There is some debate as to who was the first Black woman to obtain a Ph.D. in psychology. Some say it was Inez Beverly Prosser, who received her Ph.D. in 1933 from the University of Cincinnati. Others think it was Ruth Winifred Howard, since they consider a psychology Ph.D. to count only if it comes from a psychology program – she graduated in 1934 with a doctorate in psychology and child development from the University of Minnesota. There is no record of whether either woman cared at all about the distinction.
Ruth Winifred Howard was born in 1900 in Washington D.C. Her father was the minister at the Zion Baptist Church and was heavily involved in many community initiatives. Ruth would later say this example was what led her to desire a career helping others, and led her on the path to becoming a psychologist. That path began at Simmons College in Boston, where she majored in social work and earned a Bachelor’s Degree in 1921. It ended at the University of Minnesota, where she obtained her psychology Ph.D. 13 years later.
For her doctoral research, Dr. Howard studied triplets. Specifically, she launched the most comprehensive study ever done on triplets, studying more than 200 sets ranging in age from birth to their 70s. For reasons yet unknown, it took more than a decade for that research to be published, in 1946 in the Journal of Psychology and in 1947 in the Journal of Genetic Psychology. By then, she had married fellow psychologist Albert Sidney Beckham and moved to Chicago.
With her husband, Dr. Howard opened a private practice where she worked with children and youth, while working as a psychologist at the dated and terribly-named McKinley Center for Retarded Children. She was also the staff psychologist at the Provident Hospital School of Nursing, training Black nurses, and was a psychologist for the Chicago Board of Health until 1972.
In 1964, Ruth’s husband Albert died. She kept working for a few more years, both in private practice and with the Chicago Board of Health. Dr. Ruth Winifred Howard died in 1997, just a few days shy of her 97th birthday, having left an important legacy. More than just a pioneer, paving the way for others to follow in her footsteps, Dr. Howard’s work made a marked difference in the lives of hundreds of children in Chicago and around the world.