Celestia (Celeste) Susannah Parrish (September 12, 1853 - September 7, 1918) was an American educator, psychologist, and social advocate. She is famous for her promotion of higher education for women and progressive education for children. She established the first psychology laboratory in "the south," at the Randolph-Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. Her work both as teacher and administrator raised the standard of education by improving training for teachers, particularly in rural schools.
She was among the rare women who taught university level classes at a time when women were not yet allowed to be formally admitted as students at many American universities. Her work greatly advanced the opportunities for education for women in the US, giving inspiration to numerous educators who followed in her footsteps.
Celestia Susannah Parrish was born on September 12, 1853, in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, the daughter of a plantation owner. As a child she showed enormous thirst for knowledge, and her parents tried to provide an education for their daughter. She received basic education in the private school on her father’s plantation.
Parrish lost both parents in the Civil War, and at the age of 10, together with her younger siblings, went on to live with her uncle, who disapproved of education for girls. She thus turned to self-education, reading the books in her aunts’ library. From 1865-1867 she attended a private school in Callands, Virginia.
At the age of 15, Parrish’s uncle died and she was forced to start to think how to provide for her family. She at first formed a small class of neighboring children and taught them basic skills and knowledge. This attracted the attention of Dr. George Dame, Superintendent of Schools in Pittsylvania County, who offered her a teaching job in the county public school in Swansonville, Virginia.
At the age of 18, although lacking a formal education, Parrish became a full-time teacher. Among her pupils was Claude A. Swanson, governor-to-be of Virginia.
These were difficult years for the young woman, as she struggled to overcome her inexperience in teaching and her daily duties toward her younger siblings. She also managed to continue to study on her own, reading books during the night. The single volume that inspired her the most and that seems to have given direction to her career was Theory and practice of teaching by David P. Page (1847).
Parrish spent five years, from 1971-1875, in Swansonville, after which she moved to teach in a larger public school in Danville, Virginia. She taught there from 1876-1884. At the same time she attended Roanoke Female College (today Averett University), where she graduated in 1878.
Parrish had an enormous thirst for knowledge and a great desire toward excellence. She would memorize long passages from the Bible and other books on natural sciences and history. Her goal was to become the best teacher she could, all in service to her pupils. She also took private classes in music, voice, and in elocution, and lessons in calisthenics.
In 1884, Parrish enrolled as a student to the newly established State Normal School in Farmville (now Longwood University), Virginia. After six months she joined the school’s faculty, and was given charge of its mathematics department.
In 1890, at the age of 38, Parrish became a student at the University of Michigan, where she specialized in mathematics and astronomy. In 1893, she was offered the chair in mathematics at the newly established Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. She was also responsible for the philosophy department, including its sections on pedagogy and psychology. Since she knew nothing about psychology, she decided to enroll in summer classes at Cornell University. Her work at Cornell eventually qualified her to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1896.
At Cornell University, Parrish became a student of Edward Bradford Titchener, and eventually worked with him on several studies. In 1895 they published an article "The Cutaneous Estimation of Open and Filled Space" that appeared in the January 1895 issue of the American Journal of Psychology. The work in the laboratory inspired Parrish to open her own laboratory at the Randolph-Macon Women's College, which was the first psychology laboratory in that part of the United States.
Parrish published her second article in the American Journal of Psychology, entitled "Localization of cutaneous impressions by arm movement without pressure upon the skin." Under her directorship, the psychology lab expanded and numerous experiments were conducted there.
In 1902, Parrish accepted a faculty position at the State Normal School of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. About the same time she adopted a child and took over the care of her two nephews, her brother’s sons.
At the State Normal School of Georgia, Parrish taught psychology and was in charge of the psychological laboratory, which she established in 1902. The money for the lab was provided by George Peabody. She also taught summer school courses at the University of Georgia, mostly classes on child psychology. It is of note that Parrish taught at the University of Georgia before women were allowed to enroll as students. It was only in 1911 that women were formally admitted.
In 1911, Parrish left the State Normal School and accepted the position of State Supervisor of Schools in Georgia, a position she kept until her death in 1918. As supervisor, she was responsible for more than 2,400 rural schools and more than 3,800 teachers. Since the average rural teacher at the time had only a few years of formal education, Parrish spent considerable time and effort to further the teachers’ education. She worked hard, visiting teachers in every county on regular basis and spending time in their training. She also campaigned among local politicians and leaders to provide more money for the schools.
Celestia Parrish died in Clayton, Georgia, on September 7, 1918. She was buried at Clayton Baptist Church cemetery. Speaking at her funeral, M. L. Brittain, State Superintendent of Schools, said, “She was Georgia's greatest woman.”
Celestia Parrish was a noted educator and pioneering psychologist, who above all wanted to provide the best education possible to her pupils, and later, fellow teachers. She was among the rare women who taught university level classes at a time when women were not yet allowed to be formally admitted as students at many American universities. Her work advanced general education in the US, giving inspiration to numerous educators who followed in her footsteps. The monument on her grave bears the epitaph "Georgia's Greatest Woman."
Parrish was among the 22 women in psychology who were included in the first edition (1906) of American Men of Science.
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