Saul B. Sells

Founder and Former Director of IBR (1913-1988)

The following article appears in: American Psychologist, 43(12), December 1988, page 1088.
Copyright 1988 by the American Psychological Association.

Saul Sells was born in New York City on January 13, 1913. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1933, after studying philosophy and psychology, and three years later earned a PhD degree from Columbia University. His dissertation work, supervised by Robert S. Woodworth, was on the atmosphere effect in syllogistic reasoning, an oft-cited study. While a student at Columbia, he also worked closely with Edward L. Thorndike.

During World War II, Saul served as Chief Statistician in the Office of Price Administration, and after that he held only two positions that spanned the next 40 years. From 1948 to 1958, he was Head of the Department of Medical Psychology at the U.S. Air Force School of Aviation Medicine, Randolph Field, Texas. Beginning in 1958, Saul’s last three decades were spent at Texas Christian University (TCU), where he established the Institute of Behavioral Research (IBR) in 1962.

Throughout his career, Saul stressed the significance of organism-environment interactions in understanding and predicting behavior; he also emphasized the need to study behavior in its natural setting. He devoted himself to bridging science and practice in psychology through three major and interrelated research domains. The first was adaptability screening of Air Force pilots, which later became a prototype for research in pilot selection and validation design. It involved a worldwide program for testing pilots in training and later assessed their performance in combat during the Korean War. In 1955, he received the Aerospace Medical Association’s Longacre Award for this work, and the Air Force Commendation for Meritorious Civilian Service came the next year. His research on selection and performance prediction among pilots and aviation personnel continued as one of his principal areas of interest after leaving his civilian post in the Air Force, and he later studied similar issues confronted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as they began planning long-duration space missions. The progression toward more sophisticated personnel selection, performance appraisal, and organizational climate projects was natural for Saul, whose theoretical and methodological innovations have advanced industrial/organizational psychology.

Another major program included large-scale personality studies for the Office of Education. One (conducted with Merrill Roff) focused on the personality development of 40,000 youths in Texas and Minnesota and examined family and social context variables as predictors of later social adjustment. Another involved a complicated comparative study of the factor analytic structures from Guilford’s and Cattell’s personality theories. This research helped him shape important measurement domains used in subsequent applied industrial projects.

Finally, his greatest prominence was in the field of drug abuse and treatment evaluation. His pioneering research program on community-based treatment agencies began in 1968, with data collected from a national sample of almost 44,000 admissions. Important client and treatment taxonomy studies were first carried out, and later, 6-year posttreatment follow-up studies used replicated cohort designs and sophisticated multivariate analytic methods to assess client and treatment variables in relation to outcomes. Now, 12-year follow-up studies of opioid addiction careers are nearing completion using this data base, with funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which has run continuously for 20 years. In 1978, Saul received NIDA’s Pacesetter Award for this work because it established methodological and conceptual standards for evaluating treatment effectiveness and made important contributions to the formulation of national policy.

In addition to his 22 books and over 400 articles, Saul’s breadth of professional interest and influence is reflected in his numerous awards and organizational affiliations (he was a fellow in 10 different APA divisions). He served on many editorial boards, but special dedication went into his founding efforts and over 20 years as Managing Editor for Multivariate Behavioral Research.

In 1983, Saul faced mandatory retirement at TCU and, soon afterwards, the death of his valued companion and loving wife, Helen. A symposium was held that year for colleagues to honor Saul for his wide-ranging accomplishments and contributions to interactionist psychology, now being published in a Festschrift volume. Since “retirement,” he continued his involvement in numerous research and writing projects, as well as a heavy manuscript review and editorial workload. He was an intensive and determined man, readily challenging intellectual or professional violations of his high standards of scientific and personal integrity. At the same time, he was a loyal, gentle, and caring man to his many friends and an army of students.

On February 4, 1988, at age 75, Saul died of a heart attack while preparing to attend an early morning meeting on another new project. His work was his life and hobby, and he devoted himself to it fully. He and Helen had no children. A brother was his only surviving family member. As his friends would anticipate, his desk was left covered with neatly organized stacks of work still in progress, punctuated with his pipes and their lingering aroma.

D. Dwayne Simpson
Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr.
Texas A&M University