BPS updates

Reuben Conrad 1916-2020

An appreciation from Dorothy Bishop.

23 March 2020

Reuben Conrad, always known just as Conrad, passed away on 17 March 2020 at the age of 103.  

I was a young postdoc when I first met Conrad, who was already a senior figure; for reasons lost in time we shared a car journey from Oxford to a conference in the 1970s. I can't remember which of us was driving, but I do remember that he was a shy and taciturn man. His reserve did fade away, however, when talking about education for Deaf children, the topic of the conference. Conrad's work had been seismic in showing that the widely-used oral education approaches that were pretty much universal in the UK were failing many children, and he was passionate in his advocacy for a different approach. Not only had he demonstrated that levels of literacy of Deaf children were years behind those of their hearing peers, but he had found an explanation for this. At the time, the idea that reading involved language skills, and especially phonological processing, was still a novel concept that had barely penetrated the field of education. In addition, there was a widespread belief that sign language was just a collection of gestures, without full linguistic status. This meant that, with the best of intentions, educators thought that the optimal way to teach Deaf children was by using oral methods involving lip-reading and hearing aids.  Conrad showed that oralism did not foster development of the ‘inner speech’ that was so important for reading and memory, but instead Deaf children could use ‘inner sign’. 

When Conrad turned 100, I wrote a piece for The Psychologist documenting his academic contribution, and tracing the history of how he came to be involved in research on Deaf education. It is an intriguing tale, whereby a family tragedy – the death of his wife – led him to re-evaluate his life as an applied experimental psychologist. He had done important work in the 1950s and 1960s in the Cambridge MRC Applied Psychology Unit, on verbal coding in short-term memory that had influenced the development of the British postcode system, but he felt he wanted to address a more important question. Having settled on inner speech in the Deaf, he worked for a year at the Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital in London, where he planned his major life's work: a psychological study of Deaf school-leavers in the UK, which he carried out while based in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. The resulting book, The Deaf School Child, is one of my favourite psychology texts. It showcases Conrad's clear thinking and careful approach to experimentation, and is a classic example of how experimental psychology can be applied to important everyday problems. 

Conrad received few accolades from the academic establishment, despite being awarded a CBE. But his legacy is his work on short-term memory, inner speech and Deafness, which will continue to have an influence long into the 21st century.

- Read Dorothy Bishop's retrospective from the July 2016 issue.