Florence Richardson Robinson (1885-1936)

by David Devonis, PhD, Jared Froese, Gracland University*

Biography of Florence Richardson Robinson

Florence Ella Richardson was born July 3, 1885 in Hiawatha in northeastern Kansas.  By age 14 she was teaching school in Lincoln, Nebraska, and by 17 she obtained a BA from University of Nebraska.  After graduation, she became a principal in the Lincoln schools and simultaneously pursued graduate work at Nebraska.  She arrived at the University of Chicago in 1905 and became one of James Angell’s many protegés.  Her 1908 dissertation on sensory control in the white rat bore the theoretical stamp of John B. Watson, and was published the following year in Psychological Monographs. After spending the summer of 1908 in Wurzburg, she began a professional career at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. By 1910 she had advanced to full professor and for 8 more years she taught 4 courses a semester, lectured in Des Moines and Iowa City on psychological subjects including animal behavior, habit and the relation of psychology and spirituality; and was housemother to the Iota Alpha Omega sorority.  As a measure of respect, students dedicated the 1918 Drake yearbook, The Quax, to Richardson.  She left Drake in 1918, returning to the University of Chicago first as a Lecturer and then, in 1920, as Assistant Professor in the school of Commerce and Administration, a position she held until 1921.  She was succeeded by Arthur Kornhauser, then at the beginning of his long career in industrial/organizational psychology.

In 1921 she married Edward Stevens Robinson, another Chicago student, 8 years her junior and one of the rising stars of American Psychology in the 1920’s. They became collaborators of several publications, including in 1923, a significant introductory text, Readings in General Psychology. Warmly received, it went into a second edition in 1929 and was a prototype for the multiple-author, multiple-edition introductory texts that now dominate the field.  After Edward moved to Yale in 1926 and became APA Treasurer and editor of the Psychological Bulletin, Florence was his assistant, acknowledged and respected by all who came in contact with her.  She first appeared in Who’s Who in America in 1920 at the age of 35, much more quickly than many women contemporaries in psychology.

Given her eminence, it might be imagined that Robinson’s life would be celebrated in the historical accounts of women’s early achievements in psychology.  But in fact, after her sudden death on December 3, 1936 in New Haven from complications of a staphylococcus infection, and after her husband’s death not 3 months later in a freak accident while crossing a street at Yale, the Robinsons  vanished into historical oblivion.

Robinson could be cited as an example of how far accident determines whose lives are preserved in history and whose are forgotten, but her political activism is the reason that she should be recalled.  In 1926, after moving to New Haven with Edward, she joined the New Haven chapter of the Connecticut League of Women Voters.  She rose rapidly to leadership in the state and national organization of the League, became chair of the state League’s Committee on Women and Industry in 1931,was appointed to the League’s National Committee on Women and Industry and its National Board in 1933.  In 1935 she became president and board chair of the Connecticut League of Women Voters.  In 1932, she was instrumental in making the resources of the League available to Edward, who conducted a pioneering study of the effects of League-sponsored informative radio broadcasts on voting preferences.  Her activities with the League, especially her sponsorship of a 1931 conference in New Haven on problems of economics and employment affecting women in industry, brought her to the attention of Connecticut Governor Wilbur Cross, who appointed her to the Connecticut Minimum Wage Advisory Board, and the Council for the Federal-State Employment Service.  She was a politically active psychologist-citizen who stepped across the divide between academic theory and legislative reality.  Her influence in this sphere extended to psychology through Edward, who acknowledged her assistance in Law and the Lawyers (1935), an important step toward modern legal psychology.  She should be remembered as an effective contributor to a politically responsive and socially responsible psychology.

Bibliographic note:  Material on Florence Richardson Robinson is scant and scattered.  Obituaries considering only her psychological career appeared in the Psychological Bulletin (1937, 34, 178) and the American Journal of Psychology (by John McGeoch, 1937, 49, 321).  Her New York Times obituary (Dec. 4, 1936, 25) mentions aspects of both her academic and civic activities.  Thanks to Laura Koppes, Deborah Rowe,  and Brian Smith for helpful criticism of earlier drafts.


* Originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, Volume 27, Number 4, Fall, 2000.  Appearing with permission of the authors.