Professor Alan Baddeley

Doctor of Science
Wednesday 24 July 2019 - Orator: Professor Chris Jarrold


If you were to ask anyone studying for a degree in Psychology in the UK, to name a famous psychologist, then one of the first names to come up would be Alan Baddeley. This is because Alan is one of the foremost psychologists of his generation. Over the past 50 years he has revolutionised our understanding of the human mind, shaped the tools we use to measure cognitive functioning, and pioneered the application of psychology in real-world settings. His standing is shown by the range of accolades he has received. These include the British Psychological Society’s Presidents’ Award, a term as President of the UK’s Experimental Psychology Society, and Membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1993 he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1999 was awarded a CBE in recognition of his work.

Alan was born in 1934 and grew up in Hunslet, an industrial suburb of Leeds. He was one of the few children from his primary school to attend the local grammar school, where he studied English, Geography and History at A level. As he himself notes, he is therefore one of the few Fellows of the Royal Society without a post 16 qualification in maths or science. Having heard a radio interview in which his hero – Bertrand Russell – suggested that Psychology was an interesting subject, he applied to the degree course at University College London. There he found his initial interest in Freudian versions of psychology quickly replaced by a love of experimental, cognitive psychology. Having completed his undergraduate studies, he crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary to study for a Masters degree at Princeton. He then undertook his PhD at the Medical Research Council’s Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge. This Unit was to become central to Alan’s career because he later returned to become its Director between 1974 and 1995.

Alan currently holds an Honorary Professorship at the University of York. However, he has particular connections to Bristol. In 1958 he worked at the Burden Neurological Institute, then located at Stoke Park. Between 1995 and 2003 he held a Professorship here at the University. In addition, one of his sons – Roland – is now a member of the academic staff in our School of Psychological Sciences.

Alan’s work as a psychologist has focussed on memory and learning and he is most famous for pioneering the concept of working memory within cognitive psychology. Although he wasn’t the very first to use this term, he saw its relevance and importance for cognitive science. In 1974 he and his colleague Graham Hitch published their seminal paper outlining a model of human working memory - detailing how we maintain information actively in mind in order to guide our behaviour. That paper has since been cited by other researchers over 10,000 times; a truly extraordinary figure in our discipline.

Alan has therefore contributed substantially to psychological theory, but a key feature of his career has been applying his insights in the service of society. Indeed, as Director of the Medical Research Council’s Applied Psychology Unit his brief was to ensure that psychological knowledge had real-world influence. The ways he has done this include advising the Post Office on the UK’s postcode system, responding to a request from Margaret Thatcher for information on the effectiveness of lie detectors, and measuring the effects of parasitic infection on children’s cognition in developing countries. Alan is most proud his work with patients with various forms of brain damage or neurological difficulties. He has developed a number of assessment tools that are used by clinicians to diagnose and inform the treatment of individuals with traumatic brain injury, amnesia, or Alzheimer’s disease.

This range of interests reflects Alan’s natural curiosity and thirst for knowledge, characteristics that led him to study History and Geography at A level all those years ago. Like the historian, he is interested in what we can learn from the past about the present, and why people act in the way they do. Like the geographer he is always exploring, searching for new information and pushing the boundaries of our knowledge along the way. Indeed, Alan describes his own theories as maps; maps that aren’t meant to be overly detailed, but which tell you where to go next if you want to find something new and exciting. In line with this, Alan has always had a taste for adventure. If you have the opportunity to chat to him later, ask him about his work with deep sea divers, how he and his colleagues went about measuring stress in parachutists, and the infamous experiment with the Icelandic student! This willingness to be open to new experiences, coupled with Alan’s undimmed desire to find out what lies beyond the edges of his current knowledge make him a very fitting role model for all of our graduates today.

Chancellor, I present to Alan David Baddeley as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

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