George Collier - In Memoriam
George H. Collier
George Henry Collier died at his home in Delaware Township, New Jersey, in the early evening on April 18, 2015.
George was born in Minneapolis on January 3, 1921. His father George was a traveling salesman who worked his way up to become Vice President of his company. His mother Nettie was a homemaker.
One of four siblings, George grew up in the still-small city of Minneapolis, in a neighborhood surrounded by a creek. He led a mischievous boyhood, rambling freely after school, climbing atop the houses that were under construction in that period of suburban expansion. Once, with his parents away on a business trip, he set off a stink bomb in the babysitter’s bedroom, thus gaining for himself and his siblings three days free from adult supervision.
George loved the outdoors, and in high school he and a friend often went canoeing by themselves in the boundary waters of northern Minnesota.
It was a time of depression and drought, but through “some unknown quirk in my wiring,” he later wrote, he remained “an optimist who believed in progress.”
George attended the University of Minnesota from 1939 to 1942, and after a four-year hiatus to help with the war effort, he returned to complete his undergraduate and Master’s degrees in 1947. Prior to the war, he was a work-study student of the renowned behaviorist B. F. Skinner – an experience that would shape his career even as it left him with countless stories to tell about the famous scientist whom he called “Fred.”
In 1947, when he was accepted to Yale’s doctoral program, George received a telegram from Skinner, by then at Indiana, urging him to join the Psychology department there. Though his mentor would soon move to Harvard, George stayed at Indiana, where he memorized The Behavior of Organisms, was briefly married to an older doctoral student, and ultimately completed his Ph.D. in human visual psychophysics in 1951.
While working on his dissertation, George took his first teaching post at Northwestern University. He was so nervous before his first lecture that he scribbled jokes on index cards and read these aloud to the class. It went over well; for a long time afterward he stored jokes in his office filing cabinet.
Duke University offered George his first professorial position in 1951. Five years later, he accepted an offer to work at the University of Missouri, where he switched his research focus to animal learning and behavior.
In 1962, George accepted a tenured position as Professor of Psychology at Rutgers College (now Rutgers University). His first animal laboratory was set up in an old skating rink near campus. Over the next three decades he taught thousands of students while running a research program fueled by dedicated laboratory assistants, many of whom went on to influential academic careers themselves. He directed fifteen doctoral dissertations and countless Master’s and Honors Theses. In 1971 he was named Distinguished Professor.
George served as the Rutgers Psychology Department’s chairman for nine crucial years, during which he built it into a top-tier program through a strategy of recruiting, nurturing, and retaining talented junior faculty. Perhaps the most momentous of the department’s hires during these years was a young specialist in infant memory named Carolyn Rovee. She and George fell in love, married in 1977, and were together almost continuously for the next thirty-seven years.
George’s varied research program received continuous funding from the National Institutes of Health for forty-six years. He published nearly 150 articles, his most significant contributions coming in the field of animal nutrition. He worked with cats, rats, ferrets, chickens, guinea pigs, even chinchillas. In his bustling lab on the Rutgers campus – a veritable menagerie – animals raced in their running wheels, pressed bars for food, and were attended by students who not only monitored their behavior but named and cared for them. One lab cat, named Bill, wandered freely in the lab during the day; another roamed the rooftop of the Rutgers Psychology Building.
George’s meticulously designed experiments sought to understand the feeding behavior of animals, specifically how much work an animal was willing to perform to nourish itself, and how an animal could regulate its work output in order to satisfy its highest ingestive desires. He initially adopted some of the radical behaviorism of his mentor Skinner, researching throughout the 1950s and 1960s the physiological determinants of reinforcement by food.
But in the early 1970s his thinking took a sharp turn, as he came to view operant conditioning with a skeptical eye and transformed into what he called an operant ecologist. In this later work George took account of extra-physiological determinants, such as cognitive and environmental stimuli, or an animal’s evolutionary history. One of his most celebrated articles, “The Operant Revisited” (1977), encapsulated the change: “It was a passionate act of scholarship,” one colleague writes, “a scintillating chapter” advocating the new ecological approach while offering “a devastating critique of operant conditioning.”
In the process of developing this new approach, George essentially invented an entire field of research. For his achievements, the Rutgers Board of Trustees in 1986 conferred on him its Distinguished Research Award, and the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior in 1997 honored him with its Distinguished Career Award.
George was a dedicated participant in his professional community. He served as President of the Eastern Psychological Association and as Divisional President of the American Psychological Association; he was a charter member of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior, a Fellow of the American Psychological Society and the Society of Experimental Psychologists, and a member of nine other international societies. He sat on the editorial boards of the leading journals in his field.
There was a richness and diversity to George’s life away from the university, as well. The signature event in his development was undoubtedly World War II, which had a profound and enduring impact. George broke off his undergraduate education to enlist in 1942; the Army quickly discerned his intellectual gifts and sent him to Europe to interrogate POW’s and prepare intelligence reports. George arrived in the European theater on April 7, 1943. After D-Day, he was sent to France, where he served in a reconnaissance unit and was engaged in the Rhineland campaign. He was awarded several medals for his service.
George had complex feelings about what he called “Uncle Sam’s Guided Tour.” He rarely spoke about battle itself. Instead he told stories about the many people he met; about hard winter nights spent in trenches and the frostbite that left him with minimal use of his toes; about congenial interactions with Russian soldiers, with whom he would sometimes drink and commiserate about the horror of war; about crawling on his belly behind enemy lines to gather intelligence. He also recalled the sometimes unbearably long stretches of empty time, during which he read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in its entirety.
