Jerry Hirsch (1922-2008)
by Barry Mehler
May 13, 2008
Jerry Hirsch, more than any other mentor, teacher or rebbe, made my career and in important ways established foundations of thought and behavior, which shaped my character in fundamental ways.
I first met Jerry in the summer of 1981. I was on the tail end of my second two year grant from the National Science Foundation to study eugenics. I wasn't sure what I was going to do next, but passing through Champaign-Urbana one Sunday, I gave Jerry a call on the chance he might be home and available for a cup of coffee. I was familiar with his work and had sent him a few reprints of my early work. We had corresponded a few times and had mutual friends. Fortunately for me, he answered the phone and we met at a local diner to have coffee and chat.
It soon became apparent to him that I hadn't finished my Ph.D. He thought I was a professor at Washington University. The reality was that I had been a graduate student in the history department and had applied with Garland Allen for an NSF grant to study eugenics. I was going to write my dissertation with the NSF grant, but after a series of conflicts with the department, I was given the boot. But the NSF grant came through and I was back on campus the next year (1977) with NSF funding, now a research associate for Gar Allen in the Biology Department.
When Jerry realized that I hadn't completed my Ph.D. his tone changed and he began speaking to me as a mentor instead of a colleague. "You have to finish your Ph.D.," he insisted. I have a program here that can fund you. Go see Chip Burkhardt, the chair of the History Department and apply for their graduate program. Tell him I will put you in the Institutional Racism Program. It seemed absurd to me. It was already the end of July! But when I spoke with Chip, it turned out he had gone to Harvard with Gar and just disregarded all the deadline dates that had passed. I applied and was admitted, in what must be some kind of record because by the third week in August I was moving to Champaign.
Jerry was not an easy man to work with. He never hid his annoyances, neither with his graduate students or with his colleagues. It got him into a lot of trouble. Long before I had arrived, Jerry had already become a critic of Raymond B. Cattell when he was the star of the Psychology Department and Jerry was a junior member of the department. He criticized Arthur Jensen, William Shockley and many others. But he also criticized his graduate students and showed real annoyance when he felt they were being sloppy. He was very demanding and many of his students -- students that he supported through his grants -- resented him for it. I know, there were times I found myself exasperated. But I always reminded myself that he was supporting me and that I owed him my gratitude, not my resentment. The worst moment came after my six hour written exam in behavior-genetic analysis. He went through the hand written essays with meticulous thoroughness and raked me over the coals, genuinely angry that after all the years he had been drumming this stuff into my head, I could still miss this point and that point. I thought he was going to fail me and I went home furious.
But, of course, he passed me and served on my dissertation committee. After I had completed the degree, I had no job again. I was back where I started in August, still now knowing where I was going and desperately looking for jobs wherever I could find them. In the end, I was offered a one year renewable position as an adjunct professor of history at Ferris and again I was on the move in August. This time, from Champaign to Big Rapids.
Jerry called and said he wanted to come up and see where I had landed. I told him I would arrange for him to give a seminar and a public presentation. When I told Mary Murnik, the geneticist in our biology department, she was delighted and excited. She was very familiar with Jerry's fly work -- she herself had worked with flies and she drummed up the necessary excitement -- Jerry Hirsch, one of the founders of behavior genetics and an internationally renown scientist was coming to Ferris. And I introduced him to a gathering of professors along with the President of the University who had heard that some famous guy was coming and he wanted to be in on it.
When Jerry left, he told me that he was satisfied. "They are already treating you like a tenured faculty member." he said, "This will work out." And so it did.
Later still Jerry invited me to join him in Washington, D.C. to work on an analysis of NCAA policies that were alleged to be racist. Indeed, we found that the policies systematically discriminated against women and minorities and Congresswoman Cardis Collins used our findings to argue for change.
Then in 1996, Jerry invited me to join him in writing for a special issue of Genetica, dedicated to genetics and racism. I was going to write an essay on Raymond B. Cattell and his Beyondist theology. I had started the project in 1987, but laid it aside. Jerry kept pestering me to finish the manuscript and he was becoming very insistent. I finally asked him when the absolute latest date was that I could turn it in and he replied with great annoyance, "two weeks ago! Everyone else is done. I'm waiting for your paper." So, I finished it. It was published in August 1997 and shortly after it's publication, the American Psychological Association announced they were going to honor Dr. Cattell with their most prestigious award -- the Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement.
I had written in the abstract to my article:
"Beyondism," is a neo-fascist contrivance. Cattell now promulgates ideas that he first formulated within a demimonde of radical eugenists and neo-fascists -- It is unconscionable for scholars to permit these ideas to go unchallenged, and indeed honored and emulated by a new generation of ideologues and academicians whose work helps to dignify the most destructive political ideas of the twentieth century.
I posted the article and supporting materials on my web site and rest is history -- a year long controversy that will be detailed in a forthcoming book, "The Cattell Controversy," by William Tucker.
At each major turn in my career, Jerry was there to encourage me and to insist on honesty. That is his legacy for me. Jerry stood for integrity and honesty in the pursuit of truth. This was not a man to fudge data. But he also was not a man who ever backed down when he thought others were making absurd claims that could not be justified by rigorous scientific method. He never claimed an a priori belief in racial equality. All he claimed was that the science justifying racial differences in intelligence simply did not exist. He was not fighting for minority rights. He was fighting for the triumph of truth over lies.