Margaret Floy Washburn

When studying the history of psychology, mostly men were responsible for the creation and formulation of psychology. There were; however, several women who made a substantial impact on the development of psychology. Margaret Floy Washburn was one of these outstanding women who, despite the gender bias and sexist times, proved herself worthy of being among the great. Her background, theoretical perspective, and contributions to the field of psychology combined to open doors for all those who would come after her. Washburn’s journey began when she was only a young child and developed throughout her life.

Background of Margaret Floy Washburn

Margaret Washburn was born in a time when women were not allowed to show any type of power, higher reasoning, or comprehension of higher education. At the young age of only five, Washburn began to realize her path in life with the new found acknowledgement of self and living beings in the environment (Woodworth, 1948, p. 3). Her mother was a peaceful woman who was caring and understanding. Her father seemed to be a hard man who had very little education, yet was a successful business man. He would encourage Washburn to go after her goals, no matter what the situation may have been. As an only child, Washburn kept herself busy with reading and enjoying the gardens where she lived in Harlem, New York (Woodworth, 1948, p. 3). Washburn’s studies mainly consisted of home academics and a few years in privately owned and public schools until she entered high school at the very young age of 12 (Woodworth, 1948, p. 4). Her youth did not stop Washburn from moving forward with her education. At the ripe young age of 16, Margaret Washburn entered Vassar College and graduated in 1891 with two main interests, which were science and philosophy (Woodworth, 1948, p. 4).

Vassar College

Her interests in science and philosophy led Washburn on a path to study at Columbia University under Dr. James McKeen Cattell and in the year 1892 entered Cornell (Woodworth, 1948, p. 4). Margaret Washburn’s studies at both Columbia and Cornell focused on the “perception of distances and directions on the skin, with an added original emphasis on the part played by visualization in these cutaneous [sic] perceptions” (Woodworth, 1948, p. 5). Her dissertation made such an impact that Wilhelm Wundt, known as the father of psychology, accepted the work, put it together with the research from his laboratory, and made it available for publication in 1895 (Woodworth, 1948, p. 5). As the years passed, Washburn continued her studies and became the first woman to ever earn a PH. D. in psychology. After earning her degree, Margaret Washburn accepted many high-end positions as Chair of Psychology, warden of students, and head of psychology. In the year 1903, she accepted a position as assistant professor at Vassar College, where she remained for the duration of her life (Woodworth, 1948, p. 5). In the year 1921, Washburn was accepted as the second women to serve as president of the American Psychological Association president (Scarborough, 2010, para. 1). Throughout her life time, Washburn entertained many theoretical perspectives.

Theoretical Perspectives of Margaret Washburn


One of the more substantial theories that Margaret Floy Washburn had was on the idea of dualism between motor development and mental activity. Washburn believed that there was a connection to the sensation and the perception of the mind and the body. She explained this theory as with heat and the color red. Washburn theorized that the sight of the color red or the feeling of warmth was not an alarming sensation as to cause a physical reaction; however, the feeling of heat or burning would cause the subject to react to the sensation (Woodworth, 1948, p. 9). The behaviorists, at the time, were trying to disprove the dualism theory because it was said that it had no bearing on scientific studies; however, Margaret Washburn believed that the reaction and the sensation were real and were important in the eyes of science (Woodworth, 1948, p. 9). Washburn’s theory of dualism gave way to rewards, honorary degrees, and helped validate women’s perspectives in a time that did not acknowledge the likes of the intellectual minds of women (Rodkey, 2010, Biography, para. 4). Another of Washburn’s theoretical perspectives was one that had a great impact on modern and contemporary psychology.

Margaret Washburn’s Contributions to the Field of Psychology

Margaret Washburn’s major contribution to the field of psychology was the theory of comparative psychology. According to Goodwin (2008), comparative psychology is “the systematic study of similarities and differences among all animal species” (p. 147). In 1908, Washburn published The Animal Mind: A Textbook of Comparative Psychology. Washburn extensively researched hundreds of animal behaviors and the cognitive functions of the animals. She related experimental research of her own with the findings of other scientists and psychologists to formulate a connection to the minds and cognitive functions of animals to that of humans.

Washburn believed that consciousness was in every living thing on Earth, including humans. According to Washburn (2010), in Margaret Floy Washburn’s own words on page 37 of The Animal Mind, she states that

We know not where consciousness begins in the animal world. We know where it surely resides in ourselves; we know where it exists beyond a reasonable doubt- in those animals of structure resembling ours which rapidly adapt themselves to the lessons of experience. Beyond this point, for all we know, it may exist in simpler and simpler forms until we reach the very lowest of living beings (para. 7)


It was Washburn’s belief that if enough animals and insects were carefully studied the actions, reactions, and deductive reasoning would be found. Many psychologists who came after Margaret Floy Washburn tried to discount the relation of cognitive function of sublevel animals to humans by arguing that humans were superior to animals no matter the size or shape, but failed to do so. Washburn made it clear that the cognitive function of all living creatures had some bearing on the way that the human mind functioned. Margaret Washburn held to the belief that the consciousness was apparent in all living creatures and that the consciousness of humans could be evaluated with the study and research of different types of animals and insects. Thus, she opened the door for future psychologists and behaviorists to further study the concept of comparative psychology. Although Margaret Washburn’s theory of comparative psychology made such an impact, Charles Darwin was also completing his findings of comparisons from species to species and also played a part in giving credit to Washburn’s theory of comparative psychology. Darwin is accredited with the discovery of the theory of evolution because of the comparative studies he conducted on various animals across the world. By the turn of the 20th century, another psychologist named Donald Griffin gave interest to Margaret Washburn’s theory of comparative psychology. Griffin held the position that animal mentality be a focus of scientific study (Scarborough, 2010, The Decay of Behaviorism, para. 4). Along with Washburn’s and Griffin’s beliefs of animal mentality, an ethologist named Marian Dawkins also had the belief that mainly mammals and birds exhibit the same mentality and cognitive function as humans; thereby, further establishing Margaret Washburn’s theory of the animal mind as relative to scientific study (Scarborough, 2010, The Decay of Behaviorism, para. 4). Margaret Washburn’s contributions and theories have, thus provided an avenue of psychological studies that were never before possible.


Many people have played significant roles in the formulation of contemporary and modern psychology, but none more so that Margaret Floy Washburn. Dualism of the mind and body was studied by many of the psychologists who came after Washburn. Many more were intrigued by Washburn’s theory of comparative psychology. Although several scientists and psychologists attempted to discredit Washburn for the comparative theory, others have picked up the preverbal torch and began to study the methods and research that Washburn herself spent many hours of dedication. The concepts of modern and contemporary psychology are, and have always been, based on what history held. Great minds such as Washburn, Darwin, and Cattell stood up for what they believed in and pursued through education and research so that many others in their stead could expand the knowledge base.


Goodwin, C.J. (2008). A history of modern psychology (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Rodkey, E. (2010). Profile of Margaret Floy Washburn. In A. Rutherford (Ed.), Psychology’s Feminist Voices Multimedia Internet Archive. Retrieved from

Scarborough, Ph. D., E. (2010). Understanding the animal mind. Retrieved from

Washburn, D.A. (2010). The animal mind at 100. The Psychological Record, 60, 369-376. Doi: 72511341.

Woodworth, R. S. (1948). Biographical memoir of Margaret Floy Washburn 1871-1939. Retrieved from

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Image source for Margaret AZQuotes. (n.d.). Margaret Floy Washburn Quotes. Retrieved from

Image source for Vassar College: America’s Library. (n.d.). The New Nation (1790-1828). Retrieved from

Margaret Floy Washburn