George never talked about his war experience without great emotion. Its single greatest consequence may have been that it led him to detest all war, and for the rest of his life he held a deep-seated opposition that was born of first-hand experience. It also enflamed his innate distrust of authority. “One had the feeling that one was participating in something right and important, but you were a very, very small pawn,” he wrote of his military service; “You couldn’t understand it. You were a Blind Pawn in a game you were not even conscious of.”
George met Joanne Schaniel when he was teaching at Northwestern. They married on Christmas Eve in 1951 and over the next decade had three sons: George, Jr., Jonathan, and James. As a couple they were deeply committed to social and political engagement and in the 1960s spent many a family weekend attending rallies and marches. George himself was a major figure in the protest movement of this decade, helping to organize Rutgers professors against war and in favor of civil rights – and attracting the FBI’s attention along the way.
A lover of his country and a committed humanist, George returned all his war medals to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
George became a single father in the late 1960s, and this proved a challenging time. His three sons were forced to learn, at a young age, to take care of themselves, as he struggled to cook dinners and break up fights, all while maintaining his career.
In summers, the wilderness provided an escape for the four of them. Together they undertook months-long camping adventures, George practically willing his army-green Beetle to spectacular locales like the Olympic Mountains and the Boundary Waters Area.
In 1977, George married Carolyn Rovee. He moved to her farmhouse with James, who was then in high school, and he became stepfather to her two sons from a previous marriage, Benjamin and Christopher. He offered them a softer touch that complemented Carolyn’s sometimes-tough love.
Working down the hall from one another at Rutgers, George and Carolyn shared professional as well as home lives: they read and commented on one another’s work, covered for one another’s classes at times of illness, and participated in one another’s research programs. Their students flowed easily between their adjacent laboratories. Most of all, they made their friends, neighbors, and students laugh with their affectionate ribbing and their wildly disparate personalities (Carolyn loud, brusque, bossy: she hung a sign in the kitchen that said “Do It Now”; George subtle, sensitive, and quietly subversive: he hung a sign in his study that said “Do It Later.”)
For four decades, George took great pride in maintaining their small farm in Delaware Township, New Jersey. In the hot summers he would shovel tons of manure from the chicken coop; in the winters he would chop wood for the fireplace in the forested ravine behind the property; in the spring he would help sheep to deliver their lambs. His muddy and dung-covered boots by the front door were a fixture, welcoming visitors to the house.
George’s affection for wilderness took root in his childhood trips to the lakes of northern Minnesota. Later in life, he coveted his yearly backpacking expeditions with his friend Byron Campbell. Every August the two of them courted disaster amid some of the most sublime landscapes on the planet. Against the absolutely reasonable protests of their wives, they insisted on making these journeys well into their eighties! At the end of their final trip, which involved being dropped off in the Alaskan backcountry, their raft overshot a pick-up point along the Yukon River, leading everyone to believe – for two harrowing days until they were found happily camping along the river – that they had vanished in the wild.
In the 1980s, George visited Brazil at the invitation of a colleague at the University of SãoPaulo. He took a great liking to the country and returned to Brazil five times in the next decade, to lecture, teach, and visit the friends he made there. He spoke effusively about Brazil even when he seemed to have little energy left for reminiscence: about the good and plentiful beer, the wild drivers, the affectionate people, and the dedicated students (who, to his amusement and delight, kissed him when they left his lectures). George’s hosts at SãoPaulo always said he was “a different American,” that “he had the soul of a Brazilian.”
George retired in 1991, and though he continued to teach occasional classes at Rutgers, he spent much of his last two decades on the farm with his dog, Hannah, a white golden retriever who for sixteen years accompanied him on walks and runs in the fields outside his door. He called her “The Wonder Dog”; she ghost-wrote the annual holiday letter George sent to friends. After Hannah died, George adopted Bo, another golden retriever, who rarely left his side. When it was no longer easy to walk, George used a golf cart to take Bo on daily runs, giving a friendly wave to the occasional cars that drove by.
Even as he became less mobile, George continued to feed his voracious appetite for knowledge. He read history after history (maintaining a habit he’d picked up during the war), and he took up poetry, which he wrote with characteristically pungent wit.
In his final years, George was cared for with great affection by Beth Harper, Tara Krommelbein, and Zena Ali. For the final three years of George’s life, his son James also lived with and took care of him. Together James and George watched hundreds of films, one per night, George offering acerbic commentary both during the film and throughout the next day – Bo always by his side – until the next film began.
— Christopher Rovee
Title: Professor Emeritus
Area: Behavioral Neuroscience
Ecological and nutritional analyses of learning, motivation, and regulation.
1951 - Ph.D. University of Indiana
1947 - B.A. University of Minnesota
Rutgers, The State University (1962-)
Professor, Department of Psychology
Princeton University (1980-1981)
Visiting Research Professor
University of Washington (1975-1976)
Visiting Research Professor
University of Missouri (1955-1962)
Duke University (1951-1955)
Northwestern University (1950-1951)
Distinguished Career Award, Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior, 1997
Distinguished Research Award, Board of Trustees, Rutgers University
Distinguished Professor, Biopsychology Lecture Series, Government of Brazil, Universities of Sao Paulo and Belem, Brazil.