by Sara Carnicom, Cathy Faye and David Baker, Center for the History of Psychology, The University of Akron

By the end of the 19th century, 41 psychological laboratories had been established in the United States (Benjamin, 2000). One of those laboratories, established in 1892 at Trenton State Normal College in New Jersey, was founded by a relatively unknown woman: Leslie (Lillie) A. Williams (1854-1923).  Williams was born in 1854 in Pennsylvania and graduated from the New Jersey State Normal School in Trenton in 1871 (Bauerle, 2003).  Williams was a good student, receiving the Best in Class award for physiology, natural history and rhetoric (“Normal School Awards,” 1871). Upon graduation she joined the faculty at the New Jersey State Normal School, and remained there until her retirement in 1916.  Williams initially taught English, history and rhetoric (Chaffin & Gruenfeld, 1997). Although the first recognized psychology teacher was Harriet Matthews, Williams was named the head of the newly formed psychology department in 1891.

Williams founded the Trenton psychology laboratory in the same year that Brown University and Yale University opened their laboratories (Chaffin & Gruenfeld, 1997).  She was the second woman to open such a facility in the United States, after Mary Whiton Calkins who had established her laboratory at Wellesley College in 1891.  She was the first person to do so in the state of New Jersey. Research in her laboratory reflected the common interests of this period, and included studies of consciousness, sensation, and perception.

Williams’ teaching reflected the emphasis placed on child study in the early 20th century, a multidisciplinary field devoted to gathering extensive information about children and their development. A course description from her courses Psychology 1 and 2 from 1901 reads:

The development of the child, connecting constantly the physical with the mental. Personal observation of children by the students, supplemented by reminiscences of their own childhood and by reading the many valuable studies of children made by specialists in recent years. Special study of the instincts and impulses of the child, care being taken to connect these with his stage of growth and to point out how often these are evanescent. The characteristics of childish attention; remembering, thinking. Constant application of the facts discovered to the work of teaching.  (Bauerle, 2003, p. 5)

In her pedagogical approach, students were instructed to draw on their experiences from childhood and use their lives as examples. She believed that this inspired excitement for the subject and made it easier for students to learn (Williams, 1896/1991). She was also known for the daily “reproduction” that took place at each class. She ensured that her students would take meaningful notes by starting each class by calling on one nervous student to fully recount the previous day’s lecture. (Chaffin & Gruenfeld, 1997).

Williams contributed to the child study movement in a rather unique way: she and her students collected large amounts of questionnaire data for G. Stanley Hall and other child development psychologists. In his study of children’s fears, Hall (1897) indicated that much of the data had been collected by Williams and praised her approach, noting that “Miss Williams has developed the most effective of all methods for collecting valuable returns to questionnaires” (p. 150). Williams also used the data collection as a pedagogical tool; students were instructed on how to start with simple observations and successfully elicit memories of their childhoods in the course of data collection (Williams, 1896/1991).

In addition to her research and teaching, Williams was highly involved in her community. She was a charter member of the Contemporary Club, the first women’s club in New Jersey (Bauerle, 2003). She was also active in the New Jersey Congress of Mothers’ Clubs (“All-Day Mothers,” 1919), the Trenton Suffrage Association (“Lambertville Suffrage,” 1914), the New Jersey Division of the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense (“Elect Defense,” 1918), and the State Association for the Study of Children and Youth. Williams gave multiple lectures in the United States and Europe, including a lecture on “The New Psychology in Normal Schools” at the International Congress of Education meeting in Chicago in 1893  (National Education Association of the United States, 1894).

When Lillie Williams died in 1923, the class of 1899 of the New Jersey State Normal School had a commemoration in her name and purchased psychology books for the library inscribed “Lille A. Williams Psychology Collection.” The New Jersey State Board of Education named a residence hall after her, Williams House (Bauerle, 2003).  Though it has not been widely recognized, Williams’ contributions to early psychology were substantial. Her establishment of a laboratory, her contributions to child study research, and her development and delivery of the early psychology curriculum both reflected and shaped the landscape of psychological science and practice at the turn-of-the last century.


All-day session of mothers here (1919, March 27). Trenton Evening Times. Retrieved from

Bauerle, S. L. (2003). Lillie A. Williams: A quintessential pioneer for psychological advancement and social change (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). The College of New Jersey, Ewing, NJ. Retrieved from

Benjamin, L. T. Jr. (2000). The psychology laboratory at the turn of the 20th century. American Psychologist, 55, 318-321.

Chaffin, R., & Gruenfeld, K.E. (1997). Leslie (Lillie) A. Williams: Founder of an early psychological laboratory for teaching.  Psychology of Women. Retrieved from

Elect defense heads tomorrow (1918, May 9). Trenton Evening Times. Retrieved from

Hall, G. S. (1897). A study of fears. The American Journal of Psychology, 8, 2.    

Lambertville to have suffrage war. (1914, February 1). Trenton Evening News. Retrieved from

National Education Association of the United States. (1894). Proceedings of the International Congress on Education of the World’s Columbian Expedition. Retrieved from

Normal school awards of merit. (1871, January 26). Trenton State Gazette. Retrieved from

Williams, L. A. (1991). How to collect data for studies in genetic psychology. The Journal of Genetic Psychology: Research and Theory on Human Development, 152. Retrieved from (Reprint of original 1891 article)