Dick Thompson with his granddaughter (I think) at the 2005 Pavlovian Society meeting in Anaheim.
Thompson with Elizabeth Loftus at the 2005 Pavlovian Society meeting in Anaheim, CA.
Behavioral Neuroscience lost a giant last week; Dick Thompson died at home in California just before the 2014 meeting of the Pavlovian Society was getting underway in Seattle. It is safe to say that few scientists over the course of the past 60 years have had an impact on research into the neural mechanisms of learning and memory matching that of Dick. Rather than recounting his scientific contributions here, sweeping and significant as they are, I prefer to focus on his human side — in particular how he touched me and my students.
At the 2011 Pavlovian Society meeting in Minneapolis. Amanda Blaker, Charisa Giddings, Thompson, me.
With Albion neuroscience students at the 2004 Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego.
Dick’s sense of humor was apparent in his talks. Here he suggests what one of his experimental rabbits might be thinking (hard to see – the photo shows the rabbit imagining Thomson in an eye-blink experiment).
Dick with Robert Rescorla, winner of the Pavlovian Society’s Gantt Medal (2005).
Dick with Albion neuroscience students at the 2007 SfN meeting in San Diego. Cindy (Cardwell) Fast, Megan (Roberts) Langford, Mieke (Verhoeven) Hovey, Paul Beach, Thompson, David Wreschning, and unlabelled person in front.
My first encounter with Thompson’s work came in my second year of college, in my Intro Psych course. We used his book for the segment on what was then called “Physiological Psychology.” That book and Earl Thomas’ teaching hooked me.
Thompson with other past and future Pavlovian Society Presidents, 2006. [From left: Rick Servatius, Dick Thompson, Lou Matzel, Michael Domjan, Ralph Miller, Tracey Shors, Bruce Overmier, Joe Steinmetz, Michael Fanselow]
Although I am sure that I heard him speak at UCLA while I was there as a grad student, my first personal encounter with Thompson came (I think) at a Psychonomic Society meeting in Atlanta in 1989. I presented a poster and Thompson came by, looked it over, and had a few kind words to say about it (probably out of pity for this poor, misguided young scientist). At that same meeting I recall seeing him with Elizabeth Loftus, having drinks at the hotel bar; “Wow,” I thought, “Two really important psychologists and they know each other!” (Kind of along the lines of finally realizing that your elementary school teachers have a life outside of the classroom.)
Fast forward many years. Although I had followed Thompson’s work and heard him speak, I had no further contact with him until I started attending the meetings of the Pavlovian Society in 2001. Thompson presented there (Richard F. Thompson, USC “Mice, the cerebellum and memories”) and I know that I spoke with him, but I have no specific recollection of our discussion. I was emboldened, though, by having interacted with him at the meeting, so I asked him if he would meet with Albion students at the 2004 Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego. He graciously agreed, and our students gained his insights into both research and a career in science. He met with us again in 2007.
Thompson’s reach was very broad; an examination of NeuroTree today (9/22/2014) though hardly complete, indicates 35 direct scientific decendants (PhD students and post-docs) and 247 scientific grandchildren (we all know that NeuroTree can list people in various places; some were counted twice, but others were never entered, so I’ll go with these numbers).
As I became more involved with the Pavlovian Society I got to know him better, and interacted with him closely in planning the 2005 meeting that he hosted in Anaheim. I did not know him as well as many who had collaborated directly with him on research, but I considered him a friend, and felt enriched by our friendship. He had achieved a level of recognition in science that surpasses that of nearly all of us, yet he was always willing to talk with junior colleagues, and especially with students (many of whom did not realize his important contributions at the time).
Thanks for the great science, Dick, and for your friendship.