Mary Whiton Calkins was the eldest of five children of a Presbyterian minister and his wife, and spent her early childhood in Buffalo, New York. The family then moved to Newton, Massachusetts, where she lived the rest of her life. In 1882, she went to Smith College to study classics and philosophy. After graduation, she obtained a post as a Greek tutor at all-female Wellesley College. Soon afterwards, she was offered a position teaching the new science of psychology, with the stipulation that she do further study in the subject. She was permitted to study at Clark University and at Harvard University, although not officially recognized as a student at either school because they did not admit women. She returned to Wellesley in 1891, and began teaching psychology. Working with Dr. Edmund Sanford of Clark, she established the first experimental psychology laboratory at a women's college. She was allowed to continue her studies and rsearch at Harvard, although still not as a registered student. Despite the fact that she completed all the requirements for the Ph.D. at Harvard and was unanimously recommended by the members of her thesis committee, which included William James, Josiah Royce, and Hugo Munsterberg, the Harvard authorities refused to grant her a doctorate due to her gender.
She returned to Wellesley and a 42-year career of teaching, research, publishing, and service to the academic community. In 1895, she was made associate professor of Psychology and Philosophy and was promoted to professor in 1898. Most of her work focused on memory, but she spent many years seeking to define the idea of the self. She wrote hundreds of papers published in professional journals of psychology and philosophy, and wrote four books, including An Introduction to Psychology (1901), The Persistent Problems of Philosophy (1907), and The Good Man and the Good (1918). In 1902, she was offered a Ph.D. degree from Radcliffe College, along with two other women who also had been excluded by Harvard -- but she declined. Prof. Calkins was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1905, and president of the American Philosophical Association in 1918. She was also the first woman elected to honorary membership in the British Psychological Association. Her achievements also brought her many other honors, including an honorary degree from Columbia University. She retired from Wellesley in 1929 with the title of Research Professor.