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date: 25 September 2020

Shinn, Milicent Washburnfree

(15 April 1858–13 August 1940)
  • Elizabeth Scarborough

Shinn, Milicent Washburn (15 April 1858–13 August 1940), writer, editor, and psychologist, was born in Niles, California, the daughter of James Shinn and Lucy Ellen Clark, who operated a farm and tree nursery. Following high school graduation in 1874 she enrolled at the University of California and, after taking a leave of absence to acquire necessary funds by public school teaching, received her A.B. in 1880.

Shinn’s early career, devoted to literature and publishing, began while she was in college on the editorial staff of the San Francisco Commercial Herald (1879–1881). She then contributed both poetry and prose to the magazine Californian and assumed the post of editor in 1883 after acquiring copyright to revive for its use the title Overland Monthly, a name that had earned much national respect before the demise of the publication several years earlier. A contemporary who succeeded her as editor, Charles S. Greene, attested that the publication “had in Miss Shinn editorial ability of the highest sort” (Overland Monthly, Sept. 1902). Operating with quite limited financial resources, Shinn carried a heavy responsibility for business affairs and production as well as for the magazine’s literary content, much of which she wrote. Both as writer and editor, she thereby played an influential role in promoting the development of literature in the West. Shinn’s motivation was to use the magazine as a means of elevating the intellectual life of her region, in her words “the possible germ of much civilization” (1882 letter to Daniel Coit Gilman, cited in Scarborough and Furumoto, p. 56).

A family event occasioned Shinn’s shift in career from literature to psychology and formed the basis of work that won her international recognition in the field of child psychology. In 1890 she was living with her extended family on the homestead in Niles when a daughter was born to her brother Charles and his wife, Julia. Fascinated by the baby, Shinn took meticulous notes on her growth, paying special attention to the development of her senses and motor activities, and thereby produced a large mass of data chronicling the emergence of the child’s physical and mental abilities. She was invited to present her observations of the infant’s first two years at an international conference on education held in conjunction with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Shinn’s work was enthusiastically received and regarded as complementing William Preyer’s observational study of his son, first published in Germany in 1882 and translated as The Mind of the Child (1888–1889). She was urged to continue her observations and undertake graduate study at the University of California. She resigned as editor of the Overland Monthly in 1894, returned to the Berkeley campus, and pursued a rich course of study that resulted in her becoming the first woman and eleventh person to receive the doctorate from California when she graduated in 1898.

Shinn’s doctoral dissertation consisted of observations based on her niece’s development (which she continued to record through the child’s seventh year) and the conclusions she drew for pedagogical applications. Her work was published in three installments by the university under the title Notes on the Development of a Child, and in 1900 it was published as The Biography of a Baby, a popular version that was widely used by parents and students. Shinn’s pioneering study became a classic in the field of child psychology and a model of systematic observational research. She and Preyer are typically credited with setting the standard for this type of child study, and her book continues to be cited in infant and child development literature.

The Biography of a Baby traced the child’s first year, recording and interpreting behaviors as they emerged and changed month by month. A quotation from the sixth month provides an example of both observation and explanation and demonstrates how Shinn made her scientific work accessible to a general audience:

Our baby, for instance, first used her intelligence to steer her toe into her mouth, and the way she did it, compared with the way she slowly settled on the proper movements for getting her rattle into her mouth, shows clearly the practical difference between unintelligent and intelligent action, even if both are at bottom made of the same psychological stuff… . Of all a baby’s doings this toe business is the one that people find it most impossible to regard with scientific seriousness. But its indirect usefulness is considerable. The cooperation of different parts of the body that it teaches is remarkable; and it must have great influence in extending the sense of self to the legs and feet, where it has hitherto seemed but weakly developed. (pp. 164–66)

Despite the thoroughness of her training and the significance of her professional contributions, Shinn’s career in psychology was short-lived. She never held employment as a psychologist and apparently never sought a professional position following her doctoral training. Her decision to pursue graduate studies was based not on a desire to become a psychologist but rather on the belief that her observational project had merit and that its publication would benefit both the University of California and the work of educators. The close family ties that provided the opportunity for her data gathering, however, also prevented her from continuing the scholarly pursuits she so enjoyed. Following the receipt of her doctorate at age forty, she found it necessary to turn her energies to retiring a heavy mortgage on her parents’ ranch. Her ailing mother, for whom Shinn felt a special responsibility as the only daughter, also needed much attention. Though she maintained contact with friends and colleagues through correspondence, she had to keep “constant vigilance” over her mother in the family home where she also provided tutoring for a younger brother’s children. By her mid-fifties she had developed a disabling heart condition that increasingly curtailed her activities until her death in either Niles or Alameda County, California.

Energetic until her health failed, Shinn was active in a number of national and regional societies. She promoted the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (now the American Association of University Women) by organizing a branch in California and heading a national committee on child development from 1895 to 1909. She supported woman suffrage, the League of Nations, the eugenics movement, a local anti-saloon organization, and the Save-the-Redwoods League.

Shinn’s obligations as a daughter, sister, and aunt anchored her in the homestead where she lived all her life. Nevertheless, during the 1880s and 1890s she engaged in an interval of professional and scholarly involvement that produced a highly significant intellectual legacy.


Shinn’s papers are in the California Historical Society, Sacramento, and the Mary Lea Shane Archives of the Lick Observatory, Santa Cruz. A detailed account of her personal life is in Elizabeth Scarborough and Laurel Furumoto, Untold Lives: The First Generation of American Women Psychologists (1987). An obituary is in the New York Times, 15 Aug. 1940.