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Brown, Roger, 1925- Papers of Roger W. Brown : an inventory

Harvard University Archives


Harvard University

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Descriptive Summary

Call No.: HUGFP 149
Repository: Harvard University Archives
Creator: Brown, Roger, 1925-
Title: Papers of Roger W. Brown, 1954-1997
Date(s): 1954-1997
Quantity: 8.6 cubic feet (25 boxes)
Abstract: Roger W. Brown (1925-1997) was a social psychologist who pioneered in the study of psycholinguistics, particularly the acquisition of language in children. These papers document the professional activities of Roger W. Brown. They contain little that illustrates his personal life.

Acquisition Information:

  • Accession number: 13752; 1998 May 8.
  • Accession number: 13877; 1998 October 9.
  • Processing Note:

    Processed September-October 2002 by Dominic P. Grandinetti.
    Processing included re-housing materials in appropriate containers, establishment of series and sub-series hierarchy, and the creation of this finding aid. Unless otherwise noted, the archivist maintained the original filing order of the folders and documents in this collection.
    The archivist placed documents into acid-free folders, put photographs into acid-free sleeves, and re-housed the materials in archival document boxes. Folder contents were examined to establish the date of the material and the folder titles were copied onto acid-free folders.

    Conditions on Use and Access:

    Permission of the archivists is required for access to the Papers of Roger W. Brown. Please see Reference Staff for details.

