Hrnry Gleitman

Henry Gleitman, professor emeritus of psychology at Penn, died on September 2. He was 90 years old.

Dr. Gleitman was born in Leipzig, Germany. He received his bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York and his PhD in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. He taught at Cornell University, Swarthmore College and the New School for Social Research before joining Penn’s faculty as professor and department chair in 1964 (Almanac September 1964).

Dr. Gleitman received Penn’s Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1977, the American Psychological Foundation’s (APA) Distinguished Teaching in Psychology Award in 1982 and the School of Arts & Sciences’ Ira Abrams Memorial Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1988 (Almanac April 19, 1988).

He was the author of a widely used introductory textbook, Psychology, first published in 1981 and now in its eighth edition. He also published widely in scientific journals in psychology on topics including animal learning (notably, during his graduate student days and with his characteristic panache, he studied whether rats could learn a maze by passively watching from an aerial tramcar as their brethren ran through it). He was influential in the understanding of the nature of forgetting. In later years, often collaboratively with his wife, Lila Gleitman, professor emerita of psychology and linguistics at Penn, he studied language and its acquisition.

Judith Rodin, president emerita at Penn, considered Dr. Gleitman her mentor. In her 1999 Commencement address, she credited him with turning her sights toward psychology (Almanac May 18, 1999).

Professionally, Dr. Gleitman was best known by the generations of undergraduates who filled his Psychology I classes, often 300-400 at a time. As a teacher of generations of graduate students, he had a profound and widely acknowledged influence on how they thought about human (and rat) nature, and about how psychology connected with the history of Western philosophy and science. He devoted himself to students at every level, graduate and undergraduate, specialist and novice; indeed, he liked to say that “God must have loved the C student, because he made so many of them.”

Dr. Gleitman was a polymath whose interests and accomplishments ranged also into the theatre, where he acted and, most especially, directed both at the University of Pennsylvania and in various semi-professional venues in Philadelphia, Berkeley and New York City. Here, too, he worked with actors at all levels, including young children, college students and professionals. As he often said, he was a bigamist because he had two loves, psychology and theatre, and divided his heart and life’s work between them.

Dr. Gleitman retired from Penn and became professor emeritus in 2005 (Almanac September 6, 2005).

He is survived by his wife, Lila; his children, Ellen Luchette and Claire Gleitman; his sons-in law, Marck Luchette and David DeVries; his brother, George Gleitman; and his grandchildren, Philip and Lucas DeVries and Zachary and Zoe Luchette.

Contributions in his memory may be made to Doctors Without Borders (www.doctorswithoutborders.org).