Obituary: Professor Brian Foss
Thursday 01 January 1998
Interviewed by a former colleague six weeks before he died, Brian Foss called psychology "the most wonderful subject - the best education possible", thus happily endorsing his own choice of subject and career at the end of the Second World War.
Foss's many publications ranged far more widely than his personal research, covering such topics as human conflict, the function of laughter, the control of movement, and biology and art. Interests relating to educational psychology were reflected in publications on the development of moral attitudes and behaviour, and on efficient learning.
His range, his succinct prose style, his energy and his little-paraded but ever-present critical acumen led to his shining success as an editor of scholarly but accessible psychological texts, notably, for Methuen, of The Determinants of Infant Behaviour, volumes i-iv (1961-68) and also, outstandingly, for Penguin Books, where New Horizons in Psychology - which was eventually translated into eight languages - was, in 1965, the first of the 70-odd psychology books to be published by Penguin under his aegis. Under Foss's editorship, the current status of thinking and research in a wide range of areas was described in straightforward language by experts in their fields.
Foss was the son of a Methodist minister. He went up to Cambridge to take a degree in Natural Sciences (Mathematics and Physics), after which he entered military service. At the end of the war he was working in a Military Operations Research Unit whose director led him to explore the library of the National Institute of Industrial Psychology, the storehouse of research into human performance. He then went to the Institute of Experimental Psychology at Oxford to take a Diploma in Psychology, the subject not being dignified by university with degree status until 1949, by which time Foss was a Junior Lecturer there. He proceeded to a Lectureship at Birkbeck College, followed by two Professorships, also at London University, the first in Educational Psychology and the second in Psychology.
Foss's research career developed without pause for a doctoral thesis, and, indeed, at a time when a PhD, far from being de rigueur, was often conspicuous by its absence from the qualifications of the more illustrious academics.
An early research interest was in human and animal imitation. Foss kept mynah birds in his room at Birkbeck College and their spontaneous reproductions of his telephone, and the sounds of motor cycles starting up outside, did as much as his experimental data to convince him that imitation was a form of learning not dependent on reward.
Innovative investigations into the factors influencing infant development were funded by a series of grants, many for joint research within a specialist neonatal unit set up at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington. Significant work examined the effects of maternal analgesics on neonatal behaviour, and of practice sucking on the feeding skills of pre-term infants.
In 1985, and as a consequence of the pressure to rationalise the constituent schools of London University, it fell to Foss to supervise his department's transfer from Bedford College in Regent's Park to the renamed Royal Holloway and Bedford New College to Royal Holloway's site at Egham. It is a tribute to his cheerful diplomacy and his organisational skills that he delivered staff and students in good order to the prefabs that became their temporary home, and where teaching continued without interruption. When he retired two years later, he left a department poised to take advantage of the expansion in psychology as a university subject.
Foss, an accomplished chairman, acted in that role from 1972 to 1978 for the Psychology Board of the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA), entrusted with overseeing the establishment of the many new degree courses to be offered by the polytechnics.
He thought it important for psychology students to acquire skills as well as knowledge, but was not one to view psychology as entirely laboratory- based. He looked to tackle the significant, if less amenable, questions posed by behaving organisms, and to integrate the answers with the available information in the biological, evolutionary and neurological sciences.
Brian Foss was a kind, sympathetic and discreet colleague, socially genial, outgoing and witty, and the most adept of hosts. He could do conjuring tricks and was a legendary performer of psychological lyrics at the piano. Some of his surplus energy was devoted to gardening. He also had a deep knowledge of, and love for, serious music.
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