William M. Cheyne 1938-2020

An appreciation by Emeritus Professor James Thomson, University of Strathclyde.

When in 1964 the Principal of Strathclyde University, Sir Sam Curran, invited Gustav Jahoda to establish a new Department of Psychology within what was itself a new institution, Gustav gathered around him a small group of young academics who would set out the department’s character and drive its development for decades to come. One of his most astute appointments was also the youngest. Although regarded by his alma mater as one of the finest graduates of his generation, Bill Cheyne was too young to bring with him significant administrative or teaching experience to the formidable task of setting up a department from scratch. It was characteristic of Gustav that he shrewdly recognised Bill’s talent and enthusiasm, quickly allowing him (together with another of his youngest recruits, Bryan Bett) to take leading roles in forging the new department.  His faith was justified as the department rapidly acquired a reputation for excellence and innovation in both teaching and research, becoming particularly well-known in the fields of social and developmental psychology.

Bill Cheyne was born in Aberdeen on 8th November 1938, the third of five children. As an exceptionally intelligent child with a deeply inquiring mind it was fortuitous that he lived across the road from the public library, which he would often visit several times a day. He won a scholarship to Robert Gordon’s College, a prestigious Aberdeen institution, and went on to Aberdeen University where he specialised in psychology and mathematics. He was an outstanding student, winning a series of prizes in both Logic and Psychology and graduating with first class honours in Psychology in 1961. He remained in Aberdeen to do a Ph.D. on programmed learning, which he completed in 1964.

Upon appointment at Strathclyde, Bill threw himself into university life with an enthusiasm that remained undimmed over the next 40 years. He developed almost singlehandedly the department’s teaching of experimental design and statistics and was the department’s supremo in this for the rest of his career. Later, when computer networks became the norm, he set up the department’s network and ran it for years. When professional computing staff were finally appointed, they expressed astonishment at how someone could set up and run such a sophisticated system while simultaneously holding a senior academic position with multiple other commitments. Bill also acted as informal advisor to staff and postgraduate students on computing and programming matters as they related to research. So skilful was he in this that I scarcely remember anyone feeling the need to go beyond the department for advice in all the years we were there. 

Bill’s support of students went far beyond the call of duty and he was constantly to be seen discussing and debating with them either in his office or in the common room. Bill regarded these informal meetings as even more important than the department’s conventional teaching and generations of students attest to the contribution these experiences made to their academic development. For many years he ran an honours class on philosophical problems in psychology. He ran this almost as a debating society, requiring students to explore the weaknesses of arguments they would have preferred to defend, and the merits of those they would have preferred to attack. It is characteristic that, years later, students would report looking back on these classes as amongst the most formative of their undergraduate years.

Bill also took great pleasure in supporting and mentoring his younger colleagues, not just on computational or analytical matters, but by lending a critical ear whenever we were wrestling with conceptual or theoretical issues.  He contributed significantly to the achievements of others and there seemed little limit to the time he would devote to this. I remember him coming in to help me retrieve some damaged files shortly after lunch and it was 11.00pm when I finally dragged him to the pub for a pint. When I arrived the next morning, he was already back on my computer. I asked if he was not getting to the end of his tether. He laughed and said, “I have a very long tether, Jimmie!” Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was in great demand as a research collaborator. He worked with many members of the department on a surprisingly wide range of psychological problems, befitting of his eclectic interests, but was particularly close to Gustav Jahoda, Margaret Clark and John Davis with whom he collaborated over many years.    

Outside of academia, Bill’s great love was music, nurtured during his early years. He particularly loved opera (especially Wagner, on whom he was something of an authority); choral music; and the traditional music of North-East Scotland. He was a fine singer with superb enunciation and, as a proficient speaker of the Doric dialect, sang beautiful renditions of the bothy ballads. He also wrote songs, usually to tunes from Gilbert and Sullivan, with which he regaled students at departmental parties. Two of the most popular were the Dissertation Song (written from the perspective of the supervisor) and the TQA (later QAA) Song. Both were deeply witty and rather scurrilous, and never failed to delight his audiences.  He also organised barbershop quartets for such occasions, made up of members of the department. It was the fulfilment of a lifetime dream when in retirement he finally secured the almost impossible-to-obtain tickets required to hear Wagner’s Ring cycle in its natural home at Bayreuth. 

Above all else, Bill Cheyne was devoted to his family. He and his wife Rona (also an Aberdonian and a psychology graduate) were a formidable and much-loved partnership of 46 years who brought life, laughter and a love of debate to whatever occasion they attended. His step-daughter Anne (another psychologist!), his sons Andrew, Jack, their wives Laura and Fiona and his three  grandchildren Isla, Fraser and Emma were at the centre of his world. They took great comfort that he died with his family at his side, listening to the music of Wagner. As the end drew near, they raised the volume and rang the rafters, that all the Gods of Valhalla might know of his imminent arrival.  

- Emeritus Professor James Thomson, University of Strathclyde.

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