Neil O'Connor

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Neil O'Connor
Neil O'Connor.jpeg
Born (1917-03-23)March 23, 1917
Geraldton, Western Australia
Died October 1, 1997(1997-10-01) (aged 80)
Fields experimental psychology
Institutions University of London, University College London
Alma mater
Doctoral students Uta Frith[1][2]

Neil O'Connor (March 23 1917 - October 1 1997) was an experimental psychologist, born in Geraldton, Western Australia. He died in 1997 after a traffic incident.[3][4][5]


He studied Philosophy and Experimental Psychology in Oxford and served in India in the Second World War. He became interested in studying the extent to with learning disabled individuals could still learn when studying for a PhD at the Institute of Psychiatry (now part of King's College London). With Jack Tizard he conducted groundbreaking experiments that showed that these individuals could indeed learn and be employed.[6] This work led to greater awareness of the barriers created by residential care.

Career and research[edit]

Holding strong socialist principles Neil O'Connor forged academic connections with Soviet psychologists and neuropsychologists, for example, Alexander Luria.[7] In this way, he helped spread their often advanced ideas on learning and attention in the education of children with mental deficiency among Western psychologists.

Until 1968 O'Connor was a member of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Social Psychiatry Unit at the Institute of Psychiatry (University of London). He received the Kennedy Prize for his work with Jack TIzard. IN 1968 became director of the MRC Developmental Psychology Unit, affiliated to University College London, from 1968 - 1982, when he retired. He believed in having a very small group of independent scientists. His own work was always in collaboration with Beate Hermelin, with strict rotation of authorship. They enjoyed working together and their different talents complemented each other perfectly.[citation needed]

Other members of this small MRC Unit were Uta Frith[1][2] and Rick Cromer. Rick Cromer (born 1940 - died prematurely ca 1990) was a psycholinguist whose PhD thesis on early language acquisition had been supervised by Roger Brown, at Harvard. Rick brought expertise in the study of cognitive processes underlying language acquisition and language impairments. One of his best known paradigms was with puppets using the phrases: 'The duck is easy to bite; the wolf is eager to bite. Who does the biting?' The intriguing question is how do children understand the contrast in meaning that is not apparent in the surface of the syntactic form. Students of Neil O'Connor include Kim Kirsner, John Sloboda, Barbara Dodd and Linda Pring.

O'Connor was President of the Experimental Psychology Society. He shunned publicity and kept a 'low profile', in line with the ethos of the time, but was hugely admired by his colleagues and students.[8] After retiring in 1982, Neil O'Connor continued to work with Beate Hermelin on special talent (Savants), an area where they pioneered experimental research. After O'Connor's death in a traffic accident in 1997 Beate Hermelin told the story of their joint work on this topic.[9]


O'Connor was a pioneer in the experimental study of cognitive abilities in children with learning disabilities, various referred to as mental retardation or subnormality. He applied the advances in psychology that originated from information processing. He studied processes underlying perception, memory, language and spatial abilities with refined behavioural methods and derived new knowledge from comparing individuals with different levels of general intellectual ability. His aim was to see whether there were specific deficits over and above general deficits. He therefore compared different groups of participants with known specific deficits, such as visual or auditory impairments to investigate the impact of such impairments, if any, on general abilities. He recognised that the study of special talents was another route to elucidate the architecture of the mind. He considered it likely that there were specific modules in the mind that could be differentially affected by brain pathology. O'Connor was the author of a large number of scientific articles between 1950 and 1994. The major experiments were summarized in several monographs.[10][11][12]


  1. ^ a b Back to the thesis: Uta Frith on YouTube
  2. ^ a b Smith, Kerri; Baker, Noah (2016). "Back to the thesis: Late nights, typos, self-doubt and despair. Francis Collins, Sara Seager and Uta Frith dust off their theses, and reflect on what the PhD was like for them.". Nature. 535 (7610): 22–25. doi:10.1038/535022a. 
  3. ^ "In memoriam Neil O'Connor (1917-1997)". Developmental Disabilities Bulletin. 26: 81. 1998. 
  4. ^ "Neil O'Connor, 1917-1997". The Psychologist. 11: 40. 1998. 
  5. ^ Frith, Uta (1998). "Obituary Neil O' Connor (1917-1997)". Autism. 2 (1): 7–9. 
  6. ^ Tizard, Jack; Litt, B; O'Connor, N. (1950). "The employability of high-grade mental defectives". Am J Ment Defic. 55 (1): 144–157. PMID 15425555. 
  7. ^ O'Connor, Neil (1961). Soviet Psychology. JSTOR: Springer. 
  8. ^ Frith, Uta (August 2009). "Looking back: The Avengers of psychology" (pdf). The Psychologist. 22 (8): 726–727. 
  9. ^ Hermelin, Beate (2001). Bright Splinters of the Mind. A personal story of research with autistic savants. Jessica Kingsley. 
  10. ^ O'Connor, Neil (1963). Speech and Thought in Severe Subnormality. Pergamon. 
  11. ^ Hermelin, Beate (1970). Psychological experiments with autistic children. Pergamon. 
  12. ^ O'Connor, Neil (1978). Seeing and Hearing and Space and Time.