Obituary: SDS Spragg

Sidney Durward Shirley Spragg (1909-1995)

By Emory Cowen, American Psychologist
Volume 52, Number 5, May 1997

S(idney) D(urward) Shirley Spragg was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan on June 18, 1909, the oldest of four children of Emest and Eva Spragg. Newcomers were sometimes taken aback to hear this 6'4" man called by his family name, i.e., Shirley. Younger colleagues referred to him affectionately as SDSS.

When Shirley was age 8, the family moved to Seattle where he grew up. He completed his BA (1931) and MS (1932) in psychology at the University of Washington, working with Stevenson Smith, E. R. Guthrie and Ralph Gundlach. With their support, he entered the Ph.D. program in experimental psychology at Yale in 1933. His thesis. Anticipatory Responses in Serial Learning by Chimpanzees," was conducted in Yale's Laboratories of Comparative Psychobiology.

After completing the Ph.D., Shirley did post-doctoral research at Yale's Orange Park (FL) Anthropoid Experiment Station under Robert M. Yerkes There (1935-37), he conducted an ingenious study: ``Morphine Addiction in Chimpanzees," published in 1940 as a Comparative Psychology Monograph. By demonstrating that addiction (i.e., active striving for a drug beyond physiological dependence) could be induced in an infrahuman species, Shirley disproved the then-prevalent assumption that only those to whom drug effects could be explained (i.e., humans) could become addicted. His remarkable demonstration that addicted chimps, like humans, learn specific behaviors (i.e., "work" intentionally) to get a morphine shot, was an important precursor of the drug self-administration technique, one of the mainstays of modern research on addiction.

Following Orange Park, Shirley spent 10 years at Barnard College (1937-40) and Queens College (1940-46) in New York City, with a brief leave (1944) to work on a classified project to develop a gunfire tracking system. He spent the rest of his distinguished career (except for a sabbatical year in 1955-56 as Fulbright Lecturer at the Technical University in Berlin) at the University of Rochester, where he functioned admirably in several roles. He was an effective, much admired graduate and undergraduate teacher. He led an active research team (Burt Andreas and Russell Green were key members) that made significant contributions to the fields of human engineering and perceptual-motor performance. This multi-faceted, programmatic work continued productively for 15+ years, sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (perceptual motor skills in tracking and display-control relationships), the Aero-Medical Laboratory (dial reading at low photopic brightness levels) and the Army Medical Research Laboratory (factors affecting target acquisition performance in simulated tank control and display situations).

Starting in the late 1950s, Shirley assumed key administrative roles locally and nationally. At Rochester, he chaired the Psychology Department for 7 years (1960-67) and was Dean of Graduate Studies for 16 years (1958-1974). In parallel, he was a key figure in graduate education nationally, serving as President of the American Association Schools (1973-74), Chairman of the Council of Graduate Schools in the U.S.A (1974-75), and a member of the Graduate Record Exam Board. He was also a consultant in graduate education to the National Science Foundation, U.S. Office of Education, National Research Council, and the African-American Graduate (AFGHAN) Institute.

As Chairperson of the Advisory Council on Psychology for the NY State Education Department, Shirley helped to develop procedures for certifying psychologists. He was a charter member of the NY State Board of Examiners of Psychologists (1957-63), the group that monitored these certification procedures. Shirley was, to invoke a popular cliche, a true gentleman and scholar. He was intellectually keen, widely read, and had a broad vision of psychology. He was, by nature, low key and non-ostentatious. Although he tended on first impression to seem somber, he had a marvelously wry sense of humor and lively wit. An example; when the Psychology Department outgrew its limited animal space, Shirley appointed a committee to explore space options. Summarizing the committee's bleak report for the faculty, he noted that the basement space exarnined was badly marred by pipes hanging down front the ceiling, moisture seeping through the walls and uncontrollable drafts. He concluded solemnly that the space was entirely unfit for rats, but added, after a well-timed pause, "though we probably could use it for graduate students!"

Honest, fair, and clear thinking. Shirley remained a respected, highly contributory member of the Psychology Department, the University of Rochester's administration' and the flelds of psychology and graduate education at large until he retired in 1974. Indeed, even after retiring, he remained active in graduate education nationally and maintained a department office where he read regularly, and stayed close to department doings.

Shirley married Jane Trace on July 11, 1936, shortly after completing his Ph.D. The Spraggs remained an unusually close, devoted couple for 59 years until his death in Rochester on January 7, 1995. Shirley is survived by Jane and their two children, Dr. Jocelyn Spragg, Faculty Coordinator of Programs for Minority Science Students at the Harvard Medical School, and Dr. Roger G. Spragg, Professor and Vice Chairman, Department of Medicine at the University of California (San Diego).