This ‘Brilliant’ Pioneering Psychologist Never Got a Ph.D….Technically

Despite “the most brilliant examination” Harvard had ever seen, the school didn’t grant degrees to women at the time

By the time Harvard relented and offered Mary Whiton Calkins a special Ph.D, she turned it down. Wikimedia Commons

Born on the day in 1863, Mary Whiton Calkins—who in her lifetime was president of both the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Philosophical Association—never actually got her Ph.D.

That was because Calkins studied at Harvard, a school that (technically) didn’t grant degrees to women until 1899 and didn’t grant degrees to women at all when she started there. In fact, she wasn’t technically allowed to even go to class at Harvard, but managed to get in through a side door.

The Harvard Annex, later called Radcliffe College, was where women went to study with Harvard professors—although, as Harvard itself stressed, was not technically part of the school. Calkins first attended the Annex in 1890, when she had an offer from Wellesley College to teach in their fledgling psychology department, provided she spend a year studying the discipline and building on her undergraduate work.

At that point, psychology was a fledgling discipline connected with philosophy. The emergence of psychology as its own discipline is closely linked with the development of experimental psychology labs in the late 1870s, writes psychologist R. Eric Landrum. Calkins was working in a new discipline.  

But the Annex’s curriculum was geared for young women seeking undergraduate degrees. Calkins attended Harvard graduate courses without technically being enrolled as a student in 1890, according to York University’s Psychology’s Feminist Voices. She also returned to Wellesley to teach some of its first courses in psychology and establish the school’s first psychology lab.

In 1895, the philosophy department voted that she had met all the requirements to receive her Ph.D.  But women couldn’t get a doctorate from Harvard, or from the brand-new Radcliffe College, so she didn’t earn one.

“While the Department has at present no official authority to recognize a woman for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, the undersigned, acting as individuals, certify that this thesis is worthy of acceptance,” reads the note on her dissertation. Among others, that note was signed by Josiah Royce and William James, two prominent philosophers and psychologists she worked under.

Writing to an acquaintance, James said that she had “the most brilliant examination for the Ph.D. that we have had at Harvard.”

“It is a pity, in spite of this, that she still lacks the degree,” he added. In the fall of that year, technically unqualified, she went to Wellesley to teach as associate professor of psychology, write Elizabeth Scarborough and Laurel Furumoto in their book Untold Lives: The First Generation of American Women Psychologists.  She was promoted to full professor in 1898.  

In 1902,  Harvard offered Calkins a special doctorate that would be given by Radcliffe College, but she turned it down. By this point, she had already broken into the gendered academic world, becoming one of the first woman members of the APA and gaining widespread recognition for her work. In 1905, Calkins became the first female president of the association.

Throughout her career, Calkins wrote and published in both the disciplines of psychology and philosophy, the APA writes.

“Though most of her work focused on memory, it would seem that she was most interested in the self,” according to the association. “After spending many years seeking to define the idea of the self, her work concluded that she in no way could define the idea. She stated that even though the self was indefinable, it was ‘a totality, a one of many characters… a unique being in the sense that I am I and you are you.’”

Although she received honorary doctorates later in her career, Calkins went through her career, technically, with no Ph.D.  

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.