Professor Leslie Reid, FBPsS (1924-2014)

Leslie Reid, the founding professor of Psychology at the University of Exeter, died in September 2014, at the age of 90. He was a leading member of the generation who oversaw the enormous expansion of psychology as a discipline, and the British Psychological Society, in the period after the Second World War; it is difficult for anyone educated after that expansion to grasp just how much influence he and colleagues of the same period had.

Born in 1924, Leslie was commissioned into the Royal Scots in 1944. He saw war service in Burma, a period he did not talk about much; but before he was demobbed, he found himself running the historic Runnymede Hotel in Penang as a rest and recreation centre for forces personnel in the aftermath of the war. He did talk about that – it was evidently a good deal of fun, and his family still remember the fish curries he learned to cook there. He then took his MA at the University of Edinburgh, before going as a graduate student to B. F. Skinner’s lab in Harvard. Although Leslie only stayed at Harvard a year, Skinner remained a lifelong friend; he often visited Leslie in Exeter, and Leslie spent a summer teaching at Harvard in the late 1960s, at Skinner’s invitation.   

In the 1950s, a PhD was in no way a necessity for getting an academic post in a British or British-influenced university, and rather than complete a doctorate, Leslie accepted a lecturing post at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. He retained an affection for New Zealand and for Christchurch in particular for the rest of his life, but he soon moved back to Scotland, to a lectureship at the University of Aberdeen. From there, he was recruited in 1963 to head the nascent Psychology Department at the University of Exeter.

Up till that time, Psychology at Exeter had been a sub-department within the Institute of Education. There were a couple of lecturers, and that was about all. Leslie set about building up a department and a degree programme. He served as Head of Department until 1980, when he took partial early retirement: regulations had just been introduced to allow elected heads of department if the permanently appointed heads were willing to stand down, and, contrary to some people’s expectations, Leslie lost no time in standing out of the way of progress. He continued to serve the university – he had just started a period as a Deputy Vice-Chancellor – and indeed to take an interest in the department, but he was scrupulous in keeping out of his successors’ way. When he finally retired, and we met to celebrate his long period of service to Psychology at Exeter, there were 13 members of academic staff, and Leslie had appointed us all: he had truly built a department. It endured in the shape he had built for longer than he might have guessed, because although he was finally successful in securing a second professorship for the department, Dick Eiser, almost immediately afterwards the Thatcher cuts in higher education came into force, leading to an effective freeze on new appointments that lasted almost a decade.

The department that Leslie built enshrined his own values. It had a tilt towards behaviourism, but it also gave a home to noted critics of behaviourism such as Michael Howe, and all-round mavericks such as Paul Kline. It always included a strong emphasis on the biological bases of behaviour: Leslie particularly enjoyed teaching a comparative psychology course that was based on the work of the European ethologists rather than conventional learning theory.  With the help of BPS colleagues like May Davison, he also ensured that the department acquired a clinical training course – though not a clinician himself, he felt that a psychology department could not be complete unless it was involved in preparing people for professional practice. Above all, however, the department was tremendously devoted to teaching undergraduates comprehensively and well, and to caring for them, too. Leslie combined rigour and compassion. Our late colleague Denver Daniels recalled being called into Leslie’s office to account for himself when he had given a student a mark of 17% for an essay; stutteringly, he tried to say that really he had thought it pretty bad, but if the professor thought…  Leslie cut him off. “Tell me where there is any merit at all in it, Denver, tell me? Why did you not give it zero?” But on the other hand, when some of us were joking in the coffee room about a particular student’s dismal performance, he cut us off too: “Oh, I’m sure they like failing, Stephen, they like failing.” Irony was never far from Leslie. He never lost his Scottish accent, or his distinctively Scottish intellectual style – critical, analytic, terse, and formidably acute – so that he could seem dour and acerbic, and his interventions in seminars, though always very politely put, could strike terror into the heart. In some ways he was a kind of secular puritan, and not just in his eagerness to pounce on bad logic: ours must have been the last department in the country to acquire a photocopier, and we only got one when Leslie went off to New Zealand on sabbatical. His deputy took prompt action the moment his back was turned.

But Leslie was not really dour; there was always a gleam of humour in his eye, even when it was carefully hidden. Everyone tried to imitate his accent, and sooner or later everyone got caught doing it as he came into a room; he never commented, except with a delicately raised eyebrow. And everyone who worked under him has an anecdote to illustrate his kindness and humanity.  Mine concerns one of those slightly excruciating occasions that used to be a feature of academic life, when my wife and I were invited to the Professor’s house for dinner soon after my appointment. It was all rather formal and nerve-wracking, until the phone rang; with a courteous explanation, Leslie left the table and had a long conversation with one of his daughters, who had just left home for university. That demonstration of a very human sense of priorities, which everyone around the table shared, thawed the atmosphere as nothing else could have done.

Like many senior academics of his period, Leslie published little himself: he saw his role as recruiting and encouraging staff and PhD students who would be good researchers – though he was not always as successful at this as he hoped. But if you look at the record of the research students he supervised, and other students whom he encouraged and influenced, you realise how important the role of Leslie’s kind of academic was in shaping research in the UK. A high proportion of his PhD students went on to hold chairs in UK departments themselves, some of them (Peter Morris and Ray Bull, for example) becoming well known in the BPS as well as in their research fields. He was also a great encourager of young colleagues, not least another stalwart of the BPS, Tony Gale. His own research interest was in the psychology of gambling, with a tilt towards a Skinnerian explanation of its persistence; he gave valuable advice to government at the time the National Lottery was being set up, and one of his papers, on the psychology of the “near miss” in gambling situations, is a classic that is rediscovered regularly by people who thought they had invented the idea themselves.

In those days when there was typically only a single professor in each UK university department, professors were expected to be public servants, in the university and beyond. Leslie served as Dean of Science and later as Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Exeter – thankless tasks both of them, with large responsibilities but no real power, in a period when the barons of the big science departments could and did hold vice-chancellors to ransom, and looked down on psychology as a pseudo-science with no real attraction for students. Leslie got more satisfaction out of his service to UK psychology, both as an external examiner, where his combination of incisiveness and humanity made him much in demand, and through the BPS. He was a constant advocate for the Society within the department, and at national level he served as one of the early Chairs of the Scientific Affairs Board (now the Research Board). He must have served on other BPS committees too, because he had a favourite anecdote of taking over as secretary of one from Cyril Burt. According to Leslie, the day after the meeting, he received a letter from Burt, explaining that he had taken a few notes of the meeting, and perhaps Leslie would find them useful in writing the minutes. Leslie, who had already written the minutes, compared his version with Burt’s – which he found owed not very much to what had actually happened at the meeting, but a good deal to what Burt would have liked to happen. Through the BPS, Leslie also played a substantial international role: he helped to create the New Zealand branch of the Society, which in due course became the New Zealand Psychological Society, and in the days of the Cold War he made a number of official visits to Soviet bloc countries, discreetly supporting colleagues there in their difficult relationships with governments and earning their long-lasting respect and gratitude. 

In retirement, Leslie maintained friendly relationships with many former colleagues, and he never lost his interest in psychology or the Exeter department, though he put his working life behind him without regrets. In his last years, his health and particularly his sight deteriorated, but his shrewdness and wit were undimmed. To live to be 90 is inevitably to outlive many of those who would have remembered you; but those of us who are left of the department he built, and many beyond, will remember him always as the founder of our own department, and as a wise and compassionate leader in the post-war development of British psychology.

Stephen Lea

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