We Remember Dr. Jesse Purdy
Dr. Purdy began his career at Southwestern University in 1978 with a specialization in animal learning and animal behavior. He served as a Brown Distinguished Research Professor from 1999-2003, and as the John H. Duncan Chair in the Department of Psychology from 2004-2009. As part of this appointment he organized Brown Symposium XXX, “Umwelt: Exploring The Self-worlds Of Human And Non-human Animals.” His research on cuttlefish was featured on the national PBS series NOVA entitled “Cuttlefish: Kings of Camouflage” in 2007 and on the Discovery Channel’s World of Wonder program in 1996. Dr. Purdy was active with many national organizations, including the American Psychological Association, Southwestern Psychology Association, and the Psi Chi National Honor Society in Psychology, having served as national president in the former two organizations. He served as chair of the Psychology Department for many years.
In 1996, the Southwestern University Alumni Association honored Dr. Purdy with their Mr. Homecoming Award, an honor given to a member of the faculty as a token of the affection and respect of former students. Dr. Purdy was the 2006 recipient of The William Carrington Finch Award, for his conspicuous accomplishments in furthering the aims of Southwestern University.
In 2015, the Purdy Endowed Fund for Collaborative Research was established to recognize his 35 years of teaching at Southwestern. An alumni couple structured the fund to express their appreciation of Dr. Purdy’s long-standing commitment to ensuring that collaborative research work remains an integral part of his students’ undergraduate experience.
Until his retirement in 2015, Professor Purdy was a leader on campus and a friend to many within our community. He will be missed by a University that is grateful for having known and worked with him for over 35 years. We extend our deepest sympathy to his wife, Karen, and the entire Purdy family, as well as to his many friends here on campus and within the Georgetown community. And finally, to the countless alumni whose lives have been touched and transformed by this remarkable scholar.
Funeral arrangements are pending at this time. Details can be found here when available.
Remembering Dr. Purdy
Dr. Purdy was one of the most challenging professors that I had during my time at Southwestern. He also had one of the biggest hearts. I’ll never forget how he would tell his students that they should sell donuts and coffee to the fishermen on the Great Lakes (and that he wanted a cut from whoever did it).
I will always remember his confidence, and his ability to inspire others to achieve their goals.
“He taught me how to use power tools and to build what you need. He taught me to dig deeper than I knew I could, because he told me I could until I could tell myself. He taught me how to seine an awfully stinky little mud hold pond because there were fish in that mud hole that learned just as well as any fancy NSF rat. (and that you might as well throw those clothes away, because they’ll never smell any better) He taught me how to use silicone seal, caulk, and epoxy… and to know the different uses for each. And that duct tape doesn’t work in water. (I forgot that I knew how to manually deworm a fish. Thanks to Roper for reminding me) I can do an ANOVA backwards because of him. He reminded me that if I could train a fish, I could train a dog. And probably a toddler too. His was the only academic approval I ever sought. I respected and learned from many professors, but Purdy was the one that I wanted to make proud. Safe journeys, Purd.”
“I had Dr. Purdy every single semester of my time at SU. That’s 4.5 years!
The first class was Intro to Psychology. After finding out that there were only two tests and a final, some of us convinced others quit other professors and join the class. Without papers or quizzes, it was going to be so easy, right? Wrong! I don’t know if the others will ever forgive us for that one.
So that was the first of many C’s that I got in his classes. In fact, I think I got C’s in every class except Research Methods. But that was enough. In that class, Purdy saw a mathematical ability in me that I did not know I had. I ended up spending a lot of time in the lab, even over the breaks, doing sign and goal-tracking research on fish. I even mathematically modeled and predicted the outcomes. I ended up giving four talks on the findings of my model. Even years after I graduated, he still wanted me to publish the findings in a paper he would co-author. I regret that I never took him up on that.
What stands out for me about Dr. Purdy himself was his humor and easy-going way of kicking butt. His humor was also so self-depreciating. I even remember him joking that we shouldn’t figure out too much, or he’d be out of a job. And I don’t think I ever saw him get tense – not even when there was water flowing all over the lab or when we had an electrical fire. (That day I learned that putting out an electrical fire with water from a fish tank is not a good idea.) ] Maybe he was so easy-going because he got to walk home from work each night. I am so jealous of that!
Dr. Purdy believed in me and never gave up. I would have never known I could do anything like I did if he hadn’t seen it. That will be with me for the rest of my life. What we were taught about motivation and learning has stuck and is used every day, too.
