Fellows Detail

Emeritus Professor Richard Champion

Elected: 1978

Discipline: Psychology

Date of Passing: 05/07/1999

Obituary:

Richard Annells Champion, a Fellow of the Academy since 1978, died on 5 July 1999 at the age of 74 following a fall at his home in Mona Vale in Sydney. He will be well remembered for his strong and influential advocacy of Psychology as an experimental discipline and for his singular contributions to the formation of the Australian Psychological Society of which he was foundation President.

Dick Champion was born on 6 January, 1925 in Largs Bay, South Australia. His father was the Manager of the Union Bank of Australia and, when Dick was young, moved frequently from one branch to another as he was promoted. When Dick was six the family settled in Inverell where he received his early schooling. After a year at Inverell High School Dick was enrolled as a boarder at New England Boys Grammar School. Later he was awarded a scholarship as a boarder at Scots College, Sydney.

 In 1943 Dick Champion enrolled in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney where he completed a double major in psychology, after which he was invited to undertake the Honours year. Following the award of first-class honours and the University Medal in 1947 he was appointed to a Lectureship in 1948. The rest of his academic career until his retirement in 1987 was spent in the University of Sydney variously as Senior Lecturer (1955-63), Associate Professor (1963-1965) and McCaughey Professor of Psychology (1965-1987). During 1965-1967, 1971-1974, 1978- 1980 and 1983-1984 he served as Head of Department, in one of the largest Departments in the University. He was Pro-Dean of the Faculty of Science, 1972-1975.

Dick Champion’s primary research interest was in the experimental investigation of human and animal learning, particularly in regard to the relationship between performance and motivation. His experimental orientation derived in large part from the early influence of Alfred Horatio ‘Piggy’ Martin, an irascible, and legendary figure and the first Reader in Psychology at the University. Martin had completed his doctoral degree under the direction of RS Woodworth at Columbia and brought with him back to Australia his firm and unrelenting views on psychology as an experimental science. These views were strongly reflected in Dick Champion’s teaching and in the rigour of his experimental work both alone and with his senior students. Dick was to set out his views in his fourth published paper, ‘Principles of Experimentation’ which appeared in the Australian Journal of Psychology, in 1953 (Vol 5: 146-153).

Dick’s interests in human and animal learning and its controlling factors and processes were reinforced and extended during a two year leave at the University of Iowa in the mid-1950s. In 1954, at Iowa, he completed a Master of Arts degree working in the research group of Kenneth and Janet Spence, then leading figures in the study of learning. There, Dick Champion also came under the influence of Gustav Bergman, a philosopher of science earlier associated with the Vienna Circle.

The fifteen or so years after his return from the United States were Dick Champion’s most productive. Along with his doctoral and honours students he conducted a program of research on various aspects of human and animal learning and published a number of important papers on theoretical aspects of the learning process. Among these contributions were ‘Learning’, published in 1958 (Australian Journal of Psychology, 10: 54-68) and ‘Reinforcement and Learning Theory’ published in 1960 (Australian Journal of Psychology, 12: 10-20). His output of some 60 papers alone or in collaboration reveal Dick Champion as both a thoughtful scholar and a vigorous investigator of problems in learning. It was during these years too that he published his book Learning and Activation (Sydney, John Wiley, 1969) which, although aimed primarily at senior undergraduates, was nevertheless a highly original and insightful work on the processes and determinants of learning.

In the early 1950s the fortunes of the then British Psychological Society, Australian Branch were at a low ebb. Bill O’Neil, McCaughey Professor of Psychology, prevailed on Dick Champion to take on the Secretaryship of the Society and to revive and reorganise it. Dick did so with considerable verve and enormous commitment to the task, bringing to bear on the job his formidable organisational skills. It was typical of him - indeed one of his salient characteristics - that a job taken on would be tackled with energy and carried through to completion. He virtually rebuilt the Society and positioned it in readiness for its smooth transition to the Australian Psychological Society in 1966.

In recognition of his singular contributions Dick Champion was elected as the last Chair of the old Australian Branch of the British Psychological Society and the first President of the new Australian Psychological Society during 1965-1966. In these positions he played a key role in guiding the affairs of the first Council during its first year of operation. As Chair and President Dick was never authoritarian or over-assertive. His style was to seek agreement and consensus, never an easy task in the early years of the Society, given the competing views of the various State Branches and other sectional interests.

In the tradition of the Department of Psychology headed by Bill O’Neil, Dick Champion set high standards for himself and his students. He was quick to recognise shoddy thinking no matter how well disguised, and was open and forthright in condemning it. He had a sharp and unerring eye for pretentiousness and chicanery in academic work and was relentless in dealing with it.

Like all good scientists Dick Champion was a sceptic and insisted on sound data for all theoretical claims. His students genuinely admired the clarity, conviction and authority evident in his teaching and his natural charm in the social interactions he enjoyed so much. Those who worked with him when he was Head of Department, from time to time realise, if only in retrospect, how gifted a leader he was. Although he could be assertive and forthright in stating his views he was never overbearing or authoritarian. He had no hidden agendas and was quite incapable of scheming.

In the course of his academic career Dick Champion received numerous awards and honours. As a student he was awarded Lithgow Scholarships for first place in Psychology II and III and the University Medal for Psychology IV Honours in 1947. In 1953 he was an early recipient of a Fulbright Travelling Scholarship, in 1962 an award from the Foundation Fund for Research in Psychiatry, and in 1969 a National Science Foundations Senior Foreign Scientist Fellowship. He was also a Visiting Scholar in the University of California, Irvine (1969) and the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry (1976).

As a friend and colleague Dick Champion was among the most affable of men with an engaging charm and wit. He had an acute ear for the double entendre and a well developed sense of the ridiculous, an essential quality for the maintenance of sanity in the academic jungle.

He was quite genuinely self-effacing, seeking no accolades. His contributions to the establishment of a genuine experimental psychology in Australia and his fostering of critical attitudes by his students towards the greater excesses of non-experimental approaches to mind are considerable. He never wavered in his view that psychology would only gain acceptance in the world of science through careful, rigorous experiment and theory. Dick was unquestionably one of the most gifted mentors of young, would-be researchers and he will be long remembered by those to whom he passed on his message through teaching, research and good fellowship.

Dick Champion is survived by his wife Margaret to whom he was married in 1951, and four grown-up children.

Ross Day and Peter Wenderoth

 

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