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Logo of jabaJournal of Applied Behavior Analysis Web SiteSubscriber LoginJournal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior Web SiteSubscription InformationInformation for AuthorsJournal of Applied Behavior Analysis Web SiteJournal of Applied Behavior Analysis Web Site
J Appl Behav Anal. 2010 Spring; 43(1): 175–179.
PMCID: PMC2831450


Timothy R Vollmer, Action Editor

When the history of behavior analysis is written, Sid Bijou will go down as one of the most influential and preeminent figures in its evolution. A modest man, Sid would recast this tribute as a tribute to the people and places in his life that influenced his own development. Yet this would be only half of the story. Part of Sid's genius was that, like an elite athlete, he made everyone around him better. Thus, the other half of the story would include the people and places in his life that he influenced. The whole story, then, would have a familiar ring to it: The organism changes the environment, and the environment changes the organism.

Figure 1
Sid (left) with Mont Wolf, Don Baer, and Todd Risley in June, 1999. Photo courtesy of Dixie Eastridge.

Sid got his start in psychology as a graduate student at Columbia University in the mid-1930s. He was strongly influenced by John B. Watson's writings and wanted to conduct his master's research with young children from a “Watsonian” point of view. He wrote to Watson, hoping he would reply and suggest a suitable topic. To his surprise and delight, Watson wrote back with the suggestion that he conduct a study on how young children learn “muscle sense.” Unable to find a faculty adviser to sponsor the study, he gave up on it and decided instead to create and then test an intelligence exam for nonverbal children with retardation.

He was fond of telling the story of writing to Watson and receiving a handwritten reply from him. His telling of the story always had a punch line that never failed to stun both him and his listener: He lost Watson's letter! Sid's correspondence with Watson nonetheless inspired him to continue his studies as a doctoral student at the State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa) in the late 1930s.

Sid went to Iowa intent on working with Kurt Lewin. It seems an odd choice, yet at the time Lewin was conducting research on a wide range of topics that prominently included children as participants. Furthermore, he was intrigued with Lewin's “field-theoretical” orientation and was eager to learn more about it. But the relationship never materialized, and he turned his attention instead to Hullian learning theory and ended up earning his doctorate with Kenneth W. Spence in 1941.

Sid's recollections of his interactions with Lewin, whom he regarded as one of the brightest and most stimulating scholars he'd ever known, were often punctuated with references to Lewin's penchant for drawing diagrams representing an individual's “life space.” He said that he never really understood Lewin's drawings, which he said looked like potatoes. He'd always chuckle at that remark and say it was why he referred to Lewin as “Mr. Potato Head.”

After earning his doctorate, Sid spent a year at Wayne County Training School in Michigan as a research psychologist and then spent 4 years in the military as a captain in the Army Air Corps and director of its Convalescent Branch. Shortly after the war, in 1946, he received an offer from B. F. Skinner, then the chair of the Psychology Department at Indiana University, to join the faculty and direct the newly formed clinical training program. He took the job, and for the next 2 years played a key role in developing the clinical program. In his spare time, he audited classes taught by Skinner and J. R. Kantor and participated regularly in their respective lab meetings and discussion groups.

These were formative times for Sid. He was impressed with Skinner's methodology and the orderly data that were flowing in from the animal laboratory and was eager to replicate the methods with young children under comparable conditions. He was equally impressed with Kantor and caught a glimpse of how interbehaviorism and radical behaviorism could be integrated to form a coherent and comprehensive natural science of behavior. The applied implications of Skinner's work in particular were not yet fully apparent to Sid; that would soon change, however, once he left Indiana for the University of Washington in 1948.

He assumed his role as associate professor of psychology and director of the Institute of Child Development (later the Developmental Psychology Laboratory) at Washington with some reservations. The department was an eclectic mix of psychoanalysts, child and family guidance counselors, and Guthrie learning theorists, and the institute lacked both a productive research laboratory and the will to establish one. He took aim, then, at organizing a laboratory to study typically and atypically developing children and populating the department with faculty and graduate students with a common interest in normal and deviant child behavior.

