Photo by Reilly Wright '20

A Most Memorable Accomplishment

Ohio Wesleyan Professor Emeritus Being Honored by Association for Psychological Science  

By Gopika Nair ’18

Harry Bahrick’s initial interest in psychology emerged because he wanted to understand the “awful things” that occurred during the reign of the Nazis in 1930s and 1940s Germany.

During World War II, Bahrick served in the U.S. Army for two years. His basic training was terminated a week early when the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last major offensive campaign on the Western front, was launched in December 1944.

“It was considered very dangerous, and my regiment was flown into that battle without any prior preparation,” says Bahrick, whose family immigrated to the United States from Vienna. “There were three people who didn’t go, and I was one of them.”

A Life-Altering Assignment

Instead, Bahrick was sent to the University of West Virginia, where he was assigned to study civil engineering.

“Not my favorite thing,” he says, “but a lot better than the Battle of the Bulge.”

Tens of thousands of soldiers died in the two-month battle, with Bahrick’s life all-but spared by a test score. Understanding the significance of this, he dedicated his life to learning and sharing knowledge with others.

National Recognition

This month, Bahrick will receive the Association for Psychological Science’s Mentor Award at the APS Annual Convention in San Francisco in recognition of his “extraordinary effort to shape the future of the discipline by influencing the career paths of the next generation of scientists.”

Now an Ohio Wesleyan University professor emeritus, Bahrick, the Helen Whitelaw Jackson Professor of Psychology, served OWU as a professor and researcher for more than 60 years.

Discovering His Discipline

When World War II ended, Bahrick enrolled at the University of Maryland to study psychology. Originally, Bahrick says, he aspired to become a psychiatrist.

But once he took a psychology course and learned that he could investigate human nature as a scientist – he was hooked.

Bahrick, Ph.D., became interested in studying memory as soon as he began learning psychology, and today is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on very long-term memory.

“Memory is who we are, and once I realized that, I wanted to study how memories are formed, how they are retrieved, how they are stored, how they are lost,” Bahrick explains. “This became the key issue to me to understand everything else because everything else about who we are depends on what’s in there.”

Reinventing Memory Research

When he entered college, methods of investigating memory were mostly limited to experiments that investigated information that only lasted a limited amount of time. But Bahrick was more intrigued by semantic memories, which includes knowledge of language, people, and schemas, among other things.

“These things are learned not quickly, but over a longer period of time, and it’s impossible to do experiments,” Bahrick says.

Bahrick discovered a new method of investigating these long-term memories that used statistical controls instead of experimental ones. By using statistics, it’s possible to calculate the influence of several variables, and by calculating that influence, researchers can also discount that influence, he explains.

“For instance, if you think high blood pressure is partly due to a genetic variable, partly due to diet, partly due to stress, partly due to exercise, you can’t do an experiment on one because that’s too many variables,” Bahrick says. “But you can study the influence of all these variables in a design which allows you to hold these constant and look at each variable and how it interacts with each other. That’s what I did with the knowledge system.”

Becoming a Bishop

Bahrick was working on his dissertation at The Ohio State University when he got a job at Ohio Wesleyan in 1949.

“Before I came here, my interests were in scholarship and science, not in being a mentor, not in service,” Bahrick says. “I went into academia because of the independence you have as a young person that you wouldn’t have in many other walks of life.”

But after working at OWU for a few years, Bahrick began hearing from students about the many ways in which he had helped them and influenced their lives.

“Eventually, I found undergraduate teaching very rewarding,” Bahrick says. “It’s an opportunity to … have an impact on students who work with you a lot, that is more profound in some ways.”

Pioneering Programs

At OWU, Bahrick started the Memory Lab, funded by a succession of grants over 40 years. The grants included enough money to pay student-interns and participants. The Memory Lab initially was the only supported research within the Department of Psychology, and offered undergraduate students the opportunity to conduct research on long-term memory situations.

“Science moves with methods,” Bahrick says. “New methods open phenomena to science that couldn’t be investigated before.”

The scope of memory research – once restricted to the study of short-term memories – broadened with Bahrick and Lynda Hall, Ph.D., professor of psychology and Bahrick’s collaborator for nearly 30 years. Bahrick, Hall, and Melinda Baker, Ph.D., co-authored a book titled “Life-span Maintenance of Knowledge,” released in 2013. Research for the book took 50 years, and writing took three, Bahrick says.

During his career, Bahrick also published more than 70 articles on learning and memory, and received numerous grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health to investigate issues of memory and knowledge maintenance. His pioneering research is cited frequently in introductory psychology textbooks and has been the subject of articles in popular magazines such as “Psychology Today” and “Science News.”

‘Because of Harry’

In addition to receiving the Association for Psychological Science’s Mentor Award, Bahrick also has received the American Psychological Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching in Psychology.

Bahrick was nominated for this latest honor by 1971 OWU alumnus Robert Kail, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Psychological Sciences at Purdue University.

Kail has said he is a psychologist today “because of Harry: As a sophomore, I was enrolled in his statistics and experimental psychology courses. The clarity of his teaching and his utter passion for psychological science convinced me that this was a discipline worth knowing and a career worth pursuing.”