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Alphonse Chapanis, 85; Professor of Brain Sciences Pioneered the Field of Ergonomics

October 13, 2002|From a Times Staff Writer

Alphonse Chapanis, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University who pioneered the field of ergonomics, has died. He was 85.

Chapanis, who lived in suburban Towson, Md., died Oct. 4 in a Baltimore hospital of complications following knee surgery.

Long before the term ergonomics became commonplace with the proliferation of computers in the workplace, Chapanis began his research in what was formerly called human engineering. In 1949, he published the first textbook on the subject, "Applied Experimental Psychology: Human Factors in Engineering Design."

In 1966, when mainframe computers still filled whole rooms, Chapanis described his unusual specialty for the Baltimore Sun as a field "whose business is people: their comfort, their safety, their efficiency and, finally, their ability to use machines."

"The increasing complexity of machine systems," he said presciently in that interview 36 years ago, "will continue to raise more pressing and unique problems of man-machine integration. In the automatic world of tomorrow, human engineering will be essential."

During the several decades that Chapanis spent developing the field of man-and-machine interaction, several names were applied to what he studied -- psychophysical systems research, engineering psychology, human factors, human engineering and, finally, ergonomics.

Chapanis got an early start in his work during World War II. With a new doctorate in psychology from Yale, by 1943 he became an aviation psychologist at Wright Field and the School of Aviation Medicine in Texas. He helped teach pilots new techniques in night attacks against Japanese planes and studied the effects of high altitudes on psychology and physiology.

He joined Johns Hopkins in 1946, and became a much-loved teacher and mentor to graduate students. Chapanis also instilled in his students the need to give customers more than they asked for. In that mode, when he delivered lectures in Israel or Asia as well as Europe, Canada and Australia, he frequently gave the speech in the language of the country where he was speaking.

Chapanis, who officially retired from the university in 1982, continued his research and consulting until his death. He published his autobiography, "The Chapanis Chronicles," in 1999.

Over the years, he served as president of such professional societies as the Society of Engineering Psychologists and the International Ergonomics Assn. He earned awards from those groups and from the American Psychological Assn.

Chapanis is survived by his wife of 11 months, Vivian Woodward Chapanis; two children; four stepchildren; and seven grandchildren.

The family requests that memorial donations be sent to the Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Protection Agency or any organization dedicated to breast cancer research.

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