January 15, 1998
Harvard
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  Psychologist Roger Brown Dies

Roger Brown, who was widely known for his studies of how a child learns language and how words designate things, as well as the author of influential textbooks on social and introductory psychology, died Dec. 11 at his home in Cambridge. He was 72. The cause of death was not announced, but the Department of Psychology of Harvard University, where Brown was a professor emeritus, said that he had been suffering both from prostate cancer and coronary artery disease.

Born in Detroit, Brown attended the University of Michigan, where he received his bachelor degree before going on for his Ph.D. in psychology. During World War II, his education was interrupted by service as an ensign in the U.S. Navy and he served in the Pacific Theater during the Battle of Okinawa.

At the University of Michigan, he became interested in the science of linguistics, which borders on disciplines he was deeply interested in: philosophy, literature, and history. Following his graduation from Michigan, he became an instructor and then assistant professor at Harvard. In 1957 he left Harvard for a position at M.I.T., where he wrote his monumental Words and Things. The book, which has been continuously in print, is an exploration of the degree to which languages are limited by the nature of human thought, and the converse, the degree to which the structure of specific languages influences the thinking of those who speak each language. The implications of his insights are still being worked out in such disparate fields as linguistics, cognitive psychology, and anthropology. He became a full professor of psychology at M.I.T. in 1960.

In 1962, Brown accepted a professorship at Harvard, where he became the John Lindsley Professor in Memory of William James, a position he held until his retirement in 1995. He completed his textbook, Social Psychology, in 1965. The book was widely adopted in many universities and it remained in print for more than 20 years.

He then undertook a landmark study of the linguistic development of children, published in A First Language. He focused on three children, whom he called Adam, Eve, and Sarah. In this monumental study, and on the basis of careful examination of these children's utterances, he established empirical generalizations for the way in which any language is acquired. He followed this work with an introductory textbook on psychology, written with his colleague Richard Herrnstein. It was an uncompromisingly difficult textbook, which resulted in its being read by instructors who used it for their own edification and for the content of their lectures, but who then assigned to their classes more elementary treatments of the discipline. Studies of specific familiar experiences followed, such as that of "flashbulb memories" (for example, What were you doing the moment you heard of JFK's assassination?), and the "tip of the tongue phenomenon." The success of Social Psychology encouraged him to undertake a new textbook on social psychology. Although entirely new in content, he titled it simply Social Psychology: The Second Edition.

Brown was a much sought-after adviser and teacher, whose lectures, although meticulously prepared, were delivered in an informal and accessible manner. He was awarded the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize.

In addition to serving as chair of the Department of Psychology, he was president of the Division of Personality and Social Psychology of the American Psychological Association and president of the Eastern Psychological Association. His many awards include election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, honorary degrees from York University, Bucknell University, and Northwestern University, and the international prize of the Fondation Fyssen in Paris and the Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award of the American Psychological Association. He is survived by his brothers, Don and Douglas; a niece Lynne Brown Wisniewski; and three nephews, Mark, Gordon, and Paul Brown. He was predeceased by his companion of 40 years, Albert Gilman.

 


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College