Sid was wildly successful in accomplishing his aims. He established a world-class (and well-funded) program of basic and applied research in behavior analysis and a top-flight graduate training program and surrounded himself with a cast of faculty, graduate students, and psychologists in Seattle's community that reads like a who's who of pioneers in behavior analysis: Don Baer, Mont Wolf, Todd Risley, Betty Hart, Ivar Lovaas, Jay Birnbrauer, Hayden Mees, Bob Whaler, Rob Hawkins, Bud Wexler, Vance Hall, Jim Sherman, Eileen Allen, Howard Sloane, Barbara Etzel, Bob Orlando, Bill Hopkins, Bob Peterson, and Marion Ault, to name just a few.

If applied behavior analysis has a birthplace, it would be in Seattle at the University of Washington's Institute of Child Development with Sid at the helm. To appreciate the significance of this distinction, consider the study reported by Wolf, Risley, and Mees in the first issue of Behavior Research and Therapy in 1964 entitled, “Application of Operant Conditioning Procedures to the Behavior Problems of an Autistic Child.” The study stands out as the first demonstration of the application of operant principles with a child and the first to show that the principles could be applied to establish appropriate personal and social behavior and to eliminate undesirable behavior in a young child with autism. Furthermore, the study was the first to report the use of “discrete trials” as a method of instruction (Lovaas would later take full advantage of this method in his landmark work with young children with autism).

There were many other firsts for Sid and his group at Washington, ranging from basic human research on stimulus control, schedules of reinforcement, and the effects of extinction to training parents and teachers how to apply the principles of reinforcement in the home and classroom. Amidst this success, or perhaps because of it, the political climate at Washington grew inhospitable and his colleagues began leaving for other universities (e.g., Baer, Wolf, and Risley went to the University of Kansas in 1965 to start their own behavior analysis program and research labs in the newly formed Department of Human Development and Family Life). Sid also decided to leave Washington for another university, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1965.

He established a research and graduate training program at Illinois that in many respects replicated what he had done at the University of Washington. He founded the Child Behavior Laboratory and secured support for it from the National Institutes of Mental Health; he developed a graduate training program in behavior analysis with funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Development; he embraced behaviorally oriented faculty in psychology and special education (e.g., Sam Kirk, Herb Quay, Don Peterson, Gordan Paul, Wes Becker, Len Ullman); and he populated these departments with like-minded faculty (e.g., Bill Redd, Bob Peterson, Warren Steinman, Gladys Baxley, Howard Sloane, Marion Ault, Barbara MacAulay) and graduate students (e.g., Russ Whitehurst, Roger Bufford, Ellen Smiley, Don Thomas, Joe Parsons, Barbara Wilcox, Terry Meddock, Ely Rayek, Ed Morris, Howard Rosen, Richard Amado).

As a scholar, he continued to publish groundbreaking research on parent and teacher training, programmed instruction, and personalized systems of instruction. He authored seminal articles, books, and book chapters on intellectual and developmental disabilities, child development, behavioral assessment, and child behavior therapy. In service, he was the first editor of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, a member of the organizing committee of the Midwestern Association for Behavior Analysis (which became the Association for Behavior Analysis [ABA] in 1974), and sat on an American Psychological Association commission and a Florida task force on matters pertaining to ethical practices and applied behavior analysis. This work gave impetus to the Florida Association for Behavior Analysis and, eventually, to the creation of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board in 2000.

Sid retired from Illinois as professor emeritus in 1975 and moved to Tucson as Visiting Professor of Psychology and Special Education and Rehabilitation. Looking back on his years at Arizona, it is clear that Sid set his sights on a new goal: unretiring. His early years, roughly from 1975 to 1982, were given to consulting on various federally funded research, training, and demonstration projects in special education, teaching a graduate seminar on child development in the psychology department, and traveling the world promoting behavior analysis. He continued to publish papers that, in the main, clarified and elaborated upon his views on education, parenting, normal and deviant child development, and child behavior therapy. During this time he also served as the second president of ABA, from 1978 to 1979.

His later years at Arizona, from about 1982 to his departure for the University of Nevada, Reno in 1993, were devoted to the task that he had set for himself since his early days with Skinner and Kantor at Indiana: integrating radical behaviorism and interbehaviorism to form a coherent and comprehensive natural science of behavior. His classic books on child development with Don Baer and several of his other works achieved this aim to a significant extent; however, Sid still believed that he had fallen short of fully developing Kantor's contributions.

