Patrick O’Donnell, 1947-2016

A ‘legendary’ lecturer in psychology has died

April 28, 2016
Obituary: Patrick O’Donnell, 1947-2016

Patrick O’Donnell was born in Govan, Glasgow, on 12 July 1947 and educated at St Aloysius’ College and the University of Glasgow.

After graduating with a first in psychology, he was immediately taken on as an assistant lecturer in 1969 and soon promoted to lecturer. He went on to spend his whole career at Glasgow until he retired in 2015, becoming senior lecturer in 1987 and professor of teaching, learning and assessment in 2006.

He served as dean of social sciences and head of the psychology department and played an important role in the management of the university as an elected member of the senate and chair of the Working Party on Equal Opportunities.

In his research, Professor O’Donnell focused on a number of diverse areas: computer interfaces, where he forged strong links with industry; therapeutic treatments for addiction; and decision-making in accountancy. More recently, he published 15 important papers on the neural underpinnings of how we process the written word.

Yet he was even better known as a powerfully charismatic teacher, who won a Teaching Excellence Award in 2011. More than 25,000 students attended Professor O’Donnell’s introductory lectures in psychology over the course of 45 years, including in at least one case three generations of the same family. His popularity led to newspaper coverage under the headline “Paddy Packs Them In” and a student Facebook page devoted to “The Legend that is Paddy O’Donnell”.

Well known for his wit, Professor O’Donnell once defined “academic freedom” as “being free to work any 60 hours of the week one likes”.

He also used deadpan jokes as a way of encouraging his students to listen more carefully and to reflect on what he was saying, once stating in a lecture that “of course psychoanalysis is a lot quicker for a man than for a woman because when it’s time to go back to childhood, a man is already there”. (No one even smiled, although one student did come up at the end to check if this “fact” was true.)

Muffy Calder, vice-principal and head of Glasgow’s College of Science and Engineering, recalled Professor O’Donnell as “a great communicator” who “brought [to every meeting] insight, clarity of thought and a good dose of irreverence. In any discussion, I always looked forward to a pithy remark from Paddy, reminding us what really mattered.”

Professor O’Donnell died on 3 April and is survived by his wife Mary and daughter Ruth. To honour his memory, the School of Psychology is creating an annual O’Donnell Learning and Teaching Award.

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