Vol. 60, No. 4 | November 2015



(Written by Zuleyma Tang-Martinez, ABS Historian; Photos from the Internet and from the invitation to memorial celebrating Ethel’s life)

Ethel Tobach, one of the founders of the Animal behavior Society (as well as of the International Society for Comparative Psychology) died in her sleep on August 14, 2015, in Wayland, MA. Up until the end of her life, Ethel continued to be an active researcher, teacher, and political activist.

By any measure, Ethel had a most remarkable life. Born on November 7, 1921 in a small village in Ukraine, her parents took her to Palestine when she was only 2 weeks old, to escape anti-Jewish pogroms being carried out by the White Army (anti-Communist forces). When her father died within the year, 9 month-old Ethel immigrated with her mother to the USA. Her mother was a socialist and active in labor union politics, a fact that seems to have been a major influence on Ethel’s subsequent political development.

In 1949, she graduated from Hunter College and later sought admission to graduate school at New York University. Despite NYU’s reluctance to accept married women into their graduate programs, Ethel convinced the admissions committee, pretty much by sheer will power, reinforced by her outstanding academic record and assurances that her husband, Charles, supported her pursuing a graduate degree. She completed her Ph.D. in 1957, working with renowned comparative psychologist, T.C. Schneirla. Although Ethel taught at several New York universities and colleges at various times, her major and lasting affiliation was with the Department of Animal Behavior at the American Museum of Natural History. She retired from the AMNH in the 1980’s as a Curator Emerita.

After her death, tributes from around the world, extolled her as a “giant” and as a “force of nature”. At various times, Ethel had been referred to as somewhat “curmudgeonly” or “difficult”, but almost everyone agrees that she was brilliant, kind, generous and a superb and dedicated mentor. In particular, she was a tenacious advocate and supporter of women in science. Ethel was an indefatigable champion for the underdog and her passion for science was matched by her commitment to social justice, peace, and equality. She believed that scientists have a responsibility to society and conducted her life and research accordingly. As such, she was an inspiration to many.

Ethel was a prolific writer and editor. She published over 117 professional articles and books, on a very broad range of topics, including effects of behavior and stress on disease processes (most notably TB), hearing in newborn rats, and the inking behavior of the sea slug, Aplysia. Like her mentor, Schneirla, Ethel’s research was grounded in evolutionary biology and she believed strongly in the need to integrate field and laboratory studies.

Among her best-known edited books are Development and Evolution of Behavior: Essays in Memory of T.C. Schneirla (co-editors: L.R. Aronson, D.S. Lehrman, & J.S. Rosebblatt); Behavioral Evolution and Integrative Levels (co-editor: G. Greenberg); and The Biopsychology of Development (co-editors: L.R. Aronson & E. Shaw). Her ability to integrate psychology and science with social responsibility is illustrated by books such as Challenging Racism and Sexism, and the series Genes and Gender, both co-edited with Betty Rosoff.

Ethel’s dedication to scholarship and social justice earned her many honors. As examples, she was elected a Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society in 1970 and, in 2003, the American Psychological Association presented her with the Gold Medal Award for Lifetime Achievement in Psychology in the Public Interest. In granting the medal, the American Psychological Association highlighted her work against racism and sexism, and her leadership in psychology groups dedicated to peace and nuclear disarmament.

In addition to being a founder and a fellow, Ethel’s service to the Animal Behavior Society was varied and significant. Most notably, she served as Assistant Editor of Animal Behaviour during the 1960s. Her committee work included chairing the ABS’ Comparative and Experimental Psychology Ad hoc Committee, serving on the American Psychological Association Liaison Committee, and on the ABS Research Grant Awards Committee.

Her friend and long-time colleague, Bruce Overmier (Department of Psychology, University of Minnesota) speaks for many when he says: “A giant has passed. Lucky were the few of us that knew her (and often felt the lash of her advice)”.

The ABS laments the passing of Ethel Tobach and extends sympathies to her family, colleagues and friends.

(Zuleyma Tang-Martinez gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Sheila Chase and Bruce Overmier, as well as biographical information obtained from obituaries and writings by Gary Greenberg, Howard Topoff, and the Jewish Women’s Archive).


(Written by: Zuleyma Tang-Martinez, ABS Historian, & Simon Gadbois, Dalhousie University; Photo from Fentress Website)


Noted animal behaviorist and former President of the Animal Behavior Society, Dr. John Fentress, died suddenly of a heart attack, while playing golf in Eugene, Oregon, on August 22, 2015. John remained active in research and writing right up until the time of his death.

Born on February 4, 1939, in East Chicago, IN, John received his B.A. degree from Amherst College, followed by a Ph.D. in zoology and ethology from Cambridge University in 1965, under the mentorship of Robert Hinde and William Thorpe. Subsequently, he conducted postdoctoral research with Richard Doty. One of his passions always was to synthesize animal experimental psychology, ethology, and neuroscience. In 1974, he moved from the University of Oregon to Dalhousie University in Canada to become chair of the Department of Psychology. When the department eventually changed its name to the “Department of Psychology and Neuroscience”, John was thrilled and considered it a high point that vindicated his interest in unifying these fields. Additionally, while at Dalhousie, John also founded the Canadian Centre for Wolf research, which quickly developed an international reputation for quality and ethical research on wolves and coyotes. Following his retirement around 2003, John returned to Oregon but continued to maintain connections and collaborative projects with colleagues at Dalhousie.

In his two main areas of research, action patterns in animals (more specifically grooming sequences) and wolf social behavior, John often contributed to re-defining the status quo by putting forward innovative and thought-provoking ideas. In the 1970s, he re-framed and gave new relevance to the construct of “motor programs” and innate behavior. As such, he was a highly influential thinker and researcher in animal behavior.

Early in his career, John edited the well-known book, Simpler Networks and Behaviour; more recently, he published a book on wolf behavior based on a wolf pup he raised by hand, and their life together. He was prolific in his writing, publishing more than 130 scientific papers and abstracts on a range of topics, including aspects of behavioral methodology, behavioral neurobiology, and development and organization of behavior, using both canids and rodents as research subjects. Not surprisingly, throughout his lifetime, John received numerous awards for his outstanding research contributions.

John was extremely active in the Animal Behavior Society. In addition to his service as ABS President (1988-1989), he served on numerous committees, including Education, Policy and Planning, Membership, and Nominating committees. In 1993, he was elected a Fellow of the ABS, in recognition of his exceptional research and service contributions to the society. John is fondly remembered as a true gentleman - a devoted and down to-earth person who was always kind, friendly with everyone, and scrupulously honest. He loved animal behavior, and his charismatic personality attracted many outstanding students to the field and to our society.

One little known fact about John was his strong interest in health and the mind-body connection. In his younger years he met and conversed on such issues with Carl Jung and Robert Frost. More recently, he led and participated in mind-body workshops that included the Dalai Lama.

The ABS mourns John’s passing and offers condolences to his family, colleagues, and friends.

Excerpt of poem by John: “Have you ever seen a wolf just glide - Across the field or through the wood - It is truly a vision to behold - A dance of nature with grace and trust.”




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Animal Behaviour

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