Skip to content

Clarence H. Graham

Remembering Clarence

William S. Verplanck

In talking this into the tape, I have been working from my own recollections. I’ve tried to remember how easy it is to fall into sentimentalism and to recollect what is convenient and what one wishes had happened. What one sees when looking back is very dependent on atmospheric conditions. My recall may nevertheless be off on one or another statements. I’d like to have a contemporary as editor.

On some matters, I can write without fear of contradiction. I can summarize on Clarence Graham as I knew him and valued him. He was (and still is, in the people and works he left behind,) a very great scientist, an investigator of the highest order of ability and integrity. He was and still is to his offspring in psychology a very great human being, a man of matchless integrity in all he did. As I think about it, he should have some sort of Nobel Prize, as a person as well as an experimental psychologist.

Clarence Graham, always there, always dependable, always to be emulated. Admiration and affection are two terms applicable in all my recall. Shy, diffident, the ultimate worry-wart, he had, in fact, nothing to worry about –nor did he show these traits in his scientific achievements and presentations. He got things done right, even if it sometimes took him a long while to reach a decisions, to get the apparatus just right, to send the paper off, or approve a dissertation draft. Of all the things I learned from him, only one has been anything but rewarding. That exception is perfectionism. He could come up with achievement despite this mixed blessing of a gift. Others cannot do so this regularly.

After rereading this memoir, I note that I always refer to him as Clarence. He was “Clancy” when his students, present and past, brought one another up to date on his doings. Did I call him “Clarence” when I talked with him? Or “Clancy?” For the life of me I’m not sure. Maybe either.

I note also that there is no note of the hegira to Tijuana I’ve heard about time after time from Clarence, Smitty Stevens, and Elaine (and anyone else who was there). This often retold story of inebriated, internationally distingushed psychologists out on the town (and in Clarence’s case on a burro), in Tijuana marked a high spot, was sometimes seemingly more important than professionally valued achievements such as, say, receiving the Warren Medal. How could I leave that out? But back to the start.

There are divides, turning points in lifetimes, things people, or events that make a vast difference for everything that comes later. The character and values of Clarence Graham served as such a divide for me, as soon as I learned of them. This was before I saw him, or in fact even knew much about his work. But the impact of Clarence as a person and scientist, when graduate student at Clark, upon an older graduate student enabled Frank Geldard to show me why I should accept a graduate assistanceship at Brown, to work with Clarence on a research project. He persuaded me to turn down equally and superficially more promising assistanceships with one or another better known psychologists at other Ivy League universities.

His description of the kind of a man Clarence was, and could be expected to be as “boss” and mentor, led me to walk into the dingy Victorian house at 89 Waterman St. that was Brown`s Psychological Laboratory in 1939. I climbed up the front stairs to introduce myself to a quiet, shy, to me British-appearing, academic looking, youngish man, slouched back in a swivel chair in front of his desk, next to the window of a former bedroom. Complete with tweed jacket and elbow patches, he made me welcome, and put me to work. Neil Bartlett was on hand, Lorrin Riggs was due to arrive a few months later.

Almost as soon as I arrived, Clarence took me down into the basement, showed me the darkrooms and apparatus and then led me to an empty, square room, and drew chalk lines on the concrete floor, indicating where I was to build two new dark rooms from scratch. He told me about stardrills and anchoring frames to floors; he advised me to start reading up on electronics, because once I had those dark rooms built, the next step of my apprenticeship as a psychologist would be to build a DC amplifier to record, by string galvanometer, the responses of a single optic fiber of the limulus eye. That was quite a recipe for first year graduate work as a research assistant. His instructions were delivered not as a set of orders, but as a set of suggestions…”It would be nice if…” and of reminders. Expressions of disappointment with progress came occasionally, but never harsh words. (It was Clarence from the time I walked in the door, whereas I never dared to call Frank Geldard, “Frank” until the sixties.)

That was the research part of it; from the time I first walked in the door, I found myself immersed in the doings of Clarence and Eddie and some of my fellow graduate students, all of them filling Walter Hunter`s ideal of the eighty hour week for graduate studies. It was indeed an eighty hour a week for graduate students and some of the faculty; 89 Waterman St. was not just a beat-up Victorian house, it was also a home, presided over by the magisterial figure of “The Old Doctor,” Walter S. Hunter. Clarence was “The Good Doctor.”

