Alphonse Chapanis, a founding father of the science that eventually became known to the general public as ergonomics, died on Oct. 4 in Baltimore of complications from knee surgery. Chapanis, who was 85, was a professor emeritus in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences who retired from Johns Hopkins in 1982 after a nearly 40-year career of research dedicated to maximizing the healthfulness and efficiency of human-machine interactions.
With two other Hopkins faculty members, Wendell Garner and Clifford Morgan, as co-authors, Chapanis wrote the book widely acknowledged as the first ergonomics textbook, Applied Experimental Psychology: Human Factors in Engineering Design. It was published in 1949.
In a 1966 article in the Baltimore Evening Sun, Chapanis said his field of research, then known as human engineering, was a new specialty "whose business is people: their comfort, their safety, their efficiency and, finally, their ability to use machines."
In that 36-year-old article, when computers were still huge boxes that filled rooms or buildings and were used only by university professors, Chapanis offered several prescient remarks that will likely provoke knowing smiles in anyone who's ever had trouble with a personal computer or a software instruction manual.
Citing an urgent need for a handbook on how to write clear instructions, Chapanis said, "The increasing complexity of machine systems will continue to raise more pressing and unique problems of man-machine integration. In the automatic world of tomorrow, human engineering will be essential."
Born in Connecticut on March 17, 1917, Chapanis earned his doctorate in psychology from Yale in 1943. He was active early in his career in the armed forces, serving as a medical psychologist and chief of the visual section at the Aero Medical Laboratory at Wright Field in Ohio, and also serving for a time as an aviation physiologist at the School of Aviation Medicine in Texas. While in the military, he studied the effects of high altitudes on psychology and physiology and, according to an obituary in last week's Baltimore Sun, helped pilots learn new techniques for attacking Japanese planes at night.
Chapanis came to Johns Hopkins in 1946 as a member of the university's Systems Research Field Laboratory in Rhode Island. He moved to Homewood in 1947 to become assistant professor of psychology, and by 1956 was a full professor in both psychology and industrial engineering.
In the decades that Chapanis worked in human-machine interactions, the field expanded enormously under a variety of names and specialties, including psychophysical systems research, engineering psychology, human factors, human engineering and finally, ergonomics.
Chapanis served at various times as president of a number of the field's professional societies, including the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, the Society of Engineering Psychologists and the International Ergonomics Association.
The Human Factors Society named its award for best student research after Chapanis when he retired from Hopkins. The group, whose formation and character Chapanis strongly influenced, met in Baltimore shortly before he died. Sadly, Chapanis was unable to attend because of illness.
Stewart Hulse, professor emeritus of psychological and brain sciences, remembered Chapanis as a prolific writer and researcher who studied a wide variety of topics.
"He was also a very, very good teacher," Hulse said. "His specialty in the classroom was teaching statistics, and the graduate students absolutely loved his course in it. He had a way of making it extremely clear. It was a required course, but the students didn't think of it that way."
Gerald Krueger, a graduate student under Chapanis who received his Hopkins doctorate in 1977, described him as a "faithful guiding mentor, a true friend" in an e-mail announcing his death to colleagues and former students.
Krueger, who remained close to Chapanis after graduation, is now principal scientist and chief ergonomist for the Wexford Group International in Vienna, Va. He has been working on the ergonomics of new battlefield technology for the Department of Defense.
"Chapanis was a tremendous role model for all his students in that he always taught us to employ the customer-oriented model of client relations," Krueger said. "He taught us to always give our clients more than they asked for, and they'd be sure to come back again."
Krueger recalled that when Chapanis gave lectures internationally, he would often give the presentation in the native language of the country where he spoke, and also make sure to learn enough of that language to be able to answer a few questions.
"I received a response to my e-mail [announcing Chapanis' death] from a Chinese researcher who said they would remember Dr. Chapanis forever," Krueger said.
Chapanis' professional honors include the Society of Engineering Psychologists' Franklin V. Taylor Award (1963), the Human Factors Society's Paul M. Fitts Award (1973) and the American Psychological Association's Applications in Psychology Award (1978), all for distinguished contributions to research or teaching. He was a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and several other organizations. His autobiography, The Chapanis Chronicles, was published by Aegean in 1999.
After his retirement, Chapanis continued to be active as a professional consultant, particularly for IBM and others in the computer industry. In recent years, he had become interested in improving videoconferencing. According to the Sun obituary, Chapanis published his last scientific paper just two months ago, in the August issue of Perceptive and Motor Skills.
Krueger said a memorial ceremony three years ago for another longtime Hopkins psychology faculty member had motivated him to seek out fellow graduates who had studied under Chapanis and to urge them to express their appreciation to Chapanis while he was still alive.
"I think about 20 some people sent him such notes--what he meant to them, and how they were affected by him," Krueger said. "I'm glad we were able to do that."
Chapanis is survived by his wife, Vivian Woodward Chapanis, of Towson, Md.; two children, Roger Chapanis of Seattle and Linda Chapanis Fox of Honolulu; four stepchildren; and seven grandchildren. Vivian Chapanis has requested that any donations in his honor be sent to the Nature Conservancy of Washington, D.C., the Environmental Protection Agency or any organization dedicated to breast cancer research.