Martha Wilson, 91

Sat, 04/18/2020 - 9:45am
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Martha Wilson, 91, passed away peacefully at home on April 6, 2020.

Martha was born on Jan. 7, 1929 in Bryn Mawr, Penn. Her father, Harry Helson, was a noted experimental psychologist, and her mother, Lida Anderson Helson, was an early specialist in dyslexia. Martha attended Westtown School, a Quaker boarding school outside Philadelphia, then Bryn Mawr College and Yale University, from which she obtained a PhD in Experimental Psychology under the supervision of Karl Pribram in 1955. Her subsequent research and publications in neuropsychology contributed to the understanding of the functional organization of the primate brain, especially as related to visual perception, and she was a leading figure in the study of categorical perception. As well as holding many offices in scientific organizations, she was elected President of the Division of Physiological and Comparative Psychology of the American Psychological Association in 1986.

Martha held teaching posts at the University of Colorado and at Rosemont College and was appointed Professor of Psychology and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of Connecticut in Storrs in 1973. She held visiting appointments at a number of research institutes, including the Montreal Neurological Institute, the National Institute of Mental Health at Duke University, and the Hartford Institute of Living. Her interest in visual experience — and especially in color — was reflected in her love of art and her later work as a docent at the Connecticut State Museum of Art in Storrs. Her memoir, “The Time of My Life,” describes the pathway and experiences of a woman embarking on a scientific career in the 1950s.

Martha’s activity in the peace movement and on behalf of social justice was lifelong. Committed to Quaker principles, she was a member of Radnor Friends Meeting and later Storrs Friends Meeting. She was active in the United World Federalists in the 1960s, and she played an influential role in the organization Neighbor-to-Neighbor that played an essential role in influencing public opinion and ending the destructive US involvement in El Salvador. She was a door-to-door canvasser during the Vietnam War, and campaigned for many anti-war political candidates. After retiring from UConn., Martha taught mathematics, literacy and psychology at the Hartford Correctional Center and conducted Alternatives to Violence workshops for the inmates.

Martha and her husband, William A. Wilson Jr., also a UConn. professor, purchased “Viola’s House” in 1978 as a summer home. In the late 1980s, after they moved to Block Island fulltime, she served as the Treasurer of Block Islanders for Peace and Justice. She proposed the weekly vigil that took place downtown during the Iraq war and organized peace-related movies, talks, and discussions. Martha worked as a copy editor, famed for her meticulousness, at The Block Island Times. She served as President for a year of the Block Island Gardeners and as a member of the Zoning Board. She joined the Ecumenical Choir and was an enthusiastic participant in their Extravaganza and Cabaret performances.

Martha’s incisive wit entertained her family and all who knew her, and the depth and the originality of her insights gave us much to reflect on. She died as she wished, peacefully at home with her family present. She is survived by four children, Catherine, Caroline, William, and Harry; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.