Through all that time, try as I might, I find it very difficult to find any “good anecdotes” relating to Clarence. He was always there, setting examples, the ultimate role model; sometimes transfixed with thought in his office on such weighty decisions as where and when to go to lunch – a question usually resolved by a graduate student or set of graduate students. We’d go around the block to one or another of the little lunch places that proliferated on Thayer St. at that time, where we would discuss problems such as “Why is a cabinet a cabinet in Massachusetts, a frappe in Rhode Island, when it is a chocolate frosted everywhere else in the country?’ or Bob Gagné’ explanation of why he never ordered anything but hamburger (15 cents at the time). Clarence’s gentle, shy, consistent, and reliable sense of humor was always there.

Eddie Kemp, who was otherwise Clarence’s complimentary sidekick and invariably close by, didn’t go with us on these almost daily excursions. He went home to lunch, to his then spouse, a shrew by all his jocular accounts. Eddie’s style was (and remained) almost precisely opposite to Clarnce, except in his research on audition and dissertation direction. On research activities they saw eye to eye.

Clarence had a very mixed reaction to Eddie Kemp’s paper at EPA, where he reported in his usual superjocular manner on his research on Walter Hunter’s tonal gap. He reported data that the Old Doctor had yielded over many hours of patient sitting in Eddie’s little stuffy, sound-proof cubicle (a pantry in the old days). Eddie’s paper seemed (?) to make fun of The Old Doctor’s hearing and by implication of The Old Doctor, not noting Hunter’s dedication to science of many valuable hours spent in a sound-proof room. You didn’t make jokes about that, or about The Old Doctor at Brown. Once it had happened, it was not difficult to predict that Eddie`s tenure at Brown had milliseconds to go.

Clarence, close to Eddie as best friend and crony on the one hand and close to Walter Hunter as mentor, leader, scientist, and pioneer behaviorist on the other, was indeed torn. The regrets and down-right, clearly expressed unhappiness over Eddie’s disgrace and departure were intertwined with sheepish amusement at the effectiveness of Eddie’s sense of humor, his superficial unwillingness to take anything or anybody seriously. Eddie’s was a funny paper and the people at the meeting enjoyed it. Eddie’s irrepressible, buoyant, happy, skeptical approach to life was matchless. Eddie couldn’t take anything seriously, except his work as he was doing it and writing it up. When done,he would make fun of even that. Clarence, on the other hand, took everything seriously but at the same time always on the base of his own, sense of humor that would slip out occasionally in funny, unexpected remarks, sardonic comments, and in jokes, jokes that never made fun of his work or of other people.

The one time I can remember Clarence making a joke about a person is perhaps the only “anecdote” I can think of. It was a warm May evening, and we were sitting on the front steps of 89 Waterman St., Clarence, Eddie and three or four of us graduate students. It was a lovely evening, and it was still very light. The door behind us opened and we all turned around. Out stepped a graduate student who shall be nameless. He was one of Walter Hunter’s students, and he always seemed to pride himself on his appearance, his dress, and his presumed attractiveness to women. “Spiffy” was the word for him. This was the apparition in the doorway, Clarence looked long, and then quietly in a voice of dead seriousness, “Hello, you great big beautiful blond Viking.” A pause, then he laughed. This was the ultimate irony. We all broke up laughing at this line, and at the startled, bemused conflicted expression on the target’s face, who surely believed the description, but couldn’t tell whether or not Clarence did, too. Now that’s not funny, but coming from Clarence, and coming in that context,it was one of those moments you do not forget. It was, indeed, out of character for Clarence, and so unforgettable.

Incidents, anecdotes, no. I do remember the elation that came with the possibility of buying a new Ford. This was set by his promotion to Associate Professor of Psychology with the resoundingly munificent salary raise to $3,750 a year. This happy event we all learned about pronto.

I recall the weekday morning ritual at Brown, a gathering in the kitchen, at about 10 a.m., Faith Allen, the Departmental Secretary, later Faith Mote, boiled up a kettle of coffee, complete with eggshell. Clarence and Eddie always on the scene, the graduate students milling about, Neil Bartlett, Fred Mote, Charlie Cofer, Bill Jenkins, among others. The Old Doctor frequently in attendance, with Joe Hunt and Don Lindsley occasionally on hand. This opening for the day usually developed into a bull session, that would become subdued when The Old Doctor had descended from his Office Above and joined the crowd. I remember, too, driving the backroads of Connecticut, and then on the brand new Merritt Parkway to various meetings in New York, Philadelphia, or Atlantic City. It seemed that almost every time we went under a bridge on the Parkway, Clarence would remind us of how he had been terribly fearful of driving under bridges before his analysis, and of how he could not then go through the Holland Tunnel under any circumstances. When we did go under bridges he was still quieted a bit; he made it through the Holland Tunnel, but not wordlessly. Again, I remember Clarence as one of the many people in the Department during the hurricane of 1938 who, driven in from the front steps where we had sat and watched its beginnings, milled from window to window of 89 Waterman St., looking out, wondering whether one or another beautiful elm would fall on the building, and admiring the flight of the roof of the adjacent swimming pool, which rose into the air at some forty or fifty feet from the kitchen windows of 89 Waterman St. So much for non-academic items.