I will forever be grateful that Dr. Purdy was my teacher. I wish his family the best. It seems way too soon. I will always cherish the memories.”
“Dr. Purdy was an amazing teacher and a big part of the reason I am a psychologist and professor today! I remember the class where we were supposed to train our own fish to hit a target for food. About half the class had fish who died. Dr. Purdy told us for the final report on the project we could just turn in a piece of paper that said ‘Fish died.’ So we did. :)”
“Dr. Purdy was one of the professors who made my years at SU so transformative. His gift for teaching and mentoring was a big part of the magic that made the educational and personal growth that happened for me at SU simply priceless. It seems that the college focus is being turned more and more on beautiful climbing walls and state of the art facilities. My experience was that the heart of Southwestern - and likely all universities with similar missions - was and is the power that people like Dr. Purdy have to challenge your thought processes with constant non-judgemental support. Dr.Purdy helped me find my academic path and, in so doing, a deeper sense of personhood. This is the treasure that outshines everything else some twenty years later (though it feels like just yesterday we were wearing our graduation gowns and he was meeting my family and “sending me off” with the kindest words of encouragement). He will be missed but his SU legacy will most certainly live on through all of us who are out putting his mission into action.”
“I was a business major, so I never took a class with him, but I still repeat his cheesy visual joke I heard him tell back in the early 80’s. He would ask, “what does a mouse do in a maze?” and then Dr. Purdy would start sniffing for the imaginary cheese as if he was a mouse after you would try to come up with some scientific answer. That memory has stayed with me for 35 years! (Plus how Dr. Gieseke would say, “the shiny yellow metal” instead of “gold” in our economics classes.)”
“I started at S.U. in ’76, Dr. Purdy showed up in ’78. He was only about 6 years older than me (I thought he was “middle aged” – him being a professor & all … ). Before Dr. Purdy arrived, S.U. (briefly) had 2 (3?) psychology departments. Dr. Douglas Hooker taught Humanistic Psychology. Dr. Purdy taught Experimental Psychology & Social Psychology. [At one point there was a third psychology professor who taught his own version of Psychology as a Pavlovian social science. All that other stuff was just “Literature & Mythology.” These divisions actually reflected the world-wide academic disputes going on in the entire discipline of Psychology at that time.] Dr. Purdy (the young guy) helped re-unify things! He did! It was his energy and personality that made everything work! Southwestern was deeply blessed at having two such men serving in a unified Department of Psychology. Dr. Purdy made his discipline look like a true Natural Science. Dr. Purdy taught the Scientific Method and made it clear to his students that SCIENCE was the core foundation of Experimental Psychology and Social Psychology and a whole lot MORE!. He was rigorous, aggressive , and lots-of-fun to work with. Dr. Douglas Hooker made his discipline look like “therapy.” Psychology was a Helping Profession and a Healing Profession. Dr. Hooker taught Freud, and Jung, and then got into Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow in later courses. Anybody but me remember the difference between a “neurosis” and a “psychosis?” Between these two GREAT professors, we students began to see the Discipline of Psychology as the great illuminator of all Human Potential. Psychology is the unified discipline of human self-awareness. It is the science that tell us who we really are. And all that we hope to one day become as human beings, and as men and women. Psychology keeps it all real! Southwestern University was and is a very Special and Wonderful place! Guys like Bob Brown (Physics), Kenny Shepherd (Choral Music), Bob Soulen, (Organic Chemistry) and Eb Girvin (Biology) … and Dr. Jesse Purdy; they all just made S.U. a great place to learn. As for me, I miss ‘em all! And S.U. today, is all it is today, because of these great men and women who came before! Amen!”
“Dr. Purdy was such an inspiration as an educator and such a great mentor. He will be missed by all who knew him. He touched so many of our lives and he made learning so much fun. One of my fondest memories (and also probably one of the most frustrating times for me I might add, lol) was when Dr. Purdy made some of us use turtles instead of fish for one of our experiments associated with showing stimulus/response. My turtle was very uncooperative and I spend weeks on getting my “trigger” switch to have the appropriate sensitivity, so that the turtle could actually push the “trigger” switch whenever it wanted to receive a small amount of food dispensed in the tank. My switch was always too sensitive or not sensitive enough it seemed. I was convinced that my turtle was not very smart, and it couldn’t possibly be an issue with my “trigger” switch design. But Dr. Purdy cou ld always convince me to go back and look at things in a different way, and eventually I was able to execute the experiment and I learned so much from my results. He taught me to be patient and that sometimes we have to keep going back to the drawing board. Our past failures were only steps to future successes in his eyes. I am so grateful to have known him and to have had him influence my life in such a positive way.”
