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«NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS VOLUME XXV TWELFTH MEMOIR BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIR OF MARGARET FLOY ...»

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NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES

OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS

VOLUME XXV TWELFTH MEMOIR

BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIR

OF

MARGARET FLOY WASHBURN

1871-1939

BY

ROBERT S. WOODWORTH

PRESENTED TO THE ACADEMY AT THE AUTUMN MEETING, 1948

MARGARET FLOY WASHBURN

1871-1939 BY ROBERT S. WO0DW0RTH The Harlem district of New York City, in 1871, still, had the characteristics of a roomy residential suburb. "Both sides of 125th Street from Fifth Avenue to the Hudson River were occupied by white-painted frame mansions set in gardens." A house near Fifth Avenue stood in a large garden, part of a tract of several acres which had been acquired about 1800 by Michael Floy. This English-born great-grandfather of Margaret Floy Washburn was the last of her ancestors to arrive in this country, the others—Dutch, Flemish, English, Welsh, Scottish—having previously settled in New York, Maryland, Virginia and Connecticut. Michael Floy built up in Harlem a profitable business as florist and nurseryman. Others of her ancestors and senior relatives were druggists, teachers, clergymen, and one woman physician. Literary and musical tastes were shown by many in this large family group, though not professionally.

Dr. Washburn looked back with affection on her Harlem birthplace and childhood home. "It seems to me that my intellectual life began with my fifth birthday. I remember a few moments when I was walking in the garden; I felt that I had now reached an age of some importance, and the thought was agreeable. Thinking about myself was so new an experience that I have never forgotten the moment." Her father was in business at this time but a little later became an Episcopal minister serving parishes upstate in Walden and Kingston.

He was a man of intellectual tastes but uncertain temper. Her mother's nature, she said privately, was perfectly balanced with natural strength and sweetness of character, a fine mind and musical talent. Her own early schooling was anything but regular. She learned to read at home at an early age and read a great deal, "enjoying the blessed privilege of an only child to be undisturbed when at leisure." She attended small private schools for three or four years, and a public school for a year 27 s

NATIONAL ACADEMY BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS VOL. XXV

or more before entering high school at the age of twelve.

She entered Vassar College at the age of sixteen. Her love for literature she continued to foster by private reading, while her intensive college work was in chemistry, biology, and philosophy. She graduated from Vassar in 1891.

"At the end of my senior year I had two dominant intellectual interests, science and philosophy. They seemed to be combined in what I heard of the wonderful new science of experimental psychology. Learning of the psychological laboratory just established at Columbia by Dr. Cattell, who had come... from the fountain-head, the Leipzig laboratory, I determined to be his pupil.... But Columbia had never admitted a woman graduate student: the most I could hope for was to be tolerated as a 'hearer.'... Dr. Cattell treated me as a regular student and required of me all that he required of the men.... At the end of the year... he advised me to apply for a graduate scholarship at... Cornell. I feel an affectionate gratitude to him, as my first teacher, which in these later years I have courage to express; in earlier times I stood too much in awe of him. While I was thus being initiated into Cattell's objective version of the Leipzig doctrine, the influence of William James's Principles was strong.... I went in the fall of 1892 to Cornell, where Titchener had just arrived from Oxford and Leipzig." * During her first year at Cornell she was Titchener's only major graduate student. The second year she was joined by Walter B. Pillsbury. Titchener, while ably representing Wundt's introspective experimental psychology, had not yet worked out his own rigidly "structural" or "existential" point of view, to which indeed these two earliest students of his never subscribed though they fully believed in the value of introspective methods. Pillsbury (2) "remembers Miss Washburn well from the Cornell period.... She was a brilliant conversationalist, inclined to be rather acid in her comments on men and things. Her keen sense of humor was fully developed at this time.... Titchener had not formulated his structuralism.

... His main aim was to establish psychology as a science.

... When the more rigid system developed, Miss Washburn This and the other quotations so far are from Dr. Washburn's autobiography (1932).

MARGARET FLOY WASHBURN WOODWORTH

showed a lack of sympathy with the more extreme tenets."

Her research in both the Columbia and the Cornell laboratories was devoted to the perception of distances and directions on the skin, with an added original emphasis on the part played by visualization in these cutaneous perceptions. Her dissertation on this problem had the honor (at the time a distinct honor) of being accepted by Wundt for publication along with the output of his own laboratory (1895). Her studies at Cornell were in philosophy as well as psychology, and on obtaining the Ph.D. degree in 1894 she "gladly accepted the Chair of Psychology, Philosophy, and Ethics (not to mention Logic)" at Wells College, where she remained six years. With two additional years back at Cornell as "warden" of a students' residence hall and (incidentally) lecturer on social and animal psychology, she passed in all ten years in the neighborhood, making much use of the Cornell laboratories and libraries, and keeping in touch with the philosophers as well as the psychologists. The position of warden with its time-consuming social functions and its responsibility for the behavior of the girl students proved to be highly uncongenial, and she was glad to obtain a position at the University of Cincinnati as assistant professor in full charge of psychology. She was still more pleased a year later, in 1903, to receive a call to a similar position at her alma mater, Vassar College, where she remained the rest of her life.





