Photo of Mary Jean Wright

Mary Jean Wright





Training Location(s):

PhD, University of Toronto (1949)

BA, University of Western Ontario (1939)

Primary Affiliation(s):

University of Western Ontario

Psychology’s Feminist Voices Oral History Interview:

Other Media:


Mary J. Wright CPA Oral History of Psychology in Canada Interview Transcript

This interview was conducted by C. Roger Myers on April 13, 1969 and is housed in the C. Roger Myers Oral History Collection, Canadian Psychological Association Archives, National Archives of Canada (CPA Archives, MG 29 I 161).


Mary J. Wright Centre

Career Focus:

Educational psychology; developmental psychology.


Mary J. Wright was born in 1915 in Strathroy, Ontario. She began her studies at the University of Western Ontario in 1935. Knowing that she did not want to be a schoolteacher, yet determined to take courses in subjects in which she had excelled during high school, Wright decided to enroll in English and History. However, having also heard that the developing field of psychology was becoming very interesting, she decided to take some extra courses in that as well. By the end of the year, she was so enamored with the subject matter that she got permission to enter the Honours program in philosophy and psychology.

After earning her B.A. in 1939, Wright transitioned directly into her graduate studies at the University of Toronto. She began by working as a research assistant for Edward Bott in experimental psychology. However, it was Bill Blatz who supervised her thesis. At the time, she was interested in the developmental underpinnings of schizophrenia. She successfully defended her MA, and chose to leave the University of Toronto in search of a job. However, by this point, WWII had begun, and she was unable to find a position. She returned to the Institute for Child Study at the University of Toronto and began taking courses that were more specifically focused on children. At the time of her return, she still did not intend to complete a Ph.D.

It was only after the war that she decided to complete her Ph.D. By 1945, she was already an instructor at the Institute for Child Study. However, in 1946, she was offered a position as an assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario. So, she took the position, and completed her Ph.D. while working there. For her dissertation, which was supervised by Bill Line, Wright looked at the effect of advancement classes for gifted students. In order to analyze her data, she had to teach herself statistics. Despite expecting to fail her oral exam because of her poor grasp of statistics, she passed in 1949. Wright later recalled that "Now that's the kind of education you got at Toronto. You got a Ph.D. if you had any initiative and enterprise and determination on your own. That was just about it" (Oral History of Psychology in Canada, p. 49).

In 1959, Wright became first female director of the Canadian Psychological Association. Nine years later, she became the first woman President of that organization. During that time, Wright also became the first woman to be chair of a major psychology department in Canada, serving from 1960-1970. She recalled that this opportunity arose because the psychology department was a low priority for the administration at the time; they didn't appreciate the importance of what they had done by appointing her. Wright broke further ground for women in psychology by becoming the first Honorary President of the Canadian Psychological Association in 1975.

Having made several attempts at opening a preschool at Western, she was finally successful in 1972. In 1973, Wright officially established the University Laboratory School at the University of Western Ontario. At a time when the value of preschool education was being questioned in the United States because of the Head Start program, Wright pioneered the University of Western Ontario Preschool Project, which was directly aimed at children from low-income families. The purpose of the school was to do child research and teaching demonstrations for the psychology department. The school was also used to try out experimental teaching methods. The philosophy of the school was guided by the work of Bill Blatz, Lawrence Kohlberg, and Jean Piaget, among others. Wright insisted that her staff work under the following principles: 1) that children actively interact with their environment; 2) children learn more effectively by 'doing'; 3) children are problem-solvers that seek stimulation and environmental exploration; and 4) children's behavior is both guided by and constrained by cognitive factors specific to their developmental stage. She served as its director until 1980, when she retired. In 1983, Wright published a book outlining the design and principles behind the lab school, as well as a summary of the research.

Following her retirement, Wright was professor emerita at the University of Western Ontario. In 2001, she established an endowment to support the lab school. It is still running successfully, following the principles laid out by Wright and her team. The History and Philosophy of Psychology section of the Canadian Psychological Association has also established a student award in her honour. Wright passed away on April 23rd, 2014.

by Laura Ball (2010)

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works

By Mary J. Wright

Wright, M. J. (1974). CPA: The first ten years. Canadian Psychologist, 15(2), 112-131.

Wright, M. J. (1980). Measuring the social competence of preschool children. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 12(1), 17-32.

Wright, M. J. & Myers, C. R. (Eds.).(1982). History of academic psychology in Canada. Toronto: Hogrefe.

Wright, M. J., & High, F. (1983). Compensatory education in preschool: A Canadian approach. The University of Western Ontario preschool project. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.

About Mary J. Wright

Gul, P., Korosteliov, A.,Caplan, L., Ball, L. C., Bazar, J. L., Rodkey, E. N., Sheese, K., Young, J., & Rutherford, A. (2013). Reconstructing the experiences of first generation women in Canadian psychology. Canadian Psychology, 54, 94-104.

Keates, J., & Stam, H. J. (2009). The "disadvantaged psychological scene": Educational experiences of women in early Canadian psychology. Canadian Psychology, 50(4), 273-282.

Wright, M. J. (1983). Mary J. Wright. In A. N. O'Connell & N. Felipe Russo (Eds.), Models of achievement: Reflections of eminent women in psychology (pp. 250-265). New York: Columbia University Press.

Wright, M. J. (1992). Women groundbreakers in Canadian psychology: World War II and its aftermath. Canadian Psychology, 33(4), 675-682.

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