Michael R. D’Amato, 1922-2013

Michael-D'AmatoDr. Michael R. D’Amato, an academic pioneer in the field of experimental psychology, died on November 11th surrounded by family at his home in Shutesbury, Massachusetts. He was 91.

A World War II combat veteran who survived 22 months as a German prisoner of war, he died on Veteran’s Day, having chosen to suspend active hospital care for a cardiopulmonary condition that had been worsening in recent months.

He is survived by his wife, Nancy, three children and five grandchildren.

Michael Richard D’Amato was born on September 14, 1922, the second of three children in an Italian-American household in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, where his parents operated a local grocery store that doubled as an outlet for “bootleg” beer and spirits during prohibition.

The independence of mind and love of science and technology that would characterize his life was apparent from his early teenage years, as he turned his back on his family’s Catholicism and began attending Aviation High School, an elite, city-run school that was then newly-opened and known as the School of Aviation Trades.

His interest in flight was quickly put to the test when America entered World War II and he enlisted at 18 in the Army Air Force, being sent off to the Southwest for training as a bomber co-pilot before his commissioning as a Second Lieutenant. By his own account, his first taste of powered flight was far less uplifting than he had expected.

Even less enjoyable was the flight in mid-1943 which saw his B-17 shot down over Germany, leaving him as an inmate of Stalag Luft III. He later said that life in the legendary camp for allied airmen was sometimes as much “Hogan’s Heroes” as “The Great Escape,” both of which were based on Stalag Luft III. But he emerged from captivity at the close of the war following the infamous “Black March” across Germany dangerously emaciated and suffering from an eye ailment that would plague him until his death. (Around this time last year I wrote about a visit I took to the camp with my mother and son.)

Like many returning veterans from the East Coast, he headed west after the war, ending up first in Houston, Texas and finally Los Angeles. But after trying his luck in a variety of jobs – including advertising sales and bill collection, trades particularly ill-suited to his reserved demeanor – he returned to New York. What he later called a low point in his life ended when he entered New York University on the “G.I. Bill,” receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1950 and, four years later, a Ph.D. in psychology.

Over the course of the next decade he married twice, first to the former May Feldman, and then to the former Nancy Pearson. He fathered three children: Vivian Asche, of North Leverett Massachusetts and Kiawah Island, South Carolina; Mark D’Amato, of Amherst, Massachusetts; and Erik D’Amato, of Budapest, Hungary. All three were at his bedside when he passed away, along with his wife, with whom he celebrated fifty years of marriage this past July.

In 1964 he left NYU and New York to join the faculty of Rutgers University in neighboring New Jersey, settling in the town of Plainfield. His quarter-century of teaching and research at Rutgers saw him publish dozens of peer-reviewed papers and introduce thousands of students to a world of psychology which emphasized rigorous methods for collecting and analyzing empirical data. In 1970 he published Experimental Psychology: Methodology, Psychophysics and Learning, a textbook that remained in print into the 1990s, and later served as the editor-in-chief of the scholarly journal Animal Learning & Behavior. For decades he operated a laboratory focused on animal cognition; until his death he kept photos of some of his favorite capuchin monkeys on the wall of his home office.

His tenure at Rutgers was interspersed by stints in administration. From 1975-1978 he served as chairman of the psychology department, and later as a dean for the university’s faculty of arts and sciences. During this time he emerged as an unflinching opponent of what he saw as academic faddism, and in his later years at the university he continued to teach basic statistics – a task often considered beneath senior faculty – believing numeracy to be the most important skill a university could impart on a student. He retired in 1990 at a youthful 68 and declined repeated offers to remain involved in the field, pointing to what he said as an increasingly lack of opportunities for younger academics due to older tenured faculty hanging on to their positions.

Having operated mainframe computers in his laboratory throughout the 1960s he was early in seeing the great potential of lower-cost “microcomputers” in the academic setting – and among the leading edge of humans to have a computer at home. For the remainder of his life delighted in using scripts he wrote to organize personal and family information. His interest in technology also informed his activities as an enthusiastic amateur investor; prior to Microsoft’s initial public offering in 1986 he wrote to the firm enquiring about the possibility of purchasing a private stake.

He was emotionally and financially committed to a number of causes, though his political views were so wide-ranging – he backed environmental organizations and Democratic candidates but also groups opposed to immigration – he joked that the mailman delivering what came to be a daily barrage of appeals must have thought he was schizophrenic.

While most comfortable in his home or lab, he traveled widely and often, first returning to Europe as a tourist in the 1960s, and then venturing to more exotic destinations. His trips abroad continued well into his 80s, with journeys to such far-flung sites as the Angkor Wat temple complex in the jungles of Cambodia and the ancient Andean city of Machu Picchu.

Meanwhile, several years of annual visits to the Caribbean culminated in the mid-1980s in the construction of a vacation home on the small island of Montserrat. It was lost due to the sudden re-emergence in 1995 of a dormant volcano whose eruptions he tracked as faithfully as the health of the fruit trees in the villa’s garden. But the loss of the “dream house” was compensated for by an attachment to the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, where he moved after retiring, and where his two elder children settled in later years.

An accomplished cook and early “foodie,” he dined at some of the finest restaurants in the world but relished simple fare – hot dogs and pastrami were favorites – and in later years he turned to baking fruit pies and pizzas.

Though dogged by allergies and asthma, he was always physically active, becoming a long-distance runner in his 40s, and remaining a nimble and fierce competitor on the tennis court into his 80s – and a fixture at his local gym in Amherst until the month before his death.