Mary Wright, visionary educator and pioneering female academic, dies at 98

Mary J. Wright, visionary educator, advocate for children and pioneering female academic, died April 24. She was 98.

Tributes to this “den mother to a generation of psychologists” have been flowing in since the news became public.

“Dr. Wright was a trail-blazer whose remarkable career was entirely dedicated to the advancement of education and the development of children,” said Western President Amit Chakma. “I had the privilege of getting to know Mary personally and was profoundly impressed by the power of her intellect, energy and compassion. She remained a proud alumna and a productive scholar throughout her lifetime, and her countless contributions to Western leave behind a legacy that will benefit others for generations to come.”

Wright, BA’39, LLD’82, was born in Strathroy, Ont., in 1915.

In 1935, she began her studies at Western. Knowing she did not want to be a school teacher, Wright enroled in English and History, but eventually was drawn to the honours program in Philosophy and Psychology. After earning her BA in 1939, Wright pursued her PhD at the University of Toronto where she worked as a research assistant for legendary psychologist Edward Bott. Pediatrician and psychologist Bill Blatz, founder of the St. George’s School for Child Study, supervised her thesis.

During the Second World War, Wright spent three years in bomb-ravaged Birmingham, England, training women in the psychological care of young children. The school included a demonstration child care centre that, being located in the core area of that large industrialized city, served working-class families living under difficult wartime conditions.

“Many of the children who were enroled were underprivileged, and some were undisciplined and hostile,” Wright told Western News in 2001. “The changes in the intellectual functioning of these children that the school brought about, and the transformation in their behavior and attitudes as they began to trust us, made a deep impression on me.”

After the war, she completed her PhD at Toronto. In 1946, Western offered her a position as an assistant professor. She remained at the institution until 1980.

Wright was a pioneering female academic. In 1960, she was appointed chair of the Department of Psychology, the first woman to chair a major academic department at Western, and the first woman to chair a major psychology department in Canada. Wright also served as the first woman president of the Canadian Psychology Association. The Mary J. Wright Psychology Centre at Huron University College also pays tribute to her contributions to the field.

“Mary was a remarkable person in so many ways,” said Brian Timney, Social Science dean. “She served as a pioneer in the days when academia was almost exclusively a male enterprise, serving in many roles as the first woman in that role. In her typical style, she claimed that the opportunity to become our chair arose because the Psychology department was such a low priority for the administration at that time that they didn’t appreciate the importance of what they had done by making the appointment.

“As chair, she was largely responsible for laying the foundation for the research-intensive, prominent department Psychology has become.”

In 1973, Wright officially established the University Laboratory School at Western.

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 conduct child research and teaching demonstrations for the Department of Psychology. The school was also used to try out experimental teaching methods.

“The preschool years are the right time to start focusing on the education of our children because it prevents so many problems later on,” Wright told Western News in 2001. “Western’s preschool represents the crowning achievement of my career.”

She served as the school’s 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.

In 2001, the innovative laboratory preschool was renamed the Mary J.Wright University Lab School in honour of her work and a $500,000 donation she made to Campaign Western.

Western awarded Wright an honorary degree in 1982. During her convocation address, she spoke of the importance of leadership on the world stage.

“Man has fouled his own nest by applying new technologies without considering the consequences,” she told Western’s 237th convocation. “Clearly, men and women with their new technical knowhow are like children who play with dangerous toys – they truly are endangered unless they can grow up to their new responsibilities.”

Wright told graduates that day their degree was not a “passport to more privilege,” but a “preparation for service to society.”

“We must assume responsibilities as world citizens which have not been thrust on previous generations. We can no longer afford to indulge our ignorance of the ideologies, values and ways of life in any other nation,” she said. “We must try to understand unfamiliar ways of perceiving and solving problems of human rights, economic equality and political equality and we must start to appreciate the goals of other countries even when they conflict with our own.”

In addition to her work as a child psychologist, Wright has been an avid student of the history of psychology, writing and co-editing with C. Roger Myers, the seminal work History of Academic Psychology in Canada, in 1982. In recognition of her impact on this field as well, the history and philosophy of psychology section of CPA established a student award in her honour.

In addition to her work at Western, Wright was a strong advocate for her home town. The Wright Foundation supported several organizations in Strathroy. In 2013, a new elementary school in Strathroy was named the Mary Wright Public School, in recognition of the internationally respected child psychologist’s lifelong work for the benefit and education of children.

Wright was born the daughter of Ernest J. and Mary J. Wright of Strathroy. She was the sister of brothers Clark and Bill Wright,  both of Strathroy; Ernest J.R. Wright, London; and Donald J. Wright, Toronto, after which the Don Wright Faculty of Music is named. She is survived by nieces, nephews, two generations of their children and many dear friends and colleagues.

A tree will be planted as a living memorial to Wright at a future date.

Laura Ball and Adela Talbot contributed to this report.