    Related Material in the Harvard University Archives


    Roger W. Brown (1925-1997), Professor of Social Psychology at Harvard University (1962-1994), is acknowledged as the founder of developmental psycholinguistics and as a pioneer in the study of how and why children acquire language. His studies in the 1960s fostered the earliest understanding of how children acquire basic sentence structures in English. He wrote several classic psychology books and trained most of the leading scholars in the field of language acquisition.
    Brown was born in Detroit, Michigan on April 14, 1925 and raised with two older half-brothers and one older brother. His father, Frank, lost his job as a traveling salesman during the Great Depression and worked in factories during Brown's childhood. Brown's mother, Muriel, worked as a nurse. Brown's love of learning was highly influenced by his mother, who read three books a week. It was at this time in his life that Brown became an avid reader.
    Upon graduation from high school, Brown attended the University of Michigan. His education was interrupted during World War II when Brown joined the navy and served as an ensign in the Pacific Theater. He witnessed the Battle of Okinawa and was on one of the first ships to enter Nagasaki Harbor after the atomic blast. During his service in the navy Brown had the opportunity to read extensively, including John B. Watson's Behaviorism. Inspired by Watson, Brown decided to study psychology when he returned to school.
    Brown's fascination with language began after he heard a talk given by noted linguist Charles C. Fries at the University of Michigan. Afterwards, Brown embraced the science of linguistics because it combined his interests in philosophy, literature, history, and reading. Brown received his Bachelor of Arts (1948), Master of Arts (1949) and Doctor of Philosophy (1952) all from the University of Michigan.
    Brown's academic career began at Harvard University as an Instructor in Social Psychology (1952-1953) and as an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology (1953-1957). During these early years at Harvard Brown began his studies concerning the development of language. He was the first psychologist to study the relationship of language to thought: how children determine the categorization of concepts and how they settle on the correct meaning of words. His first major book, Words and Things (1957), explored how languages are limited by the nature of human thought and how the structure of any given language influences the thinking of those who speak it. This book introduced the psychology of language to social psychologists, and it remained in print for over forty years.
    In 1957 Brown left Harvard and accepted a position as an Associate Professor of Social Psychology (1957-1960) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). During his short stay at MIT, Brown taught courses in social psychology, the psychology of language, theories of personality and psychology for industrial executives. Brown left MIT in 1962 as a Professor of Social Psychology.
    Returning to Harvard University in 1962 Brown was appointed Professor of Social Psychology. From 1967 to 1970 he served as chairman of the Department of Social Relations. In 1974 he was appointed the John Lindsley Professor of Psychology in Memory of William James.
    In 1962 Brown began his groundbreaking research on the psychology of language when he became interested in studying the psychological processes behind a child's acquisition of speech. He wanted to study how children learned language. Up to this point, the popular view was that a child's language patterns were shaped by environmental and parental influences. In order to examine the entire learning process at a high level of detail, Brown decided to work with only three children: "Adam," "Eve," and "Sara."
    Brown and some of his graduate students visited the homes of Adam, Eve, and Sarah and recorded every syllable of their speech for four years. Great care was taken to transcribe the children's speech and to mark the presence or absence of words and inflections. Notes were taken of the context in which child and parent or other adults spoke.
    The results of Brown's research were published in his book, First Language: The Early Stages in 1973. In this work, Brown challenged the behaviorist position that the ability to learn languages is determined by environmental conditions. Instead, Brown's research revealed that language is acquired on a fixed schedule and that children develop different levels of language competence as they learn to understand sounds. Brown wrote that children throughout the world have their own grammatical rules for language and speech and that they display a similar pattern when learning how to talk. Moreover, Brown found that children do not learn by imitating adults. Rather, they learn independently of what their parents or other adults say as if they were following a learning program of their own.
    Brown's work with Adam, Eve, and Sarah laid the foundation for developmental psycholinguistics and the study of children's language development. His work was important for several reasons. First, he was one of the earliest researchers to use high fidelity tape recorders to transcribe and analyze speech in a systematic way. Second, using the tools of generative grammar, Brown described the general rules of child language acquisition and demonstrated that children learn language by relying on their own cognitive abilities. Finally, Brown introduced his graduate students to the new field of psycholinguistics, and later many of them became notable scientists in their own right. First Language: The Early Stages has been cited in over 700 scientific publications since 1973 and it was named a citation classic in 1982 by Current Contents, a weekly journal that tracks the titles of articles cited in scientific journals. The publication of First Language marked the end of Brown's research on language development.
    Brown was interested in many different aspects of psychology. In the late 1960s, for example, Brown studied what he described as the tip of the tongue phenomena. This involved studying the detailed memories that individuals have of certain events, accompanied by strong emotions, and the frustration that ensues because these individuals are not able to retrieve familiar words to describe the event. Brown found that the words his subjects searched for in the tip of the tongue state were near misses and had the same first letter, same number of syllables, and the same syllabic stresses as the correct word. This suggested to Brown that non-semantic features are stored in every word. In addition, Brown's tip of the tongue studies lead to his discovery of flashbulb memories. When studying the individual memories of his subjects Brown found that an individual's recollections of what he/she were doing at the moment a newsworthy event happened were extremely vivid and detailed.
    Brown's other research interests included how and why people speak to each other in particular ways (the theory of politeness), how music conveys different kinds of moods, the language differences between the written version and the movie version of a novel or play, and causality in verbs.
    Brown wrote three textbooks. His best known was the widely adopted Social Psychology published in 1965. It remained in print for twenty-one years and became a citation classic in 1981. Brown wrote in a narrative style and about topics that interested him. In this book, he challenged the contemporary wisdom that held that individuals acting within a group tend to make riskier decisions than when acting alone. Brown argued that cultural values influence the assumptions of risk among individuals regardless of whether or not they act alone or in a group. In 1974, Brown, with Richard Herrnstein, wrote an introductory textbook called Psychology. It was not a success in the marketplace because it was too difficult for students to understand. Brown discovered that instructors would read Psychology for their own enjoyment and assign easier readings to their students. Brown published his last textbook, Social Psychology: The Second Edition, in 1985. Once again, Brown learned that his textbooks were too difficult for the average student. This book was a commercial failure.
    Mutual affection and respect marked Brown's relationship with Harvard faculty and students. He was sought out as an advisor and teacher. Many of his students went on to pursue studies in language development. In 1988 a group of Brown's students published The Development of Language and Language Researchers: Essays in Honor of Roger Brown, to honor him on his 60th birthday. Each chapter of this book reviewed the author's current research in developmental psycholinguistics and discussed the influence Roger Brown had on the author's professional growth.
    In 1989, Brown wrote a short autobiography published in A History of Psychology in Autobiography. In this piece he revealed publicly for the first time that he was a homosexual. Shortly afterwards, his long time companion, Albert Gilman, died of cancer. In 1994, Brown retired from Harvard. In 1996 Brown wrote about the grief and loneliness he felt after the death of Albert and his search for intimacy in Against My Better Judgement: An Intimate Memoir of an Eminent Gay Psychologist.
    Declining health and physical suffering marked the final years of Roger Brown. He suffered from a number of different aliments including prostate cancer, heart disease, epilepsy, and spinal stenosis. In December 1997, Roger Brown committed suicide.
    Professional Recognition:
    References used for this biography:

    Series and Sub-series in the Collection

    Scope of the Records

    The papers of Roger W. Brown document his research, writing and teaching activities at Harvard University. The bulk of the collection consists of correspondence with colleagues, students, friends, and members of the Harvard faculty. These papers contain little about his personal life.

    Inventory update

    This document last updated 2016 October 24.

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