Women pioneers of Empirical Aesthetics (1): Lillien Jane Martin

Lillien Jane Martin (1851-1943) graduated from Vassar in 1880. She taught botany, physics, and chemistry at high schools in Indianapolis and later San Francisco. She was 43 when she resigned her position and decided to pursue psychology, a lifelong interest of hers (Fenton, 1943). She went to Göttingen in 1894, and spent four years there, even though Göttingen University did not accept women as regular students at that time. She became G. E. Müller’s assistant, and they worked together on studies on the psychophysics of lifted weights. The resulting monograph she and Müller published (Martin & Müller, 1899) is considered a classic in psychophysics (Boring, 1950; Stevens & Gardner, 1982). One of its most influential contributions to psychophysics and Oswald Külpe’s Würzburg school was the introduction of the concept of set (Einstellung) to the research on successive judgments of sensations (Merrill, 1943). Külpe would later conclude that set was one of the essential elements in thinking. 

In 1898 Martin obtained a position at Stanford with Frank Angell to form a two-person department. She was in charge of equipping and running the psychological laboratory and acted as chair during Angell’s sabbatical leaves (Stevens & Gardner, 1982). She used a combination of introspection and several psychophysical methods to investigate people’s responses to comical images taken from newspapers and magazines (Martin, 1905) and, in a thorough examination of G. T. Fechner’s principles of aesthetics, to investigate people’s liking for paintings and simple figures consisting of lines that differed in orientation, length, curvature, and thickness (Martin, 1906). She found support for some of Fechner’s aesthetic principles and for some of his conjectures, such as that information about artist and title increases liking for paintings (Martin, 1906, p. 204). But she also found evidence against some of Fechner’s principles, such as the principle of contrast: when a liked and disliked figure are presented simultaneously, instead of liking the liked one more, participants liked it less (Martin, 1906, p. 212). In all the experiments she conducted, she found remarkable differences among participants in the extent to which their responses agreed or disagreed with Fechner’s principles.

In 1915 she became the first woman to head a Stanford department, though she returned to Germany several summers to continue her studies and research with Külpe, at Würzburg (1907), Bonn (1908 and 1912), and Munich (1914). At Külpe’s request, she was awarded an honorary Ph.D. by the University of Bonn in 1913 for her contributions to psychology. The award’s citation mentioned, in addition to her contributions to the concepts and methods of psychophysics, her experimental studies of theories of aesthetics and of Fechner’s aesthetic laws (Stevens & Gardner, 1982).

When she turned 65, in 1916, she retired and was made Professor Emeritus. She kept very active in private practice. In 1920 she established a mental hygiene clinic for pre-school children, and toward the end of that decade she established a psychological clinic for the elderly (Fenton, 1943; Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987). Her goal was to transform psychological experimental work into therapeutic exercises through treatment plans. These plans included helping children and the elderly to acquire emotional control, to eliminate unhealthy images and ideas, and to build a healthy philosophy of living (Stevens & Gardner, 1982).


Boring, E. G. (1950). A history of experimental psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Fenton, N. (1943). Lillien Jane Martin, 1851-1943. Psychological Review50, 440–442.

Martin, L. J., & Müller, G. E. (1899). Zur Analyse der Unterschiedsempfindlichkeit. Experimentelle Beiträge. Leipzig: Johann Ambrosius Barth.

Martin, L. J. (1905). Psychology of Æsthetics. I. Experimental Prospecting in the Field of the ComicThe American Journal of Psychology16, 35–118.

Martin, L. J. (1906). An experimental study of Fechner’s principles of aestheticsPsychological Review, 142–219.

Merrill, M. A. (1943). Jane Martin: 1851-1943. The American Journal of Psychology56, 453–454.

Scarborough, E., & Furumoto, L. (1987). Untold lives: The first generation of american women psychologists. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Stevens, G., & Gardner, S. (1982). Contributions to the History of Psychology: XXXI. Life as an Experiment—The Long Career of Lillien Jane Martin (1851–1942). Psychological Reports51(2), 579–590.

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