. The only child of Francis Washburn and Elizabeth Floy Davis, Washburn was raised in a middle class home in New York. The women in her family were exceptional and attained high levels of academic accomplishment for the era. Educated both in public and private schools, Washburn graduated from Vassar College in 1891 with a keen interest in science and philosophy. She audited graduate courses taught by James McKeen Cattell at Columbia University, but in spite of his full support, she was denied admission to the graduate program due to gender restrictions. Admitted as a degree candidate at Cornell University, she won the Susan Lynn Sage Fellowship in Philosophy and Ethics. In two short years, working with the noted researcher Edward B. Titchener (1886-1927) in experimental psychology, Washburn earned her Ph.D., the first woman ever to receive a doctorate in psychology. In 1894, she was elected to membership in the American Psychological Association where she eventually became a council member, establishing policy and serving on many committees.

Because women were not eligible to be hired as regular faculty in psychology or philosophy departments in any major Eastern university at the close of the nineteenth century, Washburn held a series of teaching positions at women's colleges, including Wells College (1894), Sage College at Cornell University (1900) and the University of Cincinnati (1902). Although Edward Titchener had been her mentor at Cornell, he refused to admit her to the Society of Experimental Psychologists he formed in 1904. While this group was expressly designed to help young researchers, he summarily exclud-

Margaret Floy Washburn (Archives of the History of American Psychology. Reproduced with permission.)

ed all women on the grounds that their presence would inhibit "frank discussion" among the male members. In 1903, Washburn became Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vassar College, where she was promoted to professor in 1908, eventually becoming professor emeritus in 1937.

Washburn was known primarily for her work in animal psychology. The Animal Mind, which she published in 1908, was the first book by an American in this field and remained the standard comparative psychology textbook for the next 25 years. (Subsequent editions appeared in 1917, 1926, and 1936.) In Movement and Mental Imagery (1916), she presented her motor theory of consciousness, in which she attempted to mediate between the structuralist, or "introspective" tradition of Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) and Titchener, in which she had been schooled, and the opposing behaviorist view. These competing movements had divorced consciousness from behavior, with the structuralists studying only the former, while the behaviorists maintained that psychology should only be concerned with the latter. Washburn's theory reconciled these two perspectives by exploring the ways in which thoughts and perceptions produce motor reaction.

In 1925, Washburn was named one of four coeditors of the American Journal of Psychology. She was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1921 and elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1931, the second woman ever to be chosen for that honor. Altogether, Washburn published over 200 articles and reviews, including more than 70 research articles during her 33-year tenure at Vassar. In her writings, she developed her theory of consciousness at greater length and explored such diverse topics as individual differences, color vision in animals, aesthetic preferences for colors and sounds, after-images, and psychology of the affective processes.

Further Reading

Scarborough, Elizabeth, and Laurel Furumoto. Untold Lives: The First Generation of American Women Psychologists. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987, pp. 109-29.

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