Walter Kintsch Obituary
Walter Kintsch, Professor Emeritus of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, passed away on March 24, 2023, at the age of 90. He was born on May 30, 1932, in Timișoara, Romania. At a young age he and his family fled invading forces towards the end of World War II, eventually settling in Bregenz, Austria after the war. Walter graduated from a teacher’s college in Feldkirch, Austria in 1951 and for four years taught multiple grades in a one-room, rural schoolhouse in Austria. Walter then became a Fulbright Scholar and moved across the Atlantic to pursue his PhD at the University of Kansas. During this time, he met and married his lifelong love and collaborator, Eileen Kintsch.
After receiving his PhD in 1960, he did a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Indiana with W.K. Estes. Subsequently, Walter held faculty positions at the University of Missouri, the University of California-Riverside, and a visiting professorship at Stanford University. He and Eileen then moved to Boulder, CO in 1968, where Walter spent the rest of his career at the University of Colorado Boulder. And what a career it was!
Walter studied memory, knowledge representation, text/discourse understanding, and most importantly their intersection for 50+ years. Over that time, his productivity was remarkably consistent and prolific.
His academic and professional honors were numerous; we shall only touch on a few. He received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the APA (1992); a Dr. honoris causa from Humboldt Universität, Berlin (2001); the Lifetime Achievement Award, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Psychologie (2002) (the German Psychological Society); and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award, Society for Text and Discourse (2008).
His service contributions to the field of cognitive psychology and beyond were also exemplary. He served as the president of APA’s Division 3 (Society for Experimental Psychology and Cognitive Science) and chaired the Psychonomics Society’s Governing Board and the Cognitive Science Society’s Governing Board, as well as serving on the latter’s board for nearly two decades. He was a consulting member for a dozen journals over the years, and spent time as the main editor for two of the most important journals in the field, Psychological Review, and the Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior which later became the Journal of Memory and Language.
In terms of service at CU Boulder, he served as the Director of the Institute of Cognitive Science (ICS) for 21 years, from 1983 until his retirement from the university in 2004. During that time under Walter’s broad shoulders, ICS flourished as a world-renowned center for research in the cognitive sciences, with members from several departments including Computer Science, Linguistics, Philosophy, Education, and Psychology actively engaged in the stimulating environment fostered by Walter. He could converse intelligently with someone from any one of those disciplines due to the breadth of his scientific curiosity and knowledge.
Few people were as widely read as Walter. His ability to synthesize arguments or to see connections across disciplines was nothing short of astonishing: One of his last publications, “Musings about Beauty” (2012, Cognitive Science), published just months before his 80th birthday, took the Construction Integration model in an entirely new direction. In this publication, Walter, ever the deep thinker and math psych modeler, describes a first attempt at representing beauty based on ideas from Aesthetics going back hundreds of years combined with the formality of more recent approaches on the representation of highly multidimensional concepts.
Walter supervised over 30 PhDs at CU Boulder, occasionally with a small stable of them at the same time. Despite his many commitments he made each of his students feel nurtured and encouraged.
Walter’s research was always well-funded from a variety of governmental entities and private foundations. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of all the various monetary grants and awards he received is the fact that the NIMH funded his text research for 30 consecutive years!
What impact did this funding and his research productivity have on the various fields in which he studied? He published over 150 articles and chapters, wrote five books and edited six more. These are undoubtedly impressive numbers, but don’t convey the full extent to which Walter’s research impacted the various fields of study, nationally and internationally. He published articles with over 100 different authors. In the days before email and the internet, the ideal way to collaborate was for a scientist to visit the home institution of the desired collaborator, preferably for an extended amount of time. By that criterion, Walter was without equal. People from all over the world came to Boulder to work with him. Over the years, several countries in Europe were represented (Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain), but also Canada, Israel, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Brazil, and Australia. Most of these collaborations resulted in publications, often more than one.
A few of his publications deserve special mention. First and foremost, Kintsch and van Dijk’s “Toward a model of text comprehension and production” (1978, Psychological Review) was truly groundbreaking. It was the first well-specified theoretical model of how people go about creating a mental representation from reading a text. The paper has been cited over 9,300 times according to Google Scholar. A book published 5 years later, Strategies of Discourse Comprehension (1983), which fleshed out their theory in greater detail, has been cited nearly 13,000 times according to Google Scholar.
Second, in 1988, Walter published his Construction-Integration model (Psychological Review), another innovative theoretical discourse-comprehension model. A book Walter wrote on the subject published 10 years later has been cited 9,000 times according to Google Scholar.
Third, in 1995, Anders Ericsson and Walter published a paper about Long-Term Working Memory (once again, Psychological Review), arguing that the binary distinction between a short-term and a long-term memory store couldn’t account for expert memory performance. This influential article has received over 5,300 citations according to Google Scholar.
Walter’s activities were not only professional. His leisure time was filled with reading, especially literary classics like Thomas Mann, studying art, with a focus on Oriental rugs and textiles, and listening to classical music. His love of high mountain peaks and his elegant skiing style reflected his Austrian heritage. Those of us fortunate enough to keep up with him on the slopes felt lucky indeed.
Walter is survived by his wife of 64 years, Eileen, his daughter, Julia, sister, Gerda Reich, with his older daughter, Anja, having predeceased him. He will be greatly missed by his family, friends, former students, and colleagues. A person of his intellect, creativity, and generosity is seldom seen. If you wish to honor his memory, the family suggests donations to the Boulder Bach Festival or the University of Colorado Foundation Need-Based Financial Aid Fund.
- Ernie Mross, PhD’89 (under the direction of Walter Kintsch)
- Department of Psychology and Neuroscience
- University of Colorado Boulder
- Boulder, Colorado