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John H. W. Barrett (1933-2006): psychologist and inspirational educator

17 November 2006

John Barrett embodied everything that is best in a university academic: widely read, welcoming to students, challenging, scholarly, diplomatic, resourceful, and able to contribute original research.

John Barrett spent all his working life in Bristol as a teacher and lecturer. A Bristol alumnus, his experience as a participant of the University’s extra-mural programme was so positive that not only was he inspired to take a second degree, but, once employed by the University, he also contributed as a lecturer until his death.

John attended Bristol Grammar School in the Sixth Form, winning a place at the University of Bristol and graduating with a BA in French (Comparative Linguistics) in 1956. Between 1957 and 1963 he taught at Cotham High School, but not just languages – his maths and sciences were up to scratch, too.

While teaching, he became fascinated by problems of learning and started attending extra-mural lectures on psychology at the University (Ivor Pleydell-Pearce became his mentor). This led to his taking a second degree in Psychology, graduating in 1966. This makes 2006 a special year – the 40th and 50th anniversaries of his graduations. He joined the Department of Psychology in 1966 as Demonstrator and Assistant Lecturer (part-funded by the Department of Education), and from 1969 to his retirement in 1998 as Lecturer. His enthusiasm for his subject was greatly appreciated by students and the public alike.

John’s first degree had been interrupted by a long spell as a patient in Frenchay Hospital. Here he got to know many of the staff and developed an interest in medicine and in the research being carried out in the Burden Neurological Institute. As a psychology student, he became a subject for some of their earliest brain research using EEG.

His undergraduate and postgraduate lectures were always popular and John developed close contacts with local schools and hospitals for placements for his students. Research methodology was his forte, and he did much to help generations of students to develop these skills. His regular inter-departmental teaching included behavioural genetics (for medics), developmental psychology (for social workers and psychiatrists), and learning and motivation (for trainee teachers).

John’s main areas of interest and publication were developmental psychology, life-span studies, educational psychology, the effect of music on the brain, and the motivation of disaffected teenagers. His wide-ranging interests gave him a truly multidisciplinary approach. In addition, he worked with the ALSPAC (Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children) study and the Rheumatology Unit at the Bristol Royal Infirmary designing statistical models and experimental methodology. John supervised more than 20 PhDs, some of whom have gone on to be leaders in their field. One such student, Dr Lindsay St Claire (Academic Director of the Audiology BSc at Bristol) gives a personal contribution, reflecting on her working relationship with John and the effect his teaching had on students.

John’s many professional activities included being Treasurer of the local branch of the Association of Child Psychologists and Psychiatrists for some years. He was actively involved with the Bristol Education Society and was Secretary at the time of his death.

The significant amount of external lecturing John undertook led him all over the region and beyond. He had many long-standing bookings with organisations (including the armed forces), local education authorities and schools as far afield as Cornwall and Nottingham. His local lectures at places such as Downend Folk House, Hartcliffe Community Centre, Westbury Village Hall and Berkeley Square were guaranteed to bring in a full house. Titles such as ‘Babies – they’re smarter than you think’ and ‘Ageing – the good news!’ were always well researched and amusing, and usually eye-opening to the audience. After retirement, John continued to lecture widely and expanded his interest in sustainability and the effect of environment on behaviour.

Outside academia, drama and music were top priority. Between 1952 and 1965 John was frequently involved with University opera and drama societies and greatly enjoyed six-week summer tours undertaken by the UBDS Players. He was a founding member of The Bristol Players theatre group in 1966, where he met his wife, Sarah. Theatre continued to be a shared interest. He kept in touch with many friends from those days and attended the anniversary reunion gatherings held recently. The Victoria Rooms became his second home, with lighting design and staging his forte. John’s enthusiasm was passed on to both his sons who, while still at school, became involved with him in the Bristol Opera production of Gounod’s Faust in 1991. John had a lifelong appreciation of music, studied the organ and developed a deep understanding of the interplay between the technology, the physics and the effects of music on the brain.

John was co-founder of the Bristol and Bath Branch of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA) – an organisation he first encountered at its 1955 Annual Meeting held in Bristol. He was an enthusiastic and tireless Chairman for eight years from 1996 and could always be relied upon to find speakers, generate ideas for events and steer tricky negotiations. He also initiated and contributed enormously to one of the branch’s most successful projects – The Music of the Spheres – a play with hands-on science activities about musicians and astronomers William and Caroline Herschel. The project received international acclaim, and kept much of the Barrett family ‘on tour’ for several years. John served on national BA Council as Recorder to the Psychology Section, and gave considerable time and expertise to the Young Peoples’ Programme Committee.

For John, every minute was full. He died on 19 July after a brief illness and will be much missed by family, friends, colleagues, students and the members of the many clubs and societies he actively supported.

Colin Axon

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