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UC Berkeley Press Release

Psychometrics giant William Meredith dies

– William M. Meredith, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, whose behind-the-scenes work in psychometrics revolutionized longitudinal studies analysis, died at his El Cerrito home on Monday, Dec. 4. He was 77.

William Meredith
William Meredith

During five decades of work in statistical analysis, Meredith was particularly active in the areas of aging and educational testing. His field, psychometrics, involves the theory and technique of measuring and comparing individuals in terms of knowledge, abilities, attitudes and personality traits. One longitudinal study that he coauthored found that psychological health increases steadily from the age of 30 up.

Colleagues and family members said Meredith was extremely modest, frequently refusing co-authorships and downplaying his achievements. But behind the scenes, his contributions were momentous.

"In a quiet way, his work provided the foundation for a whole new way to analyze longitudinal data, much more powerful and informative than anything we've had before," said Phil Cowan, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of psychology, and a colleague and friend of Meredith's. "Unfortunately, because of his quiet way, he didn't always get the credit he deserved for revolutionizing the field of longitudinal studies analysis."

Barbara Mellers, a UC Berkeley professor of marketing and organizational behavior who also was Meredith's colleague and a longtime friend, said: "Bill was widely known for his theoretical contributions to psychometrics, but he was also known for his empirical contributions to developmental psychology."

"His good natured, low-key style and his powerful intellect made him a patient and inspiring teacher. He loved literature, good food and friends. He will be greatly missed by those who were fortunate enough to enjoy his salty humor, his creative mind, and his extraordinarily generous spirit," she added.

While Meredith suffered physically from a 1982 surfing accident, his mind remained sharp and analytical to the end.

"He knew more about mathematics than anyone in the psychology department," said Donald Riley, a professor emeritus of psychology who had known Meredith since 1960.

Meredith was born in Webster, S.D., in 1929 to a farming family. At 10, he was already working on the land, driving tractors. As Depression-era poverty spread across the country, his family moved around, finally settling in Tacoma, Wash., where he attended high school. After graduating, he entered the University of Washington in Seattle.

In his early college years, while working at a Tacoma ice cream parlor, Meredith met his wife-to-be, Vivian. They married in 1951. While she studied to be a nurse, he studied psychology and mathematical statistics, earning a B.S., M.S. and, finally, a Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1952, 1956 and 1958, respectively.

In 1960, Meredith was hired as an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. He and Vivian were thrilled to move to the Bay Area.

"They liked the bay, and the liberal feel of the area," said his daughter, Nancy Meredith. She said her father was sympathetic to the free speech and anti-war movements of Berkeley in the 1960s, but was more likely to be found intensely working on his research than marching in the streets. He was promoted to associate professor in 1965 and professor in 1967.

"He loved his work, and he was really good at it," she said. She fondly recalled how her father's scholarship spilled over onto his family to the point that she announced in kindergarten that she needed to learn to write so she could write her thesis. He also loved his vegetable garden and was an avid Mark Twain reader.

In 1982, while body surfing on the north shore of the island of Oahu in Hawaii, Meredith was slammed around by big waves. After losing consciousness, he was resuscitated. But the accident damaged the nerves in his spine and, for a while, he was paralyzed.

"That ruined his health," Nancy Meredith said. "But he never let on that he was in pain."

And it did not interfere with his scholarly pursuits.

Meredith authored and co-authored numerous papers and published two books: "Basic Mathematical and Statistical Tables for Psychology and Education (McGraw Hill, 1966) and "Methodological Issues in Aging Research (Springer, 1988).

He served as president of the Society of Multivariate Experimental Psychology in 1988, winning the society's Sells Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1996, and was president of the Psychometric Society in 1992. In 1995, he received the Annual Tanaka award for "Best Paper in Multivariant Behavior Research." He was particularly proud of the volunteer work he did for the NAACP, contributing his expertise to race-related projects, Nancy Meredith said.

In addition, Meredith was a consultant to various organizations and publications, including the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences; The British Journal of Mathematical and Statistical Psychology; and the Columbian National Testing Service.

In 2000, Meredith and California State University, Fresno, psychologist Constance J. Jones published "Developmental Paths of Psychological Health From Early Adolescence to Later Adulthood." The longitudinal study tracked the psychological health of 236 participants from adolescence to age 62 and found their psychological health to steadily improve after the age of 30.

He made regular donations to Planned Parenthood and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Last month, he remarked in an e-mail to a friend: "The recent election has given me hope that my grandchildren will have a chance at a decent life."

He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Vivian Meredith of El Cerrito; daughter, Nancy Meredith of Richmond; and sons, William of El Cerrito; Tom of El Sobrante; Douglas of El Cerrito; four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

In accordance with Meredith's wishes, the family will not hold a formal memorial service. His ashes will be scattered in Washington state next summer.