Sid took aim at Kantor's views on language and began studying his 1977 book, Psychological Linguistics. He found a wealth of insightful and provocative concepts in it and was convinced that Kantor's analysis of linguistic behavior not only was compatible with Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior but also elaborated on the topic in ways that Skinner did not. Yet the book contained no method for conducting research, and thus there were no data to analyze and therefore no empirical statements to make as to the value or the utility of Kantor's perspective.

He saw this as a challenge on two fronts: developing and refining a method for analyzing what Kantor termed “referential behavior and interaction” and then using it to analyze casual conversations among dyads of typically developing children and children with mild retardation who had difficulties interacting socially with their age peers. He approached these challenges with a vengeance. He watched hours of videotapes of the children interacting with each other; generated guidelines for how their interactions should be coded, analyzed, and displayed; developed the protocols for remediating deficient social skills; and took the lead on writing the grants, papers, and conference presentations that grew from this work. By his own admission, Sid felt young and invigorated, exploring behavior with new methods and fresh concepts and principles.

His youthful vigor had another source: the rapid ascendance of Arizona's basketball team to the top of the men's NCAA rankings in the late 1980s. An athlete in his youth and a lifelong sports fan, he was thrilled by the success of the team and would go to their practices, scrimmages, and games at the McKale Center wearing the customary (and for Wildcat fans, required) red T-shirt. It didn't seem to matter to him that the red T-shirt he always wore read “Indiana University.”

Sid left Arizona for the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) in 1993 to join the faculty in the psychology department's behavior analysis program as distinguished professor. At the time, the behavior analysis program was in its infancy and was struggling to find both its identity and the revenue necessary to pay faculty salaries and graduate student stipends. His experiences in developing and funding graduate training programs in behavior analysis at Indiana, Washington, and Illinois quickly paid dividends.

Within a year of his arrival at UNR, graduate students were assisting, under Sid's supervision and on a fee-for-service basis, regular and special education teachers throughout Washoe County School District. This service continues to this day as a revenue source for the behavior analysis program and as a training and research site for its faculty and graduate students.

His experiences paved the way for another development, the UNR Early Childhood Autism Program. We received a phone call one day in 1995 from a mother whose young child had been recently diagnosed with autism. She heard that there was a behavior analysis program at UNR and heard that behavior analysis was the basis of Lovaas' work at UCLA. She put the two together and concluded that we must be in a position to help her child and family.

That we were not in that position was immediately obvious to Sid. He knew Lovaas from his time with him at Washington and was familiar with his research and clinical work. He knew, too, that although it was necessary to be trained in behavior analysis, it was by no means sufficient to provide an intervention program of the intensity, duration, and sophistication that Lovaas and his staff was providing to children and families at UCLA.

He phoned Lovaas in the spring of 1995 and made arrangements with him for the mother and her child to move that summer to Los Angeles for treatment. Lovaas graciously agreed to train a UNR graduate student, who spent the summer in Los Angeles with the mother and her child. He further agreed to train other students in Reno once the mother and child returned in the fall to continue treatment. Lovaas and his staff worked closely with us for roughly 2 years (and the child, now an adult, is working today toward an undergraduate degree at a mid-major university).

Sid was intimately involved at each and every step in the early evolution of the autism program. He taught parents how to manage their child's behavior in the home and showed home-based tutors how to establish rapport with a child and how to shape, prompt, and reinforce desirable behaviors. He worked tirelessly on developing and refining curriculum and behavior reduction protocols and spent hours creating a system for tracking the learning gains of the children in the program.

High on Sid's agenda was developing a program of basic and applied research on autism. He surveyed the literature, paying particularly close attention to biomedical, psychological, and behavioral theories of autism. He found all of them more or less unsatisfactory and began developing an alternative theory, “the behavioral interference theory.” He published a short version of the theory in 1999. It was to be his last scholarly publication.

His wife of 67 years, Janet (an incredible person in her own right), died in 2000. Sid left Reno for Santa Barbara to live with his daughter, Jude. He remained active and influential, visiting and corresponding with former students, colleagues, and historians of psychology until his death on June 11, 2009. Jude described that day as follows: “A peaceful, natural death, as he was getting up for another day. A life well lived to the very last moment.”

William James once wrote, “The best of life is to spend it for something that outlasts life.” For those of us who mourn Sid's death, we may take comfort in knowing that his contributions to the science of behavior will live on for many, many years to come.


I thank Ed Morris and Jude and Bob Bijou for their helpful and gracious comments on an earlier version of this paper.

Articles from Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis are provided here courtesy of Society for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior