On this day in 1871 was the birth of Margaret Floy Washburn, a leading psychologist known for her work in motor theory development and animal behavior, and the first woman to earn a PHD in Psychology. Margaret was born in New York City to a father who was an Episcopal priest, and mother from a prosperous local family. Margaret was an only child, raised in Harlem until her family moved to Ulster County when she was nine. She graduated high school in 1886 and entered Vassar College that fall, at the age of sixteen. It was during her years at Vassar that she was first exposed to the field of psychology, though she also developed an interest in philosophy.
It wasn’t until after she graduated Vassar in 1891 that she attempted to begin her studies in Psychology, by applying to Columbia University’s new psychological lab. She was only admitted as an auditor however, because Columbia had not yet admitted a female graduate student. Eventually, at the encouragement of the head of the Columbia program, she attended Cornell University’s Sage School of Philosophy, where she entered into an experimental study of “the methods of equivalences in tactual perception”, which lead to her earning her Master’s degree in absentia from Vassar College. Then, in June of 1892, she gave an oral presentation of her master’s thesis on a similar subject: the influence of visual imagery on judging direction and tactual distance. As a result, she became the first woman to receive a PhD in psychology, and was elected to the new American Psychology Association. (Mary Calkins was the first woman to try to earn the same degree, only to be denied because she was a woman.)
Margaret would spend the next six years as the Chair of Psychology, Philosophy, and Ethics at Wells College in New York, before moving on to spend two years as the warden at Sage College of Cornell University, and then assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Cincinnati. Her final job was as Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vassar College, where she stayed until her stroke in 1937 required her to retire.
During her career she was integral to the development of psychology as a field over all. Part of her experiments and studies involved animal behavior, and the idea that their mental events were both legitimate and important; at the time, psychologists believed that mental behaviors and events were not observable and as such couldn’t be studied scientifically. She also studied motor theory, presenting her complete theory on the topic in Movement and Mental Imagery in 1916. During the 1920s she continued to study and collect data on the topic, pulling in ideas from numerous fields beyond psychology, and numerous experiments beyond the United States. She worked as an editor for numerous Psychological journals during her career, and was the first woman psychologist elected to the National Academy of Sciences, in 1932. Having never married because she chose instead to focus on her career (and taking care of her parents), she died in 1939, having never recovered from the stroke that forced her retirement two years earlier.