Professor Washburn was eminently successful as a teacher and administrator. She soon built up one of the strongest undergraduate departments of psychology in the country. "Her lectures were brilliant, exact, clear, with such a wealth of references and citing of original sources as almost to overwhelm a student as yet unable to appreciate the breadth of the scholarship and the painstaking labor involved in the construction of a single lecture" (8). She was not merely an ardent and thorough scientist; she was a vivid personality with great influence on her students, colleagues and fellow psychologists. "The key to her personality was a unique attitude, in which were combined a detached objective devotion to experimental science and a passionate joy of living. She practiced with keen appreciation the arts of painting, music, the theater, and the dance.

NATIONAL ACADEMY BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS VOL. XXV

Her studies of the animal mind were inspired by the quality of temperament expressed in her last words spoken in health, 'I love every living thing.' In especial, she loved and stimulated her pupils" (7). Many of her students went on to graduate study in various universities and to careers in psychology. She never attempted to develop graduate study at Vassar, since she deprecated such study for women at any but coeducational universities.

A very successful educational venture which she introduced at the beginning of her teaching at Vassar consisted in collaborating with her major students in compact and well-defined pieces of research.

"In order to give the senior students in psychology a glimpse of research methods, a few simple experimental problems were devised each year, whose results, if they worked out successfully, appeared in the American Journal of Psychology as 'Studies from the Psychological Laboratory of Vassar College.' The problem and method of a study having been determined by me, the experimenting was done by the students, who also formulated the results; the interpretation and writing of the reports fell to me and the paper was published under our joint names" (6).

Her bibliography (4, 5) contains nearly seventy of these joint papers. They are brief and to the point but many of them are substantial scientific contributions. Considered as a device for continued productive research by a busy teacher, the plan worked out very well. Though quite a variety of problems were attacked, the research as a whole cannot be called scattered, since it revolved about a few persistent problems of the major investigator.

Spatial perception by the different senses was one recurring problem in her experimental work and that of her students.

Early work of this kind on the skin sense was followed later by studies of the perception of the third dimension by the eye, with special reference to binocular rivalry and other forms of fluctuating perception. After-images were a related field of work.

Memory for hand movements and other movements in space was a topic of interest. And memory for emotional experiences

MARGARET FLOY WASIIBURN WOODWORTH

was especially interesting to her students. When a person was asked to revive as strongly as possible some past experience of fear or anger or joy, it was found that joy was more strongly and also more quickly brought back than fear or anger. "Anger is frequently felt, but... reluctantly recalled."

Experimental esthetics was one major enterprise of the Vassar laboratory. A simple but effective rating method was employed in a large variety of studies on the esthetic effect of pictures, music, colors, and speech sounds. Of the vowels, the sound of u as in mud was rated the least pleasant, while e as in get and a as in father were the most pleasant vowels though less pleasant than /, in and n. These preferences were traceable partly but not wholly to associations. More pronounced were color preferences. The pleasure of a color combination was found to be due only in part to the pleasantness of the colors individually, since two pleasant colors placed side by side might make an unpleasant impression, and even a pair of unpleasant colors might give a pleasant effect. There were many other relevant findings on fatigue, fluctuation, habituation, suggestion, and voluntary control of one's likes and dislikes. The law of "affective contrast"—that moderately pleasant colors, for example, become more pleasant when interspersed with unpleasant colors, less pleasant when interspersed with very pleasant ones—was first demonstrated in the Vassar laboratory.

The detection and measurement of individual differences constituted another major enterprise. Tests of freshmen for predicting scholarship in college were tried out and some good ones identified. A simple test for retaining spatial relationships was fairly indicative of aptitude for geometry. In the difficult field of emotional and temperamental traits Dr. Washburn did much pioneering. Was it possible by laboratory methods to distinguish the excitable from the phlegmatic individual, or the optimistic from the pessimistic? Promising leads were opened up though conditions were not favorable for the large-scale sampling required in the standardization of such tests for general use.

2/9

NATIONAL ACADEMY BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS—VOL. XXV

Finally, a few of these Vassar Studies dealt with problems of animal psychology. Color vision, i.e., the ability to distinguish between light of different wave lengths, was demonstrated in certain fishes and disproved in the rabbit. This problem is much more difficult than it seems but she was aware of the pitfalls and her conclusions have held good. Other animal studies were concerned with problems of motivation and orientation.

Her interest in animal psychology was rooted in an intense love for animals. She wished to learn as much as possible about their conscious experience and not merely about their external behavior. Admitting that no logical demonstration of conscious experience in animals was possible, she still believed it worth while to consider the nature and limitations of such experience, provided it was present at all. For example, since the rabbit shows no power of discriminating red from green, we may safely draw the negative conclusion that these color sensations are absent from this animal. Since some fishes do discriminate in their behavior between light of different wave lengths, we may safely infer that they get different sensations from the different wave lengths—provided, that is, we assume the fish to have any sensations at all. This inference is somewhat weakened, to be sure, by the absence from the fish's brain of a cerebral cortex which in man appears to be necessary for conscious experience. The more similar the anatomical structure, as well as the behavior, of an animal to man, the more confident we feel in assuming conscious experience in the animal.

"Our acquaintance with the mind of animals rests upon the same basis as our acquaintance with the mind of our fellow man ;

both are derived by inference from observed behavior. The actions of our fellow men resemble our own, and we therefore infer in them like subjective states to ours: the actions of animals resemble ours less completely, but the difference is one of degree, not of kind.... The mental processes in other minds, animal or human, cannot indeed be objectively ascertained facts ; the facts are those of human and animal behavior;

but the mental processes are as justifiable inferences as any others with which science deals.... We know not where

MARGARET FLOY WASHBURN WOODWORTH

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.



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