Herschel Leibowitz, pioneer in experimental psychology, dies at 85

Without the research of Herschel Leibowitz, we would not understand why drivers make often fatal errors when driving across railroad crossings and crashing with an oncoming train. He conducted groundbreaking research on human vision and perception, and the causes and mitigation of human error, especially the speed of large objects such as trains. Considered one of the most influential scientists in the past 50 years in the area of experimental psychology, Leibowitz, 85, the Evan Pugh emeritus professor of psychology at Penn State, died Feb. 13, 2011, at Mt. Nittany Medical Center, surrounded by his family.

“Hersch was internationally recognized within psychology for his work on visual cognition, research that had important policy applications in addition to contributing to our understanding of brain functioning,” said Susan Welch, dean of the College of the Liberal Arts. “Throughout his career, he taught his students that applied work should not be separated from basic research, that both are essential. He trained generations of graduate students who went on to successful careers. In his retirement, with the support of his wife, Eileen, he kept in touch with his students and colleagues while contributing generously to his department, College, the University and community. Hersch was a kind and generous man.”

Mel Mark, head of the Department of Psychology, added, “Hersch’s excellence as a scholar was matched by his generosity as a colleague, his engagement as a mentor, his service to his community, and his love for Eileen and his family.”

The author of about 250 publications and a book, "Visual Perception," Leibowitz received countless awards and honors including the Distinguished Contribution Award for the Application of Psychology from the American Psychological Association and an honorary Doctor of Science degree from State University of New York. In 2002, the American Psychological Association published "Visual Perception: The influence of H.W. Leibowitz," a volume of work by his former students and colleagues honoring his career and his contributions to the field. The Penn State professor always said that his greatest professional achievement was the number of students who passed through his classroom on their way to success in psychology and other fields.

Originally from York, Pa., Leibowitz left his studies at the University of Pennsylvania to serve his country in World War II. After the war, he returned to Penn to study psychology. After graduation, he earned a doctoral degree from Columbia University and then joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin. In 1962, he became a faculty member in Penn State's Department of Psychology and embarked on a distinguished career in teaching, research and service. In 1977, he was named an Evan Pugh professor of psychology, the University's highest faculty honor, and retired with emeritus status in 1995.

Leibowitz and his wife were very active in their community and were generous donors to Penn State and numerous organizations. In 2003, they were named Penn State’s Renaissance Couple of the Year and served as honorary chairs of the Palmer Museum of Art’s annual gala. At Penn State, they established the Herschel W. and Eileen Wirtshafter Leibowitz Graduate Scholarship in Psychology and a Lectureship in Psychology in the College of the Liberal Arts. They funded a Leibowitz Family Room at the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, CentreLink and Mount Nittany Medical Center. In 2009, together they received the Centre County Community Foundation’s inaugural Oak Tree Award in honor of service to their community.

Additional information is at http://bit.ly/geUDpf online.

Last Updated March 21, 2011