Margaret Floy Washburn, PhD

1921 APA President

Margaret Floy Washburn (1871-1939)Margaret Floy Washburn was the first woman to earn a doctoral degree in American psychology (1894) and the second woman, after Mary Whiton Calkins, to serve as APA President. Ironically, Calkins earned her doctorate at Harvard in 1894, but the university trustees refused to grant her the degree.

It was the general policy of the era that married women could not serve as teachers or professors in co-educational settings. Thus, Washburn never married and served as a professor at Vassar College for 36 years. She was a skilled researcher and prolific writer. As was the custom, Washburn brought many of her undergraduate students, all women, into her laboratory and included them as authors on many of her publications.

Her principal research interests were animal behavior and the basic psychological processes of sensation and perception. The book she is best known for was "The Animal Mind" (1908), which was the first book based on experimental work in animal cognition. The book went through many editions and was for a number of years the most widely used book in comparative psychology. Following her interest in basic processes, Washburn developed a motor theory of consciousness. The theory was most fully developed in her book, "Movement and Mental Imagery" (1916). There, she integrated the experimental method of introspection with an emphasis on motor processes. The basic premise of her work was that thinking was based in movement. Thus, consciousness is linked to motor activity. Beyond serving as APA President, Washburn received many honors. Perhaps her highest honor was being named a Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences. She was only the second woman to ever receive that honor.

A full account of her career can be found in Robert S. Woodworth (1948), Margaret Floy Washburn. "Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, I 25, 275-295." A more intimate portrait of her life and work that also sets her story in the context of her times can be found in Elizabeth Scarborough and Laurel Furumoto, "Untold Lives: The First Generation of American Women Psychologists" (1989).