Celestia Susannah Parrish (1853 - 1918)

by Roger K. Thomas, PhD, The University of Georgia
Pioneering Psychologist, Native Virginian and “Georgia's Greatest Woman”

Celestia Susannah Parrish was born Sept. 12, 1853, daughter of a plantation owner in Pittsylvania County, Virginia.  She was orphaned at age 10, along with her younger brother and sister, and when she was 15 her guardian uncle died.  She then began teaching in a small rural school to support herself and her sister.  Her early teaching experiences were utter failures, but she persevered with “… the desperation of a drowning woman” (Parrish, 1925, p. 2).  Fortunately, she read Page's Theory and Practice of Teaching which she described as being, “A baptism of the Holy Spirit, for from that time I devoted the best of my energies to my profession….” (Parrish, 1925, p. 2).

Education and Early Career

Parrish’s life was dedicated to education, beginning with a struggle for her own, and ending in significant contributions in the states of Virginia and Georgia.  Her teaching reputation grew quickly, and she accepted a position in Danville, Virginia, enabling both her and her sister to attend Roanoke Female College (Averett College today).  In 1880, she attended Virginia’s first "summer normal” — a six-week course for public school teachers.  Later, Parrish became a student and, after six months, a teacher in the newly established State Normal School of Virginia (now Longwood University) where she was given charge of the mathematics department.

In 1893, Parrish accepted the chair in mathematics at Randolph-Macon Woman's College (R-MWC) in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she was also responsible for philosophy, pedagogy and psychology.  To learn psychology, she enrolled in the summer session at Cornell, remaining until the beginning of the fall session to study with Edward Bradford Titchener.  Parrish asked Titchener for correspondence work, and after his initial refusal, she wrote him: “You must help me.  A man who sits down to the rich feasts which are spread before you has no right to deny a few crumbs to a poor starveling like me” (Parrish,1925, p. 3).  Titchener relented, and she wrote that he gave her “... the most generous assistance then, and afterwards became my very kind friend” (Parrish, 1925, p. 3). 

With a full semester and a summer at Cornell, a year at the University of Michigan, and other credits earned by examination at Cornell and elsewhere, two obstacles to earning a Cornell degree remained: a residency requirement and proficiency in Latin.  In eight weeks, Parrish earned 80 percent on an examination used to assess six months of Latin at Cornell.  Learning that the summer session would not apply towards her degree, she pleaded her case with the president of the university who was willing to accept her appeal provided she successfully petitioned each member of the Cornell faculty.  A few weeks later, back at R-MWC, she received a telegram.  Her fingers trembled too much to open it.  Finally, she read it, "Petition Granted" (Parrish, 1925).

Published accounts of Parrish’s educational record are inconsistent. Furumoto and Scarborough (1986; Table 1) reported that Parrish “had no graduate study.”  However, in an American Journal of Psychology article (Parrish, 1896-97), “A.B., A.M.” are listed after her name.  Most sources show her Cornell degree as Ph.B. (not A.B.), including sources where Parrish likely provided the information (e.g., American Men of Science, 1906).  Other sources show graduate study, (e.g., Bell, 1973) but Parrish (1896-1897) appears to be the only source indicating an A.M. degree.

In 1902, Parrish resigned from R-MWC to accept a position as director of the Practice School and chair of Psychology and Pedagogy at the State Normal School of Georgia in Athens (Thomas, 2005).  In 1911, she accepted a position as State Supervisor of Schools, giving her responsibility for 2,400 rural schools and more than 3,800 teachers in Georgia’s 48 mountainous counties (Strickland, 1971).

Accomplishments in Psychology

Parrish's work with Titchener resulted in two publications (Parrish, 1895; 1896-97); among her research subjects were Dr. and Mrs. Titchener.  Her association with Titchener also led her to establish a laboratory at R-MWC which has been designated the first psychology laboratory in the south (Rowe & Murray, 1979).  In 1938, the “Parrish Laboratories of Psychology” were dedicated at R-MWC (Peak, 1939).  Zeigler (1949) reported that Parrish established a well-equipped laboratory at the State Normal School in Athens in 1902.  She also taught Child Psychology during the summer at the University of Georgia, and there is evidence that she helped establish the first psychological laboratory there (Thomas, 2005).  Parrish was among the 22 women psychologists included in the first edition (1906) of American Men of Science (Furomoto & Scarborough, 1986), and she was a charter member of the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology (Report of the Secretary, 1905). 

Accomplishments as an Educator

In addition to accomplishments already noted, Strickland (1971, p. 19) reported that Parrish “impressed...George Foster Peabody, who provided $10,000 dollars for a building to house experimental classrooms.”  This building — Muscogee Elementary School — came to be known informally as the "Practice School," the first in Georgia. 

After she became a State Supervisor of Schools in 1911, Parrish moved to Clayton, Georgia, and “…managed to visit every county [48 counties] annually, traveling by rail, buggy, and wagon.” (Strickland, 1971,  p. 19). The average teacher had a fourth grade education, and most of Parrish's efforts involved teaching the teachers.  She also conducted a “...relentless, and sometimes unpopular campaign...” to persuade local politicians and leaders to provide better financial support for the schools (Strickland, 1971, p. 19). 

Parrish died September 7, 1918, and is buried in Clayton, Georgia. The Georgia legislature adjourned in Atlanta to attend her funeral.  Parrish's grave monument bears the epitaph “Georgia's Greatest Woman,” a tribute bestowed upon her by Georgia State Superintendent of Schools, M. L. Britain (Glass, 1941).    


Bell, W. (1973). Preface. Survey of Atlanta public schools by Miss C. S. Parrish of the State School Department. Atlanta: Atlanta Public Schools.

Furomoto, L., & Scarborough, E. (1986). Placing women in the history of psychology: The first American women psychologists. American Psychologist, 41, 35-42.

Glass, M. (1941).  Tribute to a pioneer teacher: Celeste Parrish. Pamphlet prepared for The Delta Kappa Gamma Socity, Iota State Organization, Danville, Virginia, April 26, 1941. (Provided to this author courtesy of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College Archives and Dr. Laurel Furumoto)

Parrish, C. S. (1895). The cutaneous estimation of open and filled space. American Journal of Psychology, 6, 514-522.

Parrish, C. S. (1896-97). Localisation of cutaneous impressions by arm movement without pressure upon the skin. American Journal of Psychology, 8, 250-267.

Parrish, C. S. (1925). My experience in self-culture. (Pamphlet published by J. O. Martin, State School Supervisor). Atlanta: State Department of Education.

Peak, H. (1939). The Parrish laboratories of psychology as Randolph-Macon Woman's College. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 24, 551-553.

Report of the Secretary. (1905). Proceedings of the first annual meeting of the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology, Baltimore, MD., and Philadelphia, PA., December 27 and 28, 1904. Psychological Bulletin, 2, 72-80.

Rowe, F. B., & Murray, F. S. (1979). A note on the Titchener influence on the first psychology laboratory in the south. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences,15, 282-284.

Strickland, C. (1971). Celestia Susannah Parrish. In E. T. James, J. W. James, & P. S. Boyer (Eds.). Notable American women 1607-1950: A biographical dictionary. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Thomas, R. K. (2005).  Celestia Susannah Parrish (1853 - 1918): Pioneering Psychologist, Native Virginian, and "Georgia's Greatest Woman."  [Online] Available: http://www.arches.uga.edu/~rkthomas/Parrish.htm

Zeigler, M. (1949). Growth and development of psychology at the University of Georgia. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 75, 51-59.