In Memoriam: Dr. Leon J. Kamin (1927-2017)

Jan. 19, 2018

Dr. Leon J. Kamin, former chair of the Department of Psychology at Princeton, passed away on December 22, 2017, one week short of his ninetieth birthday. Dr. Kamin grew up in Taunton, Massachusetts, and attended Harvard, where he received his B.A. (1949), M.A. (1952), and Ph.D. (1954).

Throughout his life, Dr. Kamin was candid, tenacious, honorable, and firm in his principles. When asked to name names by the McCarthy Committee in 1954, Dr. Kamin refused, even though it made him persona non grata in U.S. academic circles for some years. However, he was welcomed in Canada, where he was appointed as Research Associate at McGill (1954-1955), and then as an Assistant Professor at Queen’s University (1955-1957). He joined McMaster University as an Assistant Professor in 1957, rising quickly through the ranks to Professor in 1963. He served as Department Chair from 1964-1968), and then moved to Princeton as the Dorman T. Warren Professor of Psychology (1968-1987), serving as Department Chair from 1968-1974.

Early in his career, Dr. Kamin developed an influential line of research on associative learning and conditioning. In fact, a specific conditioning effect, the Kamin (blocking) effect, is named after him. Later in his career Professor Kamin became interested in the heritability of intelligence, leading to his debunking of Sir Cyril Burt’s infamous twin studies (which turned out to be total fabrications). Kamin’s interest in IQ led to the publication of his extremely influential book, The Science and Politics of IQ. With this work and the work that followed, Dr. Kamin’s influence extended far beyond the walls of the academy. His meticulous attention to data and his passion for social justice were blended together in these endeavors, and their influence on subsequent thought and practice has been enormous.

Dr. Kamin came to the Department of Psychology at Princeton at a time when the department was in need of strong leadership. He satisfied that need and laid the foundation for all that followed. He obtained new positions, additional space, and enhanced the reputation of the department within and outside the University. In addition, Professor Kamin was committed to increasing the presence of African American students and faculty in the department and he devoted considerable energy to achieving that goal. 

Professor Kamin left Princeton in 1987 to become chair of the Psychology Department at Northeastern University, returning to his Boston roots. There he continued his efforts to increase the representation of minority students in graduate psychology programs. After his retirement from Northeastern in 1998, Dr. Kamin and his wife, Marie-Claire, began a period of endless summer, dividing their time between South Africa and their homes in Boston and Maine. In Capetown, Leo Kamin had a rich network of friends, not only at the University of Capetown where he was an Honorary Professor, but also in the townships. He loved the vibrancy of South African politics, especially because he arrived at a time of political transition.

Dr. Kamin is survived by his wife, Marie-Claire, son, John, daughters, Katie, Sylvie and Christine, eight grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. His remarkable life was celebrated at a memorial service held at Alden Castle, Brookline, on January 5, 2018.

(Thank you to Professor Emeritus Sam Glucksberg)