Margaret Floy Washburn

Margaret Floy Washburn
Margaret Floy Washburn
Born July 25, 1871(1871-07-25)
New York, New York, U.S.
Died October 29, 1939(1939-10-29) (aged 68)
Poughkeepsie, New York, U.S.

Margaret Floy Washburn[1] (July 25, 1871 – October 29, 1939), leading American psychologist in the early 20th century, was best known for her experimental work in animal behavior and motor theory development. She was the first woman to be granted a PhD in psychology (1894).



Born July 25, 1871 in New York City, she was raised in Harlem by her father, Francis, an Episcopal priest, and her mother, Elizabeth Floy, who came from a prosperous New York family. She was an only child, entered school at age 7 and at age 9 moved to Ulster county, New York when her father was placed in a parish there. She graduated from high school in June 1886, at age fifteen, and that fall she entered Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, as a preparatory student. She there became a member of Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority for women and graduated in 1891. She became determined to study under James McKeen Cattell in the newly established psychological laboratory at Columbia University. As Columbia had not yet admitted a woman graduate student, she was admitted only as an "auditor." She did well and Cattell encouraged her to enter the newly organized Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University, which she did in 1892.

At Cornell, she studied under E. B. Titchener, his first and only major graduate student at that time. She conducted an experimental study of the methods of equivalences in tactual perception and earned her Master's degree in absentia from Vassar College in 1893 for that work. She did her doctor's thesis on the influence of visual imagery on judgements of tactual distance and direction. This work was sent by Titchener to Wilhelm Wundt and published in Philosophische Studien (1895). In 1894, she became the first woman to receive a PhD in psychology as Mary Calkins was denied her PhD because she was a woman, and was elected to the newly established American Psychological Association.

She then took teaching posts, in turn, at Wells College, Cornell’s Sage College, and University of Cincinnati. At Cincinnati, she was the only woman on the faculty. In 1903, she returned to Vassar College as Associate Professor of Philosophy, where she remained until 1937 when a stroke necessitated her retirement (as Emeritus Professor of Psychology). She never fully recovered and died at her home in Poughkeepsie, New York on October 29, 1939. She never married, choosing instead to devote herself to her career and the care of her parents.

Professional career

Washburn was a major figure in psychology in the United States in the first decades of the 20th century, substantially adding to the development of psychology as a science and a scholarly profession. Washburn used her experimental studies in animal behavior and cognition to present her idea that mental (not just behavioral) events are legitimate and important psychological areas for study in her book, The Animal Mind (1908). This, of course, went against the established doctrine in academic psychology that the mental was not observable and therefore not appropriate for serious scientific investigation.

Besides her experimental work, she read widely and drew on French and German experiments of higher mental processes stating they were intertwined with tentative physical movements. She viewed consciousness as an epiphenomenon of excitation and inhibition of motor discharge. She presented a complete motor theory in Movement and Mental Imagery (1916). During the 1920s she continued to amass experimental data from around the world to buttress her argument. She remained anchored in behaviorist tenets but continued to argue for the mind in this process. She took ideas from all major schools of thought in psychology, behaviorism, structuralism, functionalism, and Gestalt psychology, but rejected the more speculative theories of psychodynamics as being too ephemeral. In current psychology research, echoes of Washburn's insistence that behavior is part of thinking can be seen in dynamic systems approach that Thelen and Smith (1994) use to explain the development of cognition in humans.

Washburn's published writings span thirty-five years and include some 127 articles on many topics including spatial perception, memory, experimental aesthetics, individual differences, animal psychology, emotion and affective consciousness. At various times in her career, she was an editor for the American Journal of Psychology, Psychological Bulletin, Journal of Animal Behavior, Psychological Review, and Journal of Comparative Psychology. She was the president of the American Psychological Association in 1921, an honorific title at that time. She was the first woman psychologist and the second woman scientist to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1932.


  • O'Connell, A. G., & Russo, N. F. (Eds.). (1990). Women in psychology: A bio-bibliographic source book. West Port, CN: Greenwood Press, Inc.
  • Scarborough, E. & Furumoto, L. (1987). Untold lives: The first generation of American women psychologists. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Thelen, E., & Smith, L. B. (1994). A dynamic systems approach to the development of cognition and action. Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books/MIT Press
  • Washburn, M. F. (1908). The animal mind: A textbook of comparative psychology. New York: Macmillan.
  • Washburn, M. F. (1916). Movement and mental imagery: Outlines of a motor theory of the complexer mental processes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Washburn, M. F. (1932). Some recollection. In C. Murchison (Ed.), A history of psychology in autobiography (Vol. 2, pp. 333–358). Worcester, MA: Clark University Press.


^ Mary Floy Washburn is not a partner in the famed Cannon-Washburn experiment (where a balloon is swallowed and then inflated to determine the effect of stomach size on the hunger drive). This was erroneously indicated in Haggbloom, S., et al. (2002). The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Review of General Psychology, 6, 139-152. The correct personage, A. L. Washburn, was a graduate student of W. B. Cannon, who together published, in 1912, An explanation of hunger, American Journal of Physiology, 29, 441-454. This error was uncovered by Black, S. L. (2003). Cannonical [sic] confusions, an illusory allusion, and more: a critique of Haggbloom, et al.'s list of eminent psychologists (2002). Psychological Reports, 92, 853-857.

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