Ruth Winifred Howard was one of the first African American women to complete a doctorate in a psychology-related field, graduating from the University of Minnesota (U of M) Institute of Child Development (ICD), then known as the Institute for Child Welfare, with a PhD in 1934.
Born in 1900 in Washington, D.C., Dr. Howard was the eighth and youngest child of Reverend William J. Howard and Alverda Brown Howard. Her father was a minister at Zion Baptist Church from 1886-1925, a position that inspired Dr. Howard to pursue a career working with people.
After graduating high school, Dr. Howard enrolled at Simmons College in Boston, where she studied social work. She graduated in 1921 and moved to Cleveland, where she worked with the Cleveland Urban League and later the Cleveland Child Welfare Agency. According to the American Psychological Association, “[s]he recognized the importance of participating in community planning, often meeting with families, representatives from schools and clinics, to help children in foster care and to support women who were unemployed and undereducated.”
While working in social services, she observed a lack of understanding and empathy within child welfare agencies for the needs of diverse communities, which she believed was a barrier to successfully serving children and families in those communities. Driven by a desire to understand and address these gaps in cultural humility, Dr. Howard decided to study psychology.
She began her graduate studies at Columbia University’s Teachers College and School of Social Work in 1929, with the support of a Laura Spelman Rockefeller Fellowship for Parent Education, and transferred to the University of Minnesota in 1930. During her time at ICD, she was mentored by Associate Professor Florence Goodenough and studied under the Institute’s then-director John E. Anderson.
Her dissertation, A Developmental Study of Triplets was the first of its kind and examined the developmental history of 229 sets of triplets who ranged in age from infants to 79 years old. Her work was eventually published in the Journal of Psychology in 1946 and the Journal of Genetic Psychology in 1947.
Following her graduation from the University of Minnesota in 1934, Dr. Howard married psychologist Albert Sidney Beckham and moved to Chicago, where she completed an internship at the Illinois Institute of Juvenile Research, which prepared her for her eventual clinical career working with children and adolescents.
In 1940, Dr. Howard and her husband launched the Center for Psychological Services, a clinical psychology-based private practice. In addition to her private practice, Dr. Howard was also active in numerous professional and community-based organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the International Council of Women Psychologists, and the Young Women’s Christian Association. She also helped to organize the National Association of College Women.
After her husband died in 1964, Dr. Howard continued in private practice, consulted for programs at the Abraham Lincoln Center, and served as psychologist for various organizations in Chicago, including the Chicago Board of Health, Mental Health Division. Dr. Howard passed away in February 1997 in Washington, D.C.
Video created and originally posted by the University of Akron Cummings
Center for the History of Psychology. Used with permission.
In honor of Dr. Howard and her legacy, ICD has established the Dr. Ruth Winifred Howard Diversity Scholars fund. The fund offers support for ICD PhD students from underrepresented groups who are experiencing significant financial hardship, any ICD PhD student who wishes to pursue diversity-related professional development or research initiatives, or any ICD PhD student who wishes to develop student-led diversity initiatives, organize departmental educational workshops, or engage in outreach projects with diverse communities.
To learn more about the Dr. Ruth Winifred Howard Diversity Scholars fund or how to apply, please contact Lindsey Jendraszak, ICD associate director for curriculum and student services.