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Eminent Stanford psychology professor Gordon Bower dies

Gordon H. Bowers(Image credit: Sharon Ann Bower photograph)

Jun 26 2020

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Announcements, Faculty, In the News

A leader in the field of psychology, Bower was known both for the breadth of his research and his mentoring of graduate students.

BY SANDRA FEDER

Gordon Bower, one of the nation’s most influential experimental psychologists and learning theorists of the 20th century, died June 17. He was 87.

Bower, who was the Albert Ray Lang Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, spent his entire 49-year career at Stanford. In 2005, he was awarded the President’s National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor.

The National Science Foundation, which administers the award, highlighted Bower’s “unparalleled contributions to cognitive and mathematical psychology … his lucid analyses of remembering and reasoning and for his important service to psychology and to American science.”

Bower is credited by his colleagues for being a driver of excellence who helped Stanford’s psychology department remain one of the top ranked in the nation for the last 50 years.

“It seems that no matter what we aspire to do, we need giants to inspire us,” said Barbara Tversky, professor of psychology, emerita. “Gordon was in the pantheon when I became enamored with the study of memory as an undergrad. Later, I had the good fortune to be a vicarious and eager student, still later a colleague and a friend. He was exemplary beyond reach in each of those roles. That impeccably organized mind that kept track of a vast quantity of research also kept track of a vast social network buttressed by a firm set of values.”

Bower was known for the vast breadth, large quantity and high quality of his research. His areas of expertise included associative and narrative memory, mental and mathematical models, and emotion-influenced cognition.

He edited leading journals in these fields and was the author of numerous papers and books. The Psychology of Learning and Motivation is a 29-book series, and he co-authored with Ernest R. “Jack” Hilgard, also a professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford, one of the foundational textbooks in the field, Theories of Learning.

The Stanford psychology department was at the forefront of quantitative psychology when Bower arrived in 1959, and he helped lead the department’s continued growth in the field. He also played a key role on campus both as a researcher and administrator, chairing the department from 1978–82 and serving as Associate Dean of Humanities and Sciences from 1983–86.

Bower was elected to both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among other honors, Bower received a merit award from the National Institutes of Mental Health for receiving 48 years of continuous research funding, an acknowledgment of a career that actively spanned over four decades.

“I consider him the experimental psychologist par excellence,” said Herbert Clark, Albert Ray Lang Professor of Psychology, Emeritus. “He had that golden touch in thinking up, carrying out, and writing up experiments that were clever and theoretically relevant. Almost every one of his experimental papers became a classic of its type – a model for the rest of the field.”

Among Bower’s many books, one of the most seminal is Human Associative Memory (1973), which he co-authored with his colleague John R. Anderson, who was his graduate assistant at Stanford and now is the Richard King Mellon Professor of Psychology and Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. The text, which proposes a comprehensive theory of memory, demonstrates how people recall information by organizing it into narratives.

Tireless mentor

Bower, whom colleagues described as a huge and vibrant presence, left an indelible mark on an interpersonal level as well. He was known as an extraordinary mentor of graduate students and younger faculty colleagues.

Over the course of his career, he mentored over 50 PhD students, many of whom went on to become distinguished scientists and scholars, and that dedication earned him the Association for Psychological Science’s 2018 Mentor Award.

“Gordon was the best advisor one could hope for, not only during my graduate training at Stanford but throughout my professional career,” said Robert Sternberg, professor of human development at Cornell University. “In terms of job placements of students, he was probably the most successful mentor in psychology of all time.”

Colleagues noted that his incisive and constructive feedback contributed greatly to the department’s high standards. “The mentoring award in 2018 was a testament to the ways in which he developed, supported and helped grow the next generation of scientists,” said department chair, Anthony David Wagner, Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences. “He was unwaveringly loyal and supportive of his students, often with the student unaware he was behind the scenes advocating for them. When you were part of the Bower academic family, you knew that he was there by your side having a big impact on your career.”

“I have always thought of my students as my jewels and my lasting legacies to our field,” Bower said when he accepted his mentorship award. “Not only have I been blessed by having them as student collaborators, I’ve been doubly blessed by having their continuing friendship through the years.”

Major League choice

Born in Scio, Ohio, Bower was an all-state basketball and baseball player at Scio High School, where a teacher introduced him to Freudian and Jungian psychology. His pitching arm paid for his higher education when the Cleveland Indians subsidized his studies at Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) in exchange for first rights on a future baseball contract.

Bower ultimately passed on a baseball career by enrolling in graduate school at Yale University, where he earned his PhD in psychology in 1959.

While he was a graduate student, Bower attended a seminar at Stanford in the summer of 1957 on using mathematical learning theory to more precisely analyze and predict behavioral data. Professor Ewart Thomas, Emeritus in the Department of Psychology, remembers Bower calling his experience at Stanford that summer “being in the right place at the right time.”

The Stanford faculty, which included leaders in the then-emerging field of mathematical psychology, was impressed by Bower. He was invited to join the Stanford faculty as an assistant professor upon completion of his degree and remained a bedrock of the department until his retirement in 2008.

“Gordon’s choice of psychology over professional baseball was a great gift to American psychology,” said colleague Lee Ross, the Stanford Federal Credit Union professor in the Department of Psychology. “When our department fielded a team in intramural baseball, Gordon homered virtually every time at bat and never struck out – just as he did in his remarkable scientific career.”

Bower is survived by his wife Sharon, three children and five grandchildren. The family will hold a private funeral service. The Department of Psychology plans to honor Bower with a memorial service on campus sometime in the future. Donations in his memory can be made to the Department of Psychology. Donors should indicate Gordon Bower Memorial Fund in the special instructions field. The fund will support graduate research and training.