Academically, Clarence’s influence on me was resounding. First, his course in scientific method and measurement introduced me to an exciting new world of considerations I had never thought about. He taught me to worry about data and their nature, about measurement and about the nature of theory.

He effectively introduced us to the works, sacred and secular, of his fellow members of PRT. Clarence had a score of Bill Hunt stories, complete with jokes that Bill had made, and papers (“The Burrowing Behavior of Phallus Domesticus” was as cherished as Eddie Kemp’s hand-knit woolen condom, for winter wear). Smitty Stevens and, above all, Fred Skinner were prominent. Fred we’d already encountered: Clarence had assigned for most careful study Fred’s initial (and still most important) papers on stimulus, response, and the concept of reflex. When The Behavior of Organisms came out, Clarence’s admiration for Fred’s work was such that the graduate students at Brown provided a large proportion of the initial sales of The Behavior of Organisms. Clancy was so effective in bringing Skinner to us that he inadvertently persuaded me that I was less interested in vision than I had thought, although my background had been in sensory psychology. So, I did my dissertation of an offshoot on the Graham-Gagné work on a Skinnerian theory of reinforcement. This nicely fit with my previous exposure to Kenneth Spence, at Virginia.

At Brown I learned a great many things. From Walter Hunter, how to take an experimental paper and analyze it in critical detail, both in its logic, execution, and the relation of results to conclusions. In the library (ex-dining room), I learned how to browse and learn. From other students, I learned how to talk and argue. From Clarence, I learned not only how to mix lampblack and shellac to make a dark room dark and that I could build experimental cubicles, and put together a DC amplifier (which, as I recall, actually worked, but that is probably retrospective wishful thinking).

That was only the beginning of what I learned from Clarence. What I learned more was a set of values, a set of values in scientific research, in the importance of careful, critical, research and theoretical thinking. Above all, he taught and showed the importance of measurement, the measurement of stimuli, their physical properties and the measurement and recording of the behavior of the individuals. His theory course grounded me well in the key significance of measurement, not only in the physical sciences, but in all sciences.

I learned the responsibilities of the Dissertation Director towards the candidate and his/her subsequent embarkation on an independent career. I learned about continuing concern for the careers of one’s students. From both him and Walter Hunter. I learned the dignity and the importance of the student and the respect which a faculty member should show towards each one in their studies, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level. I learned a good deal about senses of humor and the value of understatement and irony. And about smiles and chuckles rather than bursts of laughter.

Those were difficult years for Clarence, not only because of the concern of all of us through the period of ’39 – ’42, the years of Hitler and Chamberlain, Hitler and Poland, the Fall of France, a threatened Britain, and finally of Pearl Harbor. They were also the years that Clarence was coping with the painful aftermath of a failed marriage.

It goes without saying that throughout Clarence exhibited himself as the original worry-wart. Low-keyed anxiety was the earmark. He always sought reassurance, that a job had been done, an equation stated correctly, a reference checked. He asked of his apparatus, “Is it working all right?” Of a graph, “Does this look good?” Of course the reassurance always came from those he was addressing. With Clarence, everything was. OK, he did not make mistakes, or faulty decisions (though they took a long time).

In those years, we all worried a lot. We listened to the radio at odd hours. We obsessed over coffee in the Blue Room of Faunce House. Clarence, perhaps more then the rest of us, followed (and worried over) every event from Munich on through Hitler’s entry into Czechoslovakia and then into Austria, and in due course into Poland and WWII. By that time both, Dr. Hunter and Clarence were getting deeply involved with NDRC in wartime research. Clarence soon had a contract to investigate a stereoscopic range-finders and on the effects on stereoscopic vision of anxiety. Neil Barlett and I worked with him on this He took us down, on a research trip to an Army base at Old Point Comfort, where we got our first face-to-face encounter with the job of screening enlisted men. Our previous interests, whether in vision or in rats, shifted over to concerns with range-finding and with the consequences for optical range finding, of the emotional stability of the operators.

