Robert S. Harper (1922-1996) Teacher, Mentor, and Scholar

Robert S(tevens) Harper died on August 14, 1996, in Charleston, South Carolina. He was a Fellow of the American Psychological Society and widely known and respected for his continuous active involvement in the American Psychological Association (APA) since the early 1950s. Bob Harper was Council Representative of the Division on the Teaching of Psychology for four terms, Chair of the APA Committee on the Structure and Function of Council, and Secretary-Treasurer and President of the APA Division on the Teaching of Psychology. He was the Division’s Historian from 1974 to 1985, served on numerous other Divisional and APA Committees, and was Founding President of the Council on Undergraduate Departments. He was named an Outstanding Educator of America in 1973 and served on the Editorial Board of the journal Teaching of Psychology.

Bob Harper was born on February 4, 1922, in Ithaca, New York. His childhood years were characterized by many relocations (12 different schools in 12 years) across several states (from New York to Pennsylvania to Oklahoma). After completing high school, Bob entered Oklahoma University, from which he earned both a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Science degree in 1943.

Robert Harper married Marilyn Millard, who survives, on January 15, 1944. Together, as a team, they were to forge lasting friendships with scores of students and, later, their families. Their remarkable openness, courtesy and generosity changed many lives and earned them the love and respect of countless students. Following a two-year stint in the U.S. Army as an Occupational Counselor, Bob entered the graduate program at Harvard University in the fall of 1946. On his way from Oklahoma to Cambridge he attended the APA meeting at the University of Pennsylvania. This was the first of many annual APA meetings and was the forerunner of Bob’s later involvement with various professional organizations.

At Harvard, Bob served as the Teaching Fellow for E.G. Boring. It was his association with Boring that ignited Bob’s interest in history and led to a study of graduate degrees in psychology in the United States from 1873 to 1948. Bob also was one of the first to do archival research in the history of American Psychology. While at Harvard, he gained permission to study the William James papers in an effort to learn more about James and the development of psychology at Harvard and in the United States. This provided Bob the opportunity to interview William James’ son and to examine the notebook that James kept as he plied the Amazon with the noted Harvard biologist Alexander Agassiz.

Having completed a Master’s degree at Harvard, in 1949, Bob was appointed Instructor of Psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. After two years, and with a Ford Foundation Faculty Fellowship in hand, he returned to the University of Oklahoma to complete his graduate work, receiving a PhD in 1952.

Bob immediately rejoined the Knox College faculty, continuing a long and productive academic career at Knox that would span another 35 years. He served as Chairman of the Department of Psychology for 15 years, and was elected College Marshal. He also served as College Examiner and Registrar. He held visiting professorships at The University of Texas-Austin and at the College of Charleston, and was a Professor in the Department of Psychology and Social Sciences at Rush Medical University from 1979 to 1985.

Early in his career, Bob’s published work was experimental in nature, concentrating on sensation and perception. In addition, E.G. Boring’s love of the history of psychology had infected Bob while he was at Harvard, and he continued his interest in that topic throughout his lifetime. However, his interest in teaching and in the undergraduate curriculum became paramount early in his tenure at Knox, and it is for his work in those areas for which he is best known. In addition to authoring Introductory Psychology (Allyn and Bacon, 1958), he published and spoke often on teaching and’ curricular topics. He organized an early and successful conference on general education and psychology, and for several years he directed a summer institute for high school teachers of psychology, supported by the National Science Foundation. He also directed a project aimed at developing an undergraduate curriculum for child care specialists.

It was, however, his remarkable success in working with students and in identifying those with promise for success in graduate work in psychology for which Bob Harper will be most fondly remembered. Prior 10 his arrival at Knox, only a handful of students had gone on to graduate work in psychology or closely related fields. During his tenure, however, 87 students went on to graduate study, 60 of whom have their doctorates in psychology. Upon his retirement, Knox College was in the upper two percent of colleges in terms of the percentage of their graduates earning advanced degrees in psychology. To be sure, Bob was not the only psychologist at Knox to influence these students during that period; he was, however, the catalyst for this remarkable record.

His work as a psychologist and as an educator did not end at the boundaries of the campus. Bob was a member of the Board of Directors of the Illinois Association of Mental Health, serving as its Vice President for three years. He also served as President of the Board of Directors of the Spoon River Community Mental Health Center, which honored his work by naming their library after him. He was a Life Trustee of the Galesburg Cottage Hospital, serving as the Chairman of their School of Nursing Committee for many years, and he was a member and Chairman of the Citizen’s Advisory Committee to the Board of Education for the local school district. So often, the separation between “town” and “gown” is lamented. Bob Harper once wrote: “I never did approve of the town-gown split. We were a part of Galesburg; Knox was a pari of Galesburg; and I was employed there.”

Just as the campus boundary was no barrier to his academic interests, neither was retirement a barrier to his continuing historical interests. When they retired to Charleston, Bob and Lyn immediately became involved in the Historic Charleston effort. Bob served as a tour guide and as chairman of the street marshals for the Festival of Houses. And, as usual , his intellect and passion for teaching made his tours replete with interesting and important factual information.

Bob Harper changed the lives of scores of students; he stayed in touch with them. He knew where “his” students were, what they were doing, and many aspects of their personal and professional lives. His love and respect for them was returned in kind. We mourn Bob’s passing, but we take comfort from the fact that he will live on through his students and through many generations of students to come who unknowingly reel his influence.


Excellent review of Robert S. Harper’s life. Took his courses at Knox College. Thank you for hosting this article on the Internet.