Dr. Mehler's Archives
May 13, 2008
Jerry Hirsch passed away on May 3. He was one of the founders of the Animal Behavior Society and the Behavior Genetics Association, and my PhD advisor.
I was a biology major in undergraduate school, and considered going to veterinary school. My father and I were breeding and training field trial beagles. My undergraduate advisor was also the department's geneticist. When she received a review copy of Ehrman and Parson's text on Behavior Genetics she passed it on to me. I was immediately taken by the subject matter and began to change my thoughts about veterinary school. I talked to a professor in the psychology department about where to get information about behavior genetics. He suggested writing to Dr. Jerry Hirsch at the University of Illinois. He had heard him speak at an American Psychological Association conference and was impressed. I labored over a letter regarding my interest in the field, and asked many questions about how to prepare, where to go, and in general probably sounded pretty naive. Jerry was on sabbatical at the time, so it was some months later that I received a reply with some helpful information and ideas. It turns out that my advisor also received a copy of that same letter with a hand scrawled note across the top: "Is he graduate school material?"
Jerry was one of the last "old time" scholars. He had a deep interest in the development and legacy of knowledge, its social and cultural impact, and the history of science. My own interest in how history influences intellectual developments was nurtured by Jerry. Somehow, I expect that he played a role in why I would co-author a history of the ASPCA, Heritage of Care. In 1967 he edited a classic book on Behavior-Genetic Analysis. That book influenced my approach to Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians and Staff that I edited with Dr. Lila Miller. I was one of his senior students when he was chosen to edit a reborn Journal of Comparative Psychology. I watched him assemble a board of editors, and helped out with reviews and other odds and ends. That experience proved invaluable when I worked with Ken Shapiro to start the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. Jerry's long shadow was very much present when I was working to find a publisher for the Journal. Lawrence Erlbaum expressed an early interest in publishing the journal, and set up a meeting for us to discuss the project. During the course of our discussion he discovered that I was one of Jerry's students, and as far as he was concerned that was a very good thing indeed. Larry Erlbaum had been with Academic Press when Jerry was the first American editor for the Animal Behavior Society's journal, Animal Behaviour. His immense respect for Jerry's intellectual rigor bought me the chance to prove my own mettle.
Most admirable about Jerry was his intellectual courage. Early in his career, he was an eloquent advocate for the role of genetic variation in the analysis of individual differences. His 1963 paper, 'Behavior Genetics and Individuality Understood: Behaviorism's conterfactual dogma blinded the behavioral sciences to the significance of meiosis' was a bold statement at a time when American Psychology was dominated by B. F. Skinner and Behaviorism. I've since used the title of that paper as an exam question, asking students to explain the concept that it addressed. When the pendulum swung back too far the other way, Jerry battled Arthur Jensen, William Schockley and others in the race-IQ wars of the late 1970s and 80s. He most certainly deserved to be elected to the National Academies of Science, but likely helped to strike his name from the list of candidates when he published "To Unfrock the Charlatans" an indictment of the National Academy and their failure to censure Schockley for academic fraud and impropriety.
Prof. Hirsch was a striking sight on campus. As faculty moved to a more casual dress code of jeans, sneakers and tweed jackets, he favored suits and bow ties. He attended graduate school at UC - Berkeley at the same time as Lee Cronbach and John Garcia. When Cronbach came to give a lecture at U. Illinois, Jerry was asked to introduce his old graduate student colleague. While telling a brief anecdote about Cronbach from those days, Jerry was playing with some change in his pants pocket and inadvertently wrapped a thread from the lining of his pocket around his finger. When he pulled his hand from his pocket, the pocket turned out, and a handful of change flew across the front of the lecture room. I was sitting in the upper row of the room with several other graduate students, and we were treated to the sight of two great leaders in the field of Psychology, on their hands and knees, scuttling after the coins as they rolled around the front of the room.
In the end, one of Prof. Hirsch's greatest gifts was his own appreciation of individual differences. He gathered a diverse and eclectic group of graduate students to his laboratory, and allowed each of us to develop in our own way. I came to graduate school a small town boy, and was quite overwhelmed by the size of the U. Illinois campus, and my world famous advisor. During my first semester I was student in Jerry's Behavior-Genetic Analysis class. We were supposed to put a nickname or other code on our exam booklets so that our TA, Tim Tully at that time, could grade them anonymously. I spent most of grade school, high school and college known as "Zowie"and that was the name I used on the exam. After grading, when the exams were being returned, Jerry would look over the grade, the name and then call out for someone to receive their just reward, or glower of disapproval. For some reason, Zowie seemed to dumbfound him and he lingered over the name before calling it out. As I raised my hand for my booklet, he stared, looked at the name, stared again at me, repeated "Zowie" and from that moment on, the name stuck for him, and me. He would roll across the hall in his chair between our offices calling for "Zowie, where is this or that." Several years after I had finished, and on the faculty at St. John's University, Jerry asked me to speak as part of a symposium he was organizing for the Psychonomic Society meeting. It was a great opportunity for me, and he certainly knew that it would be a nice addition to my tenure application. We had a good sized audience for that session, and I think that most of them were pretty surprised when I was introduced as "Zowie."
Jerry was patient and demanding. He provided an environment of intellectual rigor, and expected his students to challenge themselves and each other. Lab seminars were free-wheeling affairs where anything and everything could be discussed and considered - provided you were able to present the data to support your position.
When the ASPCA acquired the Animal Poison Control Center from the U. of Illinois I would arrange to have lunch with Jerry when I was in Urbana. He was slowed greatly over the years, but there were times, when the conversation touched on a controversial topic where he cared deeply, his eyes would light up with the familiar flicker, and his great bushy, Gandalfian eyebrows would arch up in interest. That is the memory that I will retain.
Stephen Zawistowski, PhD, CAAB
Executive Vice President