Born on Aug. 28, 1936, in Steubenville, Ohio, Gescheider earned his bachelor’s degree at Denison University and his master’s degree at Tulane. He came to Hamilton in 1964, the same year he received his doctorate in experimental psychology from the University of Virginia. Gescheider served as chair of the Psychology Department from 1970 to 1980, during which time he effectively shaped Hamilton’s program into one focused on scientific inquiry.
Gescheider was committed to working with students one-on-one in his research lab where he focused on tactile sensitivity, especially the effects of physical parameters of vibratory stimuli on threshold responses and their relationship to underlying neural mechanisms. He published several articles in peer-reviewed journals with his students, and several of his mentees pursued advanced degrees and careers in psychology or neuroscience.
“Many students served as co-authors on his papers,” noted Professor of Psychology Jennifer Borton in the tribute she and Professor of Psychology Emeritus Doug Weldon prepared. “During my early years at Hamilton, my office was adjacent to George’s, and I could hear him telling students stories about his terrible grades and lack of focus in college, but how everything turned around for him when he started conducting research in a professor’s lab. Perhaps fittingly, in 1965 George was a founding member of the Hamilton College chapter of Sigma Xi, the science research honor society. The chapter is still going strong, and each year we hold a banquet on the Friday before Commencement to honor seniors in all sciences who plan to attend graduate school to pursue a career in research.”
As the field of neuroscience developed, Gescheider worked to ensure it was represented in the Hamilton curriculum. He was instrumental in creating the psychobiology program, which later evolved into the interdisciplinary neuroscience program within the Biology Department. Hamilton was among the first small liberal arts colleges in the country to offer such a program.
“Those who remember George know that he had a big personality, and his students appreciated his charisma in the classroom,” Borton wrote. “His favorite course to teach was Introduction to Brain and Behavior, and in 1979 he received the Pentagon Award for Excellence in Teaching.”
Gescheider held the endowed position of William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Psychology from 1985 to 1989. Ever committed to teaching, he was also an internationally recognized scholar and prolific researcher in tactile sensation, having authored or co-authored some 120 scientific articles and four books. His textbook Psychophysics: The Fundamentals, originally published in 1976, had three editions and was a leading text in psychophysics for both undergraduates and graduate students. It was translated into several languages and has been cited more than 2,000 times.
Throughout his career, Gescheider was principal or co-principal investigator on 14 large grants, primarily from the National Institutes of Health but also the National Science Foundation and other agencies, totaling $14.5 million. A longtime adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s Institute for Sensory Research, he was elected as a fellow of the Acoustical Society of America in 1993.
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The Hamilton community honors the lives and contributions of faculty members upon their death with the reading of a memorial tribute.
“George’s research in psychophysics involved asking participants to report their perceptions of touch while their skin, usually on the palm of their hand, was being stimulated by a little computer-controlled gadget that vibrated at different frequencies and magnitudes,” Borton noted. “Because skin receptors are so sensitive, he needed to do these experiments in a soundproof booth so that the frequencies of external sounds wouldn’t disrupt his data collection. George and his colleagues at Syracuse University published a seminal paper in 1988 testing a theoretical model of mechanical touch. They discovered that tactile sensation depends on four different neural channels, each one optimally stimulated by a different frequency of indentation to the skin. This paper alone has been cited 1,700 times, including 27 times so far in 2022. George spoke of the ‘fire in his belly’ that propelled him to pursue his research, and he kept working well into his 80s. His last article was published as recently as last September.”
After retiring from Hamilton in 2006, Gescheider continued to teach international students online for the Pioneer Academics company. In his spare time, he loved to sail, carve totem poles, and listen to music by Leonard Cohen and Odetta.
Gescheider is survived by four children and a grandson.