An Influential Person Margaret Floy Washburn

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Margaret Floy Washburn is one of the most remembered psychologists. She served psychology with a desire and purpose that saw her become the first woman to receive a Ph. D in the subject and also the president of the American Psychological Association. By any measure, she served and achieved far more than most other people like her. Born on July 25, 1871 in New York to Rev. Francis and Elizabeth Floy, Washburn was the only child to her parents and spent the first eight years of her life in her ancestral house amid grown ups, flowers and gardens.

In her autobiography ‘History of Psychology in Autobiography’ Washburn reminisces her childhood days at her ancestral home. She does not mention any of her childhood companions in any of her writings, but takes pride in being the only child. She says that, being the only child had given her the privilege of being undisturbed during leisure time. Although she did not go to school until she became seven, she had learnt to read and write well before that.

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Washburn attended public school when she was eleven years old and graduated high school at fifteen.

Washburn took up chemistry and French while attending Vassar College, but while graduating in 1891, she was already interested in philosophy and science. As the two areas were combined as experimental psychology, which was then an emerging new field of science, she wanted to study in the newly formed Columbia University psychological laboratory. Although Cattell, her guide under whom she was to study welcomed and encouraged her, Columbia University would not enroll a woman graduate.

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However after three months of persuasion, she was finally admitted as a ‘hearer’ in Cattell’s class.

Cattell later advised her to get herself transferred to the Sage School of Philosophy, at Cornell University where she not only had the prospects of receiving a degree, but a scholarship too. In 1892, Washburn became Titchener’s student and took her MA degree in 1893. The next year she got her Ph. D from Cornell, making her the first woman to receive a Ph. D in psychology. She soon took to teaching psychology, philosophy and ethics as a professor at Wells College, while being in contact with Cornell, attending seminars and visiting its libraries.

In 1902, when she took up the position of assistant professorship in Cincinnati University, she was the only woman faculty member. Washburn returned to Vassar College in 1903, which marked a significant turning point in her career. It was in this year that she was included in Cattell’s list of ‘important men of science’ and also became the cooperating editor of the American Journal of Psychology, which she held for thirty-six years. She was with the Vassar College for the rest of her life, where she proved herself as a successful teacher and administrator.

One of the best undergraduate psychology courses in the country was soon established at the Vassar College. There was a lot of effort in each of her lectures, each being brilliant, clear and with plenty of referencing and citing. Apart from being a thorough scientist, Washburn had a receptive personality with personal charm and had considerable influence over her students and colleagues. Washburn worked in several areas of psychology and was particularly known for her work in theory development, animal behavior and experimental work.

Her important contributions to psychology include over 200 scientific articles and two books, ‘The Animal Mind’ and ‘Movement and Mental Imagery’ published in 1908 and 1916 respectively. In 1921, when she was the president of the American Psychological Association, she received a cash award of $500 from the Edison Phonograph Company for her research titled, “The Emotional Effects of Instrumental Music” (Bumb Jenn, 2006). Washburn also held editorial positions in several other journals like the Journal for Animal behavior, Psychological Review and the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

In recognition of her services to journals, her colleagues presented to her a commemorative volume of the American Journal of Psychology in 1927. At the International Congress of Psychology in Copenhagen in 1932, Washburn represented the US. Washburn was totally dedicated to psychology and its teaching. She took a Mediterranean cruise during her only vocational leave in 1928, and during the summers of 1929 and 1932, traveled to England and Copenhagen. Except for these breaks Washburn was never away from her work.

Her dedication to psychology and as an inspiring teacher was not without recognition. The growth of her department, the increase in the number of students in psychology, and the many research papers published by her women students were testimony to the effectiveness of her teaching. Washburn had the desire and ability to collaborate with young and the old, male and female colleagues on the lines of equality. Washburn also served in several important committees in various positions.

She was the chairman of the committee of the American Psychological Association; chairman of the division of Psychology and Anthropology at the National Research Council; chairman of the APA committee for certification of consulting psychologists and chairman of the N. R. C committee on emotion investigation. It was during her stint as chairman in the American Psychological Association that psychology review publications were transferred to the Association from Professor Howard C. Warren. Washburn was also a member of the American Philosophical Society, Phi Kappa Phi, the National Institute of Psychology and the New York Academy of Sciences.

Washburn’s achievements and contributions to the field of psychology and the recognitions she got, can be listed endlessly. With no women role models and mentors for herself, Washburn ensured she became an inspiring one for one for several women. Professor Washburn died on October 29, 1939 after fighting cerebral hemorrhage for over two years.


Bumb Jenn (2006) Margaret Floy Washburn (1871-939). [Electronic Version]. Downloaded on 5th May, 2009 from http://www. webster. edu/~woolflm/washburn. html

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An Influential Person Margaret Floy Washburn. (2016, Dec 02). Retrieved from

An Influential Person Margaret Floy Washburn

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