William Epstein, professor emeritus, dies at 88

William Epstein, 88, professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology, died peacefully at home on December 17, 2019. Bill’s long and distinguished academic career began at the University of Kansas in 1959, continued at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1968-1996, and reached a conclusion in his retirement at the University of Virginia. He received an honorary doctorate from Uppsala University in Sweden in 1992.

Although trained in Gestalt psychology by Irv Rock at the New School for Social Research and mentored by Fritz Heider, his early work investigated classical problems in visual perception such as depth perception and perceptual learning. Bill was the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance from 1982 – 1987. During the initial years, he edited the journal without associate editors, not so much because he needed to be in control, but because he wanted to personally ensure the quality of everything published under his editorship. In part due to his experiences as editor, his friendship with Eleanor Gibson, his work in philosophy with Gary Hatfield, and the influence of his wife, Sheena Rogers, Bill’s own research increasingly adopted a Gibsonian perspective.

In addition to his research, teaching, and editing, Bill is fondly remembered for his amazing mentoring of young professors, astute chairmanship of the Department of Psychology at Wisconsin, and his wisdom obtained through unusual life experiences. He was raised as an Orthodox Jew on New York’s Lower Eastside, but was orphaned early. At the age of 16 he was in Israel during that country’s War of Independence, and he had to live by his wits to survive both during the war and during his return home when he was attacked in Marseille. Somehow, all of that led to an extraordinary and kind person.  

“Bill was an important scholar who studied the perception of space and motion, an academic leader who chaired the department, and a supportive mentor to young faculty and students. He played an important role in the department for nearly 30 years,” said professor emeritus Charles Snowdon.

Bill was predeceased by his first wife, Arlene Cohen Epstein, and his first daughter, Sara. He is survived by his second daughter, Edith, his wife Sheena Rogers, and their daughter Maggie.