George Collier, Former Chair of Department of Psychology at Rutgers, Dead at 94

George Collier, Former Chair of Department of Psychology at Rutgers, Dead at 94

Collier shaped the department into a nationally respected center of experimental psychology

George H. Collier, professor emeritus of psychology
Photo courtesy of Christopher Rovee
George H. Collier, professor emeritus of psychology at Rutgers University, died April 18 at his home in Delaware Township, New Jersey. He was 94 years old and the husband of Carolyn Rovee-Collier, also a professor of psychology at Rutgers, who died last October.

Collier taught at Northwestern University, Duke University and the University of Missouri before coming to Rutgers in 1962. He chaired the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University-New Brunswick from 1968 to 1975.

Collier studied animal behavior, trying to understand what animals take into account when they look for food. He started as a disciple of B.F. Skinner, the psychologist and social philosopher best known for his theory of radical behaviorism, but departed from Skinner early in his career.

“George came to take a more inclusive and naturalistic view of what was going on than Skinner did,” said Charles R. Gallistel, professor of psychology and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Science. “Skinner tried to apply animal learning to human learning, and that was where they parted company.”

George Henry Collier,  born in Minneapolis January  3, 1921, was one of four children born to George and Nettie Collier. He matriculated at the University of Minnesota but left to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II. He served with a reconnaissance unit in Europe, and spent much of his time interviewing German prisoners. He received medals for his wartime service – medals he later formally returned to the government in protest against the Vietnam War.

After the war, Collier returned to the University of Minnesota and completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He had been a work-study student for Skinner before the war, and followed his mentor to Indiana University to study for his Ph.D. Skinner soon left Indiana for Harvard, but Collier stayed at Indiana and completed his doctoral studies in 1951.

Six years after his arrival at Rutgers, Collier was named chair of the department and remained in the post for seven years. As chair, Collier continued to shape the department into a nationally respected center of experimental psychology, not only by recruiting talented younger faculty but also by working to expand the physical plant available for laboratories.

Collier married Joanne Schaniel in 1951. The couple had three sons: George Jr., Jonathan and James. The couple divorced. In 1977, and Collier married Carolyn Rovee, a specialist in infant memory at Rutgers.  With Collier’s youngest son, James, and Rovee’s two sons from a previous marriage, Benjamin and Christopher, the couple raised chickens and other livestock on their farm in Delaware Township.

Collier retired in 1991, but still taught occasional classes at Rutgers for many years after that. He was a lover of the wilderness, and well into his 80s, set out each August with a friend, Byron Campbell, on back-packing trips. “Every August, the two of them courted disaster,” wrote Christopher Rovee, Collier’s stepson, in a remembrance. “At the end of their final trip, which involved being dropped off in the Alaskan backcountry, their raft overshot a pick-up point along the Yukon River, leading everyone to believe – for two harrowing days until they were found – that they had vanished in the wild.”

In addition to his wife, Carolyn Rovee-Collier, Collier was pre-deceased by his brother, Phillip Collier, and a sister, Jeanne Denham. He is survived by his sister Nancy Beaver, of Springfield, Virginia; his sons George Collier Jr., of Califon, New Jersey; Jonathan Collier of Tampa, Florida; and James Collier of Stockton, New Jersey; and his two stepsons, George Rovee of Alison Park, Pennsylvania; and Christopher Rovee of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.