The days of relaxed eighty hour weeks and intensive study disappeared. Clarence became more and more preoccupied with military research and was often off to Washington. We students milled around, “What would happen to whom?” “Who was 4-F?” “Who would get drafted?” “Who can set a commission, where?” “Where would we all go?” “What all would happen?” Blackouts. Freighters torpedoed along the New England coast. Capital ships sunk. The Japanese everywhere. The turmoil was considerably intensified by the instantaneous recognition of the importance of Lise Meiter’s successful splitting of the atom. After that, it seemed that all our fellow graduate students in chemistry and physics disappeared to points unknown, but elsewhere.

Neil Bartlett and I were put on a project that sent us to our first postdoctoral jobs, at the New London Submarine Base for 1700 dollars a year. There we stayed and saw very little indeed of Clarence as our duties shifted from those to research assistants on a grant to commissions in the Navy Hospital Corps. Occasionally, Clarence would come through New London for a day to see what was going on; we did continue to work with him. And here I remember a good Clarence anecdote. He’d come for a day’s visit to see how we were getting along on our various enterprises, and was due to catch a 5 o’clock train. As we got close to the station at the foot of New London’s main street. Clarence leaped out of the car and ran to catch the moving train. He made it just as it came to a dead stop. It was arriving, not leaving. That’s a good example of Clarence’s tendency to worry, to fear he might not be able to fulfill a commitment – this one, no more than catching a train.

By the end of the war, Clarence had left Brown for Columbia. At a recent ABA meeting, I had the first chance in many years to have a word with Fred Keller. “Bill,” he said, “Good to see you. The last time I saw you, you were sitting on a park bench with Clarence Graham in Morningside Park.” That’s pretty much the way it was from ’47 – ’57. Whenever I got to N.Y., I’d drop in at Clarence’s lab in Schermenhorn, and we would collectively get up to date on what was going on. He would show me with pardonable pride various of his experimental set-up and of data. Those years too, I’d meet many of those working with him for their degrees, most notably, and most often, Connie Mueller. In which year I met whom, I couldn’t guess. Sometime through here, while I was at Harvard, I also met Elaine, who, from this time on, was usually there, taking part whenever Clarence and I met.

An important series of exceptions to this sporadic sort of meetings occurred in London during my sabbatical, in 1953, which coincided with Clarence’s service a ONR representative at the American Embassy in London. Whenever I got to London from Oxford, Clarence and Elaine were there to greet me. We spent a good deal of time together, keeping one another up to date, going out to dinner. And of course they never minded taking me to the Embassy’s PX.

Ironically when I lived in N.Y. (’57 – ’59), I seldom saw Clarence or visited the labs. E61 and W116 were both too near to, and too far from, one another. But, I made up for it with hopefully (but seldom) weekly lunches with Connie Mueller and Bill McGill who, as few others could, kept me up to date with Clarence’s doings and all else in Schermerhorn. Somewhere along in here, he repeatedly urged me to contribute a chapter to the then projected Handbook Vision. I half-promised but never could.

In the early ’50’s, after a good deal of research on psychophysical methods and the construction of an apparatus guaranteed to yield light flashes controlled in every variable ’til the cows came home, I reached a conclusion. (When I left Harvard, Smitty Stevens took it over and, with some modifications, used it in his research on fractionation.) But back to the conclusion, mine not Smitty’s: Here is a quote, or paraphrase thereof, from somebody (Dewey?, Bentley?) perhaps myself, that summarizes what I had come to subscribe to: “The more I learn about Vision, the less I know about seeing. I was out of the field, and no chapter ever came.

At the AAAS meeting during Christmas time in 1958, Clarence, Smitty Stevens and Cliff Morgan were among the people that I talked with a great deal about complaints on APA policies. First among them was its convention programming. We were all ready to try something new. The next summer, with the full secretarial support, and encouragement of the University of Wisconsin Department, where I was teaching summer school, I sent out a series of invitations to a number of appropriate experimental psychologists asking their help to form a new society. Clarence was one of the first to accept enthusiastically , followed by Smitty. Both suggested the names of further candidates for an Organizing Committee. This group became the Governing Board, which met at the Palmer House in Chicago, Christmas time 1959, where we worked out by-laws, policies, and the like of the new society. One of the few things that caused a great deal of disagreement was its name. Clarence wanted very much to call it the Federation of Experimental Psychologists. Other suggestions had strong support; there was firm opposition to each. I said I`d poke around to see what I could find. When I got back to Maryland, I called the appropriate member of the Classics, or Greek Dept. and asked for the Greek word that most accurately fitted a definition I’d given him. I then read to him the definition of behavior. He gave me the word . That ended that. Biology, bionomics, and so on, were taken. So up came Psychonomic.

