John Newson, 1925-2010

June 17, 2010

A pioneering developmental psychologist who shed light on the inner world of young children, and how they interact with their mothers, has died.

John Newson was born in London on 10 December 1925 and brought up in Essex. His studies for an extension degree in maths and physics were broken by military service as a signaller in the Second World War. After a brief period as a teacher, he switched to the study of psychology, graduating from University College London in 1951.

A large element of the course was statistics, where Professor Newson soon revealed an exceptional talent that would prove crucial for all his subsequent research and that landed him a job as an assistant lecturer at the University of Nottingham before he had even completed his degree. He was to spend the rest of his working life there and was appointed to a professorship in 1975.

In collaboration with his wife Elizabeth, who became professor of developmental psychology at Nottingham, Professor Newson carried out an innovative 20-year research project at their Child Development Research Unit. This was based on interviews with more than 700 families, when the children were aged four, seven, 11, 16 and 22, exploring the impact of factors such as class, gender and place of birth. The findings were published in a series of major books: Infant Care in An Urban Community (1963), Four Years Old in An Urban Community (1968), Seven Years Old in the Home Environment (1976) and Perspectives on School at Seven Years Old (1977).

According to Colwyn Trevarthen, emeritus professor of child psychology and psychobiology at the University of Edinburgh, Professor Newson played a central role in the revolution in psychology that revealed infants to be "persons with intelligent intentions, with minds and sociable feelings".

Professor Trevarthen said that through "careful description and measurement of the process of communication between babies and their mothers", Professor Newson found ways to illuminate "the wonderful collaboration between infantile desires to express and respond to fundamental motives and feelings expressed in their own and others' body movements, and the mother's affectionate desire to make sense, according to the traditions and language of her adult world, of what her baby was 'telling' her".

Though much of his work involved video recording and complex number-crunching, Professor Newson was also a keen carpenter whose love of designing and constructing toys is reflected in his celebrated book Toys and Playthings: In Development and Remediation (1979).

Professor Newson died on 15 May 2010 and is survived by his wife, their three children and four grandchildren.

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