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In Memoriam: Donald J. Lewis, 88

The experimental psychologist's seminal research on the psychobiology of active and inactive memory published in the Psychological Bulletin in 1979 was among dozens of his oft-cited published papers.

By Pamela J. Johnson
January 6, 2011

Donald J. Lewis retired from USC College in 1987 and spent quality time with his family. At left, he's shown with daughter Trey Mason of Rancho Palos Verdes. At right, as a young man, Donald J. Lewis enlisted in the Army and served during World War II before eventually joining USC College, where as an experimental psychologist he served as dean of social sciences and chaired the Department of Psychology. Photos courtesy of the Lewis family.

Donald J. Lewis retired from USC College in 1987 and spent quality time with his family. At left, he's shown with daughter Trey Mason of Rancho Palos Verdes. At right, as a young man, Donald J. Lewis enlisted in the Army and served during World War II before eventually joining USC College, where as an experimental psychologist he served as dean of social sciences and chaired the Department of Psychology. Photos courtesy of the Lewis family.

USC College Professor Emeritus Donald J. Lewis, experimental psychologist with expertise in learning and memory, former dean of social sciences and chair of the Department of Psychology, has died. He was 88.

Lewis died after complications from pneumonia Dec. 29 in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif.

“He was a loving and kind father,” said daughter Trey Mason of Rancho Palos Verdes. “He was always there for me.”

Lewis arrived at USC in 1968 as professor of psychology and department chair. In 1971, he was named dean of social sciences in the College, a post he kept for six years before returning to his position as department chair. He retired in January 1987.

“Donald Lewis was a significant leader in shaping and strengthening the Department of Psychology at USC,” said Margaret Gatz, professor of psychology and current department chair.

USC College Professor Emeritus Norman Cliff was Lewis’ good friend. Cliff, who now lives in Albuquerque, N.M., was professor of psychology in the College from 1962 to 1995. During Lewis’ tenure as dean, he was instrumental in getting the Seeley G. Mudd Building constructed on University Park Campus. Lewis also recruited several outstanding researchers such as psychologist Ward Edwards.

“During Don’s years as chair and dean, the department began attracting junior and senior researchers of significant national stature,” Cliff said. “As an administrator, he was always extremely fair. He was very good at minimizing any division between clinical and nonclinical psychologists.”

Gerald Davison, professor of psychology and gerontology, remembers this about Lewis, who was chair when Davison interviewed for his job in 1979. The Mudd Building, where psychology is currently located, had not yet opened. Lewis told Davison about the plans to move nonclinical psychologists to Mudd and keep the clinical psychologists at a building on Adams Avenue. Davison, a clinical psychologist, expressed his dismay about splitting the department. Lewis agreed with Davison.

“I would not have come to USC if Don had not promised that he would work with me to integrate the whole department,” said Davison, now dean of the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. “I sensed that he was a person of his word, and he was. We did integrate.”

Lewis’ former colleagues remember Lewis as a sprightly, enthusiastic person with an easy-going demeanor. Joseph Hellige recalled meeting Lewis in the fall of 1974. Lewis wore a tie and jacket, coupled with tennis shoes. Hellige, a professor of psychology, also served as department chair and vice provost of graduate studies at USC.

“He wore sneakers no matter what,” said Hellige, who left USC after 32 years and is now vice president for research and dean of graduate studies at Loyola Marymount University. “Or sometimes he kicked off his shoes and had stocking feet.”

Hellige and others remembered Lewis’ seminal research on the psychobiology of active and inactive memory published in the Psychological Bulletin in 1979, one of dozens of his oft-cited published papers. Lewis wrote that simple memories for events are formed quickly and are permanent. Most forgetting is the result of a retrieval failure rather than a storage failure, he wrote.

“His research on the psychobiology of memory was well regarded,” Hellige said. “I also served on committees for his graduate students and they had a great deal of respect for Don. He was a good mentor.”

Born in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in 1922, Lewis enlisted in the Army in September 1942 and was a veteran of World War II. A sergeant, he was honorably discharged after the war in 1946. He graduated from UCLA in 1942 and was professor of psychology and chair of the psychology department at Rutgers University before arriving in USC College in 1968. At Rutgers, Lewis built a strong graduate program and recruited many senior research faculty members in various specialties. After his retirement, he lived in San Pedro, Calif.; Temecula, Calif.; San Miguel de Allende, Mexico; and Palos Verdes, Calif. He stayed in shape playing tennis.

Lewis is survived by son Mark Lewis of Tokyo, daughter Trey Mason and granddaughter Shaylan Mason, both of Rancho Palos Verdes.

There will be no funeral. Donations in his memory may be made to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.