Milicent Shinn’s Baby Biography

Millicent ShinnCognitive Daily‘s “History Week” continues with an item on some interesting but little-known work on child development from 1900 entitled The Biography of a Baby. The author, Milicent Shinn had earned a PhD at the University of California, and her book, was “one of the most thorough scientific accounts of a baby’s cognitive and physical development in its time.” Eric W. Codak notes that Shinn published intermediate reports prior to the book, including an article in Proceedings of the International Congress of Education (1893). (See also Scarborough, E, & Furumoto, L. (1987) Untold lives: The first generation of the American women psychologists. New York: Columbia University Press.)

Although Shinn’s Biography may have been the first book-length treatment of the topic, there had been earlier articles detailing the physical, intellectual, and moral development of children. Charles Darwin‘s “A Biographical Sketch of an Infant” was published in Mind in 1877. And its publication was prompted by a similar account by Hippolyte Taine in Revue Philosophique the year before. In the US, G. Stanley Hall had launched the “child study” movement in the early 1880s and founded the Pedagogical Seminary (later Journal of Genetic Psychology) to publish such work in 1893. Also, James Mark Baldwin, at U. Toronto and then Princeton U., published a number of articles and books on developmental psychology in the 1890s, starting with case studies of the development of his two daughters. Baldwin’s stage-wise approach to development would later be picked up and elaborated by the famed Swiss theorist, Jean Piaget.

The Cognitive Daily item on Shinn concludes that:

After Shinn completed her Ph.D. and published The Biography of a Baby in 1900, she returned to caring for her parents and her brother’s children, never returning to a career in academe, even though this did appear to be an option that was open to her, even at that early date in the history of women’s rights.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

One thought on “Milicent Shinn’s Baby Biography

  1. [I have slightly edited this informative response from C. James Goodwin of Western Carolina U. and, with his permission, posted it here as a comment.]

    Shinn was first cousins with the famed early Clark U. psychologist, E. C. Sanford (who had previously been a student of G. Stanley Hall’s at Johns Hopkins U.). Sanford’s mother was June Clark (Sanford). Her sister, Lucy Clark (Shinn) was the mother of Millicent Shinn. As you have probably discovered, Shinn edited the Overland Monthly, a literary magazine, from 1883-1891. During that time, Sanford published several poems there and the quality of them suggests that the family connection was in play. More importantly, he also published, in the Overland Monthly in 1887, an article called “The Writings of Laura Bridgman.” It is prefaced by a one-page note from Hall, who was controlling Sanford’s Johns Hopkins U. graduate school life at the time. In the note Hall says, in effect, that he had been planning to write such a paper, didn’t have time, and gave it to Sanford to do. You probably already know that Laura Bridgman was the nineteenth century version of Helen Keller. After she died, her brain was preserved and examined by Donaldson, while he was still at Clark (AJP, 1892, 4(4), 503-513.

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