“Purd showed me surprising dimensions of psychology in particular and more broadly research in general. There in Purd’s lab, you could do psychology with fish… and snakes! And humor! Working in Purd’s lab taught many lessons about the importance of the infrastructure underlying research, and the supreme value of collaboration. Taking Purd’s classes also gave one great seats to great storytelling: “Beware the septal rat!” But have no doubts, the expectations were there, too, and his course content was formidable. Purd’s passing marks the end of an era, but not the dimming of his influence. Let us reflect on our own limited time to have a positive impact on others as he did on us. May we rise to the challenge of measuring up to his legacy.”
“I am a teacher because of Jesse Purdy.
If he were here today, I’d add, “I figured if he could do it, I could do it. Only with better hair.” He’d laugh and come back with, “You’re a teacher because you hoped it would give you hair like mine.” Then he would follow up with an informative, understandable lesson on research incorporating his hair as one of the subject variables.
Dr. Purdy was great at teaching, but even better at being a teacher. I can honestly say that he is one of three teachers I’ve had who changed my life. And when I walked into the Olin Building on the SU campus yesterday to see the sunflower arrangement with his picture, my knees wobbled and I literally had to lean against a stair rail. I guess that’s how it feels when you lose a hero.
As I drove home with my daughter, who was with me at SU to prepare for her arrival on campus in the fall, I tried to come up with some stories about Dr. Purdy that would appropriately convey his sense of humor, his intellect, and our relationship. I couldn’t come up with that one story because even though he loved stories (as I do), Purdy’s influence on me wasn’t about the stories or the humor. It was about how he interacted with me and what that influence allowed me to do.
I have always credited Purdy as the motivator for my pursuit of a doctoral degree for two reasons. Years after graduating from SU, I asked him for a letter of recommendation, and, while making that request, I expressed my concerns (okay, fears) about being smart enough or dedicated enough to complete a PhD program. He said that I could “absooooluuuuutely” do it. That one Purdy word of encouragement was enough to set me on that path.
The second motivation came in his actual letter. As my wife (another Purdy acolyte) and I were packing for the move, I came across an application packet that I had not submitted. I gave into curiosity and opened his letter (yes, Purdy, I peeked). Among the requisite relationship, grade, and accomplishment notes, Purdy wrote, “As an undergraduate, Scott was not a particularly good student, but I thought he had great potential. I found him to be bright, creative, and when motivated, capable of high quality work.” Now, you read that and think that’s not so great. But I read it and thought it was honest and accurate. More importantly, I thought, “Purdy thinks I’m bright, creative, and capable of high quality work…when motivated.” So, I decided to get motivated.
See, being a great teacher isn’t a matter of teaching material well. It’s about empowering students to pursue knowledge and to use that knowledge as the basis for individual thought. Purdy allowed me to discover a passion for learning and creative thought that has been the foundation of everything I’ve done since then. Notice I didn’t say that he put it there. I don’t believe a teacher puts anything in a student. Rather, I believe the best teachers provide students with the space to discover who they are and the guidance to help them use it in the best possible ways. They teach us how to get out of our own ways so that we can do more than we could before we met them.
So, today I thank Dr. Purdy for being that teacher who opened my eyes and then opened a door. I know I’m not the only student who feels this way, just as I know he would find a way to deflect such accolades if he were still here. I hadn’t seen him in years but knowing that I can’t see him again is almost too much to bear today. So long, Dr. Purdy, and thanks for all the fish.”
“I entered SU as a transfer student having no idea what I wanted to do with my life. As my adviser, Purdy convinced me to spend some time in his lab helping another student with her project. After this initial experience, I spent every free minute in the lab helping with whatever project I could until I was able to design my own. Throughout my time in the lab, Purdy exposed me to academic opportunities I never knew existed. With his support, I entered a master’s program and then went on to earn a PhD in neuroscience. I’ve reflected on Purdy’s impact on my life a lot over the last week and it is absolutely the case that I would not be where I am without his early influence and support.”
