Joseph F. Fagan III, the Lucy Adams Leffingwell Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, was a pioneering developmental psychologist in the study of infant perception, memory, and cognition, contributing to seminal studies of infant color and hue perception and recognition memory for categories and faces that led to translational work in early assessment and detection of intellectual disabilities in high-risk infants. He was a scientist, scholar, mentor, and friend, touching the lives and careers of countless students and colleagues. He was born on September 7, 1941. After graduating from the University of Hartford, CT, in 1963 majoring in English and Psychology, he completed his PhD in 1967 from the University of Connecticut in Experimental Psychology. In 1968, he joined the Psychology faculty at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where he remained an active teacher and extremely productive scholar until his unexpected death on August 10, 2013 from pancreatic cancer.
Early on, Joe’s research focused on memory and attention in children with mental retardation, but with his appointment at CWRU, he rapidly moved to the study of infants using the then novel paired-comparison method developed to study infant visual development by his colleague Robert Fantz. Joe loved babies and made them the center of his research.
Joe’s subsequent series of studies were seminal, demonstrating that infants’ ability to discriminate and remember visual stimuli and faces underwent a developmental progression through the first year of life. Two of his papers in Science (1974, 1975) were the first to establish that infants could perceive colors and hues. He also demonstrated that infants displayed memory retention even after a 2-week delay; could categorize faces by gender, age, orientation, and emotion; and that preterm infants’ recognition memory abilities progressed according to their age from conception rather than chronological age. Joe’s studies helped shift the then predominant view that intelligence in infants was fundamentally different from that in older children and adults to the now prevailing view of a continuous unfolding developmental process. His work enabled researchers to use his methodology to assess infant recognition memory and subsequently information processing speed in numerous studies not only of normal infants but also of preterms and infants born to women with diabetes. His narrow-band assessment also was found to detect subtle effects of prenatal environmental toxicants and exposure to alcohol and drugs during pregnancy and proved to be more sensitive to these effects than general developmental assessments, such as the Bayley Scales, and also to have better predictive validity than other infant assessments.
Unusual for the time period, Joe was a pioneering translational scientist and, with a contract from NICHD and a Small Business Innovation Research grant, among his many other research awards, he developed the Fagan Test of Infant Intelligence, the first test in infancy that could predict school-age intelligence. He sought “to develop a test for infants that made it possible to identify mental retardation within a year after birth.” His work on the prediction of intelligence from infancy was noted as a “citation classic” in a review by Jelte Wicherts in Intelligence, July 2009. The Fagan Test has had widespread use worldwide. One of its major uses has been to discover the environmental conditions leading to intellectual disability and, as noted above, it has been shown to be sensitive to prenatal exposures to such toxins as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), cocaine, and alcohol. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences World Trade Center Working Group used the test to assess offspring outcomes in pregnant women exposed to the atmospheric fallout from the 9/11 disaster. In 2009, Joe received the Mensa Education and Research Foundation Award for Excellence in Research for his work demonstrating the prediction of intelligence from infancy to adulthood. At this time, his test continues to be the gold standard used worldwide to assess neurotoxic exposures.
Joe was an incredibly dedicated mentor and teacher. I and literally hundreds of students feel we owe our careers to his mentorship. As a grad student, in need of a job, I started school during the one year Joe was not funded with a research grant. We spent every Friday together visiting families with infants in their homes to collect the data for my master’s thesis, and true to his word, as soon as he was funded, I was hired. His legacy was a deeply felt academic tradition of mentoring, caring, teaching, networking his students, and writing that I use to this day as an example in my annual address to graduate students advising them to choose their mentors wisely.
Others, such as my colleague Sandra W. Jacobson, were enormously impressed by his insights and generosity. When she presented her work using Joe’s test at the Society for Research in Child Development meetings, Dr. Robert McCall, a leading cognitive developmental scientist, was particularly impressed with the power of this test to discriminate differential effects of PCBs, alcohol, and cocaine, thereby demonstrating its sensitivity to discrete neural pathways that may be damaged during development and that discrete aspects of intellectual function, such as recognition memory, processing speed, can already be detected and studied in infants.
In the most recent part of his career, Joe dedicated himself to bringing underrepresented minority students into the sciences. Over a 13-year period, he became advisor and grant consultant to the NIH Bridges to Success program at Cuyahoga Community College, working with his wife, Dr. Cynthia Holland, also a developmental psychologist. He was extremely proud that the Fagan Test was culture-fair, predicting equally well for infants of differing social, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.
Joe was extremely nontechnical. His colleague, Dr. Douglas Detterman, recalls that he first met Joe when he found him frustrated in his laboratory because of a broken plug. Doug fixed the equipment, and they became fast friends. For many years, Doug, who at the time was bringing the department into the computer age, could not convince Joe to use a computer and spent years soliciting students to influence Joe, who contended that, if the analysis could not be done on a 3-by-5 index card, it was not worth doing. Subsequently, Joe did jump into using computer-supported techniques to collect and expand the research on his infant recognition memory test. Also a staunch advocate of stopping for lunch every day, Joe daily gathered up anyone in the department he could to lunch, for many years serving as an informal social chairman. His sense of humor was also legendary. In order to have a “formal lecture” for his students each year, he always taught one class dressed in a tuxedo. He loved dancing and has likely danced with every female ICIS (International Congress on Infant Studies) and SRCD (Society for Research in Child Development) member at an annual meeting.
Joe will be greatly missed. His test continues to be used worldwide, from studies of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in South Africa to those on traumatic brain injury in Israel and neurotoxicants in the Seychelles Islands and in Europe. As we continue making important findings using this tool, we are greatly saddened that we can no longer pick up the phone or email Joe with the latest findings and share our work with him.
Lynn Singer (GRS ’78, ’79) is deputy provost and vice president for academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University.
This tribute to Professor Fagan originally appeared in the journal Infancy, 19(4), 2014. © International Society on Infant Studies. Wiley Blackwell, Publisher. Reprinted with permission. The original article is available at artsci.cwru.edu/magazine/2016/joseph-fagan.