Since this was a name no one had ever heard, no one disagreed with it. Shortly after, it was adopted by mail vote. Until the end of his activities in the Psychonomic Society, Clarence surely would have preferred that its name be the Federation of Experimental Psychologists. That year, ’59, I moved to Maryland and then to East Tennessee. and visited N.Y. no more then once or twice a year. And every time I went, I tried to visit Clarence and Elaine. How often, I do not remember. I can only say regularly.

I would make the journey from Midtown to Haven Ave. and spend the evening at the Grahams with their view of the George Washington Bridge. Conversation, drinks, dinner, conversation, more conversation, more drinks. These evenings were the same and yet each was different and distinctive, although in retrospect, it is not easy to recall any one of them. Clarence would bring me up to date with his work, along with the doings of the Columbia Department, as well as in the university at large. I do recall more than one remark about Jacques Barzun. In fact, Barzun was a recurrent theme. And I would bring him up to date. Almost inevitably, the conversation would shift over to Jimmy Gibson or to Smitty Stevens. Despite Clarence’s patent unhappiness with the directions that their interests and research had taken them, they remained good friends. Clarence respected both as scientists and he respected their work. But their increasing separation from a firm neurophysiologically based behaviorism produced a long and worried look on Clarence’s face. He would say, “How could Jimmy do that, how could he think that?,” referring to Gibson’s phenomenological approach to depth perception, (or should I say, his arrival at a phenomenological view?) That the retinal image could be considered unimportant was unthinkable. Give the beautiful, ingenious researches that Clarence and his students were doing and had done at Columbia, Gibson’s work deeply disturbed Clarence, he sometimes seemed to take Gibson’s views as a sort of a moral lapse rather then a scientific one.

My impression was that Clarence wholeheartedly approved Smittys “cleaning up” of the literature on measurement with his NOIR conceptualization. But when Smitty proposed that sensations were power functions of stimulus energies and that they could be directly measured on a ratio scale by subjects judgments using his fractionation methods, Clarence was bemused, distressed, appalled. Scientifically the concept of sensation was bad enough, but when sensations are coupled with a ruler built into the brain-mind on which they could be scaled, Clarence got off the boat.

Those last years of visits with Clarence and Elaine on Haven Avenue were erratic, in part because of Clarence’s appointments overseas. Topics were diverse, and not limited to Gibson and Stevens. Politics, the plans for building behind the apartment on Haven avenue which would obstruct their view of the George Washington Bridge, the hazards of walking from the subway station, all the changes and doings in the Columbia Department, what all mutual friends and acquaintances were doing, all came up. Clarence was the same Clarence I knew at Brown. The high degree of international recognition he had gained, the honors he had so justly been awarded, and the many now renowned individuals who worked with him on their degrees made no difference. Through it all, Clarence remained Clarence the person I`d known from the time I first walked up the front stairs at 89 Waterman Street and encountered The Good Doctor leaning back on his chair at his desk in the former bedroom at the head of the stairs. Still shy, unassuming, still diffident, still kind, still given to the sly, humorous remark that is always on target. Never pompous, never self-important, never boastful, and always proud; not so much of what he had done personally, but of the work of others, of his students and of other scientifically great men whose work he so admired, from Selig Hecht on through Rabi, not to say, his own mentor, Keffer Hartline. This unchanging character (he even always looked the same to me), was Clarence Graham.

In retrospect, he never seemed to age. I did not see him during the period of failing health. If I did, I cannot recall it.

The integrity that Clarence showed was, not only an integrity of scientific ideals and values. It was integrity in the personal relationships he valued and maintained throughout the years. In his relationship with me, as a former student, he showed no change, even when it had became clear that I had disappointed him in not continuing the research in the area of vision but had moved over to other fields, nor that I never did that chapter for his Handbook on Vision. Would that there were more like him! Elsewhere I have sorted out experimental psychologists as sufriders or mountain climbers. Clarence was a mountain climber, who got to the top.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Creative Commons License http://www.verplanck.conductual.com is licensed by Admin under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.