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Margaret Floy Washburn: biography of this experimental psychologist

Margaret Floy Washburn: biography of this experimental psychologist

November 28, 2022

Margaret Floy Washburn (1871-1939) was the first woman to obtain official recognition of the PhD degree in Psychology from Cornell University, and was also the second woman president of the APA (American Psychological Association).

His studies have been pioneers, although little known, in experimental psychology especially applied to the mental processes of animals and humans. She is also one of the first representatives of the struggles for equity of opportunities for women in higher education.

In this article you will find a biography of Margaret Floy Washburn , as well as some of its main contributions to psychology and some of the elements that generated important barriers for the participation and scientific development of women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.


  • Related article: "History of Psychology: authors and main theories"

Margaret Floy Washburn: biography of a pioneer of psychology

Margaret Floy Washburn was born on July 25, 1871 in New York City. It grew in a context where education was taught in spaces reserved for men, and little by little spaces were opened up that were also reserved for women.

Washburn he was trained in philosophy and science at Vassar College and later he did postgraduate studies with James McKeen Cattell, who had started a psychology laboratory at Columbia University. Although in this context women were not allowed to participate in the laboratories, Margaret Floy Washburn was admitted as a "listener".


A year after working with Cattell, Washburn decided to study at Cornell University along with the British psychologist Edward B. Titchener, since there seemed to have more opportunities to obtain an official degree as a psychologist. That's how she became Titchener's first PhD student and the first woman to whom the Doctorate in Psychology was officially recognized , in the year of 1894.

Washburn developed in a privileged family context from which he was able to develop an important professional career and face the context that excluded women from academic activity , at the time that demanded a life based on marriage and family.

He maintained his professional career as a priority and gained a lot of prestige both for his research and for his teaching activity. For example, he published a total of 69 experimental studies that were produced in his laboratory at Vassar College, where he also prioritized the participation of women. In the year of 1903 he was part of the list of the 50 best psychologists in America.


  • You may be interested: "Why is there still discrimination against women?"

Society of psychologists and the first generation of women

Edward B. Titchener had some disagreements with the psychology that the APA supported at that time, so he decided to found the first alternative society of experimental psychologists. Titchener had flatly refused to accept that women were part of their society , among other things because he considered it improper that they were present in the smoking room; place that, in addition, the APA had already opened for the scientists.

In this context, Washburn had distanced himself from Titchener and had become critical of his reductionist views of the mind, but he was already part of the first generation of prestigious women in experimental psychology. In fact, in the year of 1921 was named president of the American Psychological Association , becoming the second woman to occupy this position (the first was Mary Whiton Calkins).

Once Titchner had died, the Society of Experimental Psychologists reorganized, and for the first time admitted two women as members of the group: June Etta Downey and Margaret Floy Washburn. In the year of 1931, Washburn even got that the annual meetings of psychologists will be realized in Vassar College, the school of women to whom it was assigned. In the same year she became the second woman elected as a member of the prestigious National Academic of Science.

Main works and books

The main contribution of Washburn's work to psychology was the study of consciousness and mental processes in animals and later in humans . Specifically, he explored the existence of conscious processes, such as attention and learning. In addition, he emphasized the importance of motor movements for the activation and development of psychological processes, especially for learning, attention and emotion.

From his studies done with animals, Washburn He maintained that it is motor excitement that prepares for future actions . In other words, higher mental processes, such as reflection and awareness, decision-making and learning, occur from physical movements that predispose or inhibit action in the presence of distal stimuli (those that activate the sensory system). because they function as an announcement of the arrival of a proximal stimulus, which is what directly affects the organism).

Some of his main works are The Animal Mind (The animal mind), of 1908, which has been recognized as one of the pioneering studies in animal cognition, as well as one of the investigations that allowed to mature the field of experimental psychology and standardize both definitions and vocabulary.

Another of his main works is Movement and Mental Imagery (Movement and mental imagery) of 1917, which was where he developed his theory of consciousness in an important way. It is in the latter that Washburn managed to integrate the experimental method of introspection with an emphasis on motor processes.

Bibliographic references:

  • American Psychological Association (2018). Margaret Floy Washburn, PhD. 1921 APA President. Retrieved June 19, 2018. Available at //www.apa.org/about/governance/president/bio-margaret-washburn.aspx
  • García Dauder, S. (2005). Psychology and Feminism. Forgotten history of women pioneers in Psychology. Madrid: Narcea.
  • Rodkey, E. (2010). Margaret Floy Washburn. Psychology's Feminist Voices. Retrieved June 19, 2018. Available at //www.feministvoices.com/margaret-floy-washburn/

Margaret Floy Washburn & The Animal Mind (November 2022).


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