Stern, pioneering psychophysiologist, 85

John Stern, PhD, a pioneering psychophysiologist who conducted research at Washington University in St. Louis for nearly 60 years, died April 3, 2010, surrounded by family at his home in St. Louis. He was 85.

John Stern

Known for his research on using eye blinks, pupil dilation and head movements to monitor individuals for signs of driver fatigue, anxiety and lying, Stern’s career in psychophysiology dates to the early 1950s, when he assisted aviation researchers in recording stress responses with a primitive polygraph.

Stern and his polygraph would accompany a student pilot and an instructor in a small Piper Cub airplane. The instructor would allow the plane to lose altitude rapidly while Stern recorded the student’s stress response.

It was these experiences, suggests a 1994 article on Stern, that “demonstrated to John the importance of the autonomic nervous system in psychological processes.”

Born in Germany, Stern immigrated to New York in 1936 and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Hunter College and a doctorate in psychology from the University of Illinois before joining the Washington University School of Medicine in 1953.

Stern went on to conduct landmark research on a range of psychophysiological issues, including studies on measures of attention and vigilance for operators of sophisticated electronic equipment, such as pilots.

Stern helped found the Society for Psychophysiological Research in the early 1960s and served as president from 1966-67. He was elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Psychological Association and served as president of the Pavlovian Society.

He headed the School of Medicine’s Department of Medical Psychology from 1961-69, when he moved to the Department of Psychology in Arts & Sciences. Stern chaired psychology from 1987-1996.

Stern became an emeritus professor of psychology in 2000.

“Having worked closely with him for the past 20 years, I would point out how remarkably productive, intellectually vigorous and committed he remained until very shortly before his death,” says John Rohrbaugh, PhD, professor of psychiatry.

“He continued to mentor students and junior faculty, to publish in the scientific literature, and to participate at a national level in committees and review panels,” Rohrbaugh says.

Stern’s commitment will continue through the John Stern Fund for Undergraduate Research, a scholarship fund that Stern established with a $50,000 donation to the psychology department.

Stern is survived by his wife of 57 years, Carolyn, a twin sister, three children and five grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are private.

The university is planning a memorial event, but details are not yet available.

For more information or to make a donation to the Stern Fund, contact the Department of Psychology, Campus Box 1125, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899 or (314) 935-6567.