“Please share your memories of Dr. Jesse Purdy: Such heartbreaking news to learn that the world has lost such a great man. I was not able to take any of Dr. Purdy’s classes while attending Southwestern but I did get to interact with him as an alumna. He was always so kind and amazing to speak to about any subject. He changed my life just by being the type of loving mentor that he was to all people he encountered. He will be sorely missed but his legacy and impact will last forever.”
“I took Dr. Purdy’s Research Methods class during the spring semester of my sophomore year. His class stretched and pushed me to think critically and evaluate research in ways that I still use to this day in my work. He not only pushed us to work hard, but he injected fun whenever he could, like the time we learned about a specific research design using an arcade game at Gatti’s Pizza and when our work was done, he and our whole class ordered pizza for dinner and socialized. That is one of my favorite memories of that semester. He loved his work, his research, and enjoyed sharing it with us. I am very grateful that he was part of my undergraduate education. May he rest in peace. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
“As a second semester freshman, I took introductory psychology from a young assistant professor with a dry sense of humor and quirky lecture style – Dr. Jesse Purdy. I have fond memories of my interactions with Dr. Purdy. The exams in his advanced classes were notoriously challenging, making you apply the material in new and surprising ways. At first read, they were quite intimidating. For example, As Dr. Purdy handed out exams in one class, a student reading the first question—and before the rest of the class even received the exam—burst into tears. It set a rather unsettling tone for the rest of the exam. Dr. Purdy cut me some slack when I needed it. For example, he twice allowed me to show up a few minutes late for exam when I was panicked because I thought I was ill-prepared. In retrospect, he probably should have given me a kick in the pants. However, I was extremely grateful to him at the time. Dr. Purdy was an important mentor and I an indebted to him.”
“Dr. Purdy was one of the big reasons I fell in love with Southwestern, became an Animal Behavior major, and then went on to graduate school to pursue a PhD, dreaming about following in his footsteps and becoming a professor someday. He was always so supportive of me and my crazy ideas, including videotaping sea gulls for hours during my study abroad semester in the UK. I will never forget you, Dr. Purdy, thank you for everything!”
“There are usually two or three people that one can say changed their life, and for me, Dr. Purdy was one of those people. He learned about who I was and shared his own experiences, called me on my BS and challenged me to do more with what I had between my ears, and taught me way more than psychology, statistics, and optimal foraging theory. Whether it was co-creating a study on black bass (and going fishing together to catch our subjects) or grabbing a bite to eat, he was a friend, mentor, teacher, and role model. Gone way too soon but left a huge impact which he would say in his dry way ‘not too bad, huh?’”
“Dr. Purdy taught part of our animal behavior class in which we were tasked with training turtles to strike targets for a reward of ground beef. Unfortunately the turtles were not even interested in ground beef when it was given to them freely! Dr. Purdy turned it into a great learning experience anyway and had such a wonderful sense of humor.”
“Dr. Purdy embodied the spirit of life and education. He was SU to me and SU is a better place because of him. Words can not give enough voice to the impact he had on me and my classmates. He taught me more about life and courage that any textbook or lecture could. I am forever grateful to him for believing in me and taking me into his magical world of animal behavior. Spending countless of hours in the lab studying goldfish and cuttlefish with him, I learned first hand what it took to apply attention, careful reflection and discipline to life and education. He gave me and three of my classmates the adventure of a lifetime when he chose us to join him in Bamfield, Canada to study killer whales and salmon fish. It was in Canada that I learned from him the virtues of life, sacrifice, and the courage of imagination.
“Dr. Purdy will always be my hero and I will deeply miss him. He was a friend, mentor, and father to me. My condolences go out to the Purdy family and all those who were touched by his genius, humor, and humility.”
“Dr. Purdy seemed ‘larger-than-life’! His tales of his research adventures were intimidating yet inspiring. My sincerest condolences.”
“I was graduated with a degree in the Animal Behavior program, which meant that I filled my schedule with his classes. He was always a wry voice and a very competent professor. He took no guff, trading wit for with with snarky students, and always pushed us to really dig into the concepts he was teaching whether it was wrangling hermit crabs or watching ducks at the park. I remember his faith in me at the end of my career at Southwestern, and the compassion he expressed, even as he held nothing back on his tests.”
“Wow, this is rough news. Thank you Dr Purdy for being such a catalyst in my life. My entire worldview changed because of you. Totally irreplaceable you are. Tell Thorndike hello for me.”