Margaret Floy Washburn: Biography of this experimental psychologist

Margaret Floy Washburn (1871-1939) was the first woman to receive official recognition for her doctorate in psychology from Cornell University, and was also the second female president of the American Psychological Association (APA).

His studies were pioneering, still little known, in experimental psychology applied in particular to the mental processes of animals and humans. She is also one of the first representatives of the struggles for equity of opportunity for women in higher education.

In this article you will find a biography of Margaret Floy Washburn, As well as some of her major contributions to psychology and some of the elements that generated significant obstacles to women’s participation and scientific development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

    Margaret Floy Washburn: Biography of a Pioneer in Psychology

    Margaret Floy Washburn was born on July 25, 1871 in New York City. It developed in a context where education was provided in spaces reserved for men, and spaces reserved for women were also gradually opening up.

    Washburn he studied philosophy and science at Vassar College and later pursued graduate studies with James McKeen Cattell, who had opened a psychology lab at Columbia University. Although in this context women were not allowed to participate in the laboratories, Margaret Floy Washburn was admitted as an “auditor”.

    A year after working with Cattell, Washburn decided to study at Cornell University alongside British psychologist Edward B. Titchener, because here he seemed to have more opportunities to get an official psychologist degree. This is how she became Titchener’s first doctoral student and the first woman to officially obtain a doctorate in psychology, In the year 1894.

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

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

      Society of Psychologists and the First Generation of Women

      Edward B. Titchener had some disagreements with the psychology that the APA supported at the time, so he decided to found the first alternative society of experimental psychologists. Titchener categorically refused to accept women as part of his society, Among other things because he deemed it inappropriate for them to be present in the smoking room; because in addition, the APA was already open to scientists.

      In this context, Washburn had distanced herself from Titchener and had become critical of her reductionist approaches to the mind, but she was already among the first generation of prestigious women in experimental psychology. In fact, in 1921 she was named president of the American Psychological Association, Become the second woman to hold this position (the first was Mary Whiton Calkins).

      After Titchner passed away, the Society of Experimental Psychologists was reorganized and, for the first time, two women were admitted as members of the group: June Etta Downey and Margaret Floy Washburn. In 1931 Washburn even had the annual meetings of psychologists organized at Vassar College, the women’s college to which she was attached. In the same year, she became the second woman elected member of the prestigious National Academic of Science.

      Main works and books

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

      From his animal studies, Washburn argue that it is motor excitement that prepares you for future actions. In other words, higher mental processes, such as thinking 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 directly affects the body).

      Some of his major works are The Animal Mind, from 1908, which has been recognized as one of the pioneering studies in animal cognition, as well as one of the research that has matured the field of experimental psychology and standardize definitions and vocabulary.

      Another of his major works is Movement and Mental Imagery of 1917, where he developed his theory of consciousness in an important way. It is in the latter that Washburn succeeded in integrating the experimental method of introspection with an emphasis on motor processes.

      Bibliographical references:

      • American Psychological Association (2018). Margaret Floy Washburn, PhD. 1921 President of the APA. Accessed June 19, 2018.Available at
      • García Dauder, S. (2005). Psychology and feminism. Forgotten history of pioneering women in psychology. Madrid: Narcée.
      • Rodkey, I. (2010). Margaret Floy Washburn. Feminist Voices of Psychology. Accessed June 19, 2018.Available at

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