Ruth Winifred Howard (1900-1997)
by Ann L. Saltzman, Drew University*
Biography of Ruth Winifred Howard
The name of Ruth Winifred Howard is one we should all know. Earning her place in history as the first African American woman to complete a doctorate in psychology, Ruth Howard had a long career that encompassed social work, nursing education, and developmental and clinical psychology. Imbued from childhood with an appreciation of cultural diversity and respect for all people, Howard was well prepared to “serve the needs of thickly populated communities of differing cultural and economic strata,” as she described her work at the Abraham Lincoln Center in Chicago (Howard, 1983, p.63). It is sad, then to report that almost nothing has been written about this pioneering psychologist.
Ruth Winifred, born in 1900, was the eighth and youngest child of the Reverend and Mrs. William James Howard of Washington, D.C. During her father’s tenure as minister at the Zion Baptist Church (1886-1925), the congregation reached its pinnacle of influence and prestige, bringing many people through the church doors. As Ruth was to write years later, her father’s position in the community and his attitude toward others shaped her desire to work with people. Thus, she enrolled in the social work division at Simmons College, Boston where she was exposed to many ideas which stayed with her throughout her professional career, most notable were the need to support women and the need to assist unemployed, undereducated, and troubled youth through community planning.
Upon graduation in 1921, Ruth Howard began social work practice through the Cleveland Urban league and soon after accepted a position with the Cleveland Child Welfare Agency where she worked with children living in dysfunctional family situations or foster homes. Her work involved meeting representatives from schools and medical and child clinics, many of whom “didn’t understand or sympathized with cultural groups other than their own. This was markedly true about Negroes for whom they had firmly fixed preconceived ideas…” (Howard, 1983, p.58). Only the chief psychologist of the Cleveland Board of Education seemed to have some understanding of the needs of the black community. This unnamed woman spurred Howard to pursue a career in psychology.
Through a Laura Spelman Rockefeller Fellowship for Parent Education, Howard studied at Columbia University’s Teachers College and School of Social Work (1929-1930) and then transferred to the University of Minnesota where she completed her doctorate in psychology in 1934. The she registered at the Institute of Child Development where almost all the students were women as was Ruth Howard’s mentor: Dr. Florence Goodenough, developer of the Draw-a-Man test. Other female role models included Dr. Mary Shirley, Dr. Edna Heidbreder, and Dr. Edith Brody. For her doctoral research, Howard studied the developmental history of 229 sets of triplets, ranging in age from early infancy up to 79 years. This work, eventually published in both the Journal of Psychology (1946) and the Journal of Genetic Psychology (1947), was the most comprehensive study of triplets of its time. It is not clear, however, why it took twelve to fifteen years for her research to be published. One possible explanation is that after graduation from the University of Minnesota, Ruth Howard married psychologist Albert Sidney Beckham, and soon after moved to Chicago.
In Chicago, Howard completed an internship at the Illinois Institute of Juvenile Research which prepared her for subsequent clinical work with children and young people. She also worked at a community hospital and state school for delinquent girls. Following her internship, she became a supervisor at the National Youth Administration and, with her husband, began a private practice. As she wrote, theirs was a “happy marriage with our profession as one of the bonds. In professional activities, as in marriage relations, we were partners” (Howard, 1983, p.63).
As Howard’s clinical practice grew, she also pursued postdoctoral studies at the University of Chicago where she studied projective techniques with Dr. Robert Havinghurst; client-centered therapy with Dr. Carl Rogers; reading therapy with Dr. Helen Robinson; and play therapy with Virginia Axline, who was just beginning to write about this new developing sub-field. In 1944, Howard published her own study of play interviews with kindergartners and fourth-graders, focusing on how these play interviews could be used to detect war attitudes.
Ruth Howard was also active in numerous professional and community organizations. She helped organize the National Association of College Women, and joined the American Psychological Association, the International Psychological Association, the International Council of Women Psychologists, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Friends of the Mentally Ill. In addition, she was a long time volunteer for the Young Women’s Christian Association and Bartelme Homes, named for Judge Mary Bartelme, the first woman judge in Chicago’s Juvenile Court who was concerned about the many girls who passed through her court.
In 1964, Ruth Howard lost her life-long partner, Albert Beckham. Remaining in Chicago, she continued in private practice; consulted for children’s programs at the Abraham Lincoln Center; served as psychologist for the McKinley Center for Retarded Children (1964-66) and the Chicago Board of Health, Mental Health Division (1968-72); and worked with Worthington and Hurst Psychological Consultants (1966-68).
According to a great-niece of Dr. Howard’s, Ms. Bertha French, her great-aunt died on February 12, 1997, in Washington, DC.
At the end of her 1983 autobiographical essay Howard paid tribute to the women psychologists who have contributed to the growth and development of psychology. She closed by stating, “I salute women psychologists as they receive recognition within their field and when they help other women attain their potential” (p.67). It is fitting, then, to close this biographical piece by saluting Ruth Winfred Howard, who rightly deserves recognition for her pioneering status, her many accomplishments, and for paving the path that generations of women have since followed.
Guthrie, R. V. (1998). Even the rat was white: A historical view of psychology (pp. 178-180). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Howard, R. W. (1944). Fantasy and play interview. Character and personality, 13, 151-165.
Howard, R. W. (1946). Intellectual and personality traits of a group of triplets. Journal of Psychology, 21, 25-36.
Howard, R. W. (1947). The developmental history of a group of triplets. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 70, 191-204.
Howard, R. W. (1983). In A. N. O’Connell & N. F. Russo (Eds.), Models of achievement: Reflections of eminent women in psychology (pp. 55-67). New York: Columbia University Press.
*Originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, Volume 28, Number 2, Spring, 2001. Appearing with permission of the author.