University of Delaware
Office of Public Relations
The Messenger
Vol. 5, No. 1/1995
Gold Medal Award recognizes life achievements in psychology

     Frances Keesler Graham, professor emerita of psychology, has
come a long way in her profession as a psychophysiologist. After
being told at Yale that she would not get a job because she was a
woman, she recently received the most prestigious honor in her
     Elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1988, one of
the highest achievements for a scientist, Graham has received the
Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in Psychological Science
from the American Psychological Assn., a professional
organization with 125,000 members.
     One medal is given worldwide each year in recognition of the
scientist who has made the most outstanding contributions to
psychology during his or her lifetime.
     The award citation honored her with these words:
     For 50 years of dedicated effort and extraordinary talent,
during which Frances Graham shaped the discipline of
psychophysiology and offered remarkable insights into the
processes of the neonatal mind.
     For contributions to a scientific definition of orienting,
attention, startle, excitation and inhibition that have defined
subsequent study in these areas.
     For empirical studies marked by uncompromising standards of
scientific rigor, a style that produced the rigid data blocks
that support her towering theoretical insights.
     The subject of this tribute is an energetic, enthusiastic
and involved woman. "They always describe me as working more than
five decades," she says, and she thoroughly enjoys her work. "I'm
excited about my research. I get a kick out of what I am doing.
There aren't many of us involved in psychophysiology, but we are
a dedicated group."
     Psychophysiology involves the relationship between mental
and bodily processes. Graham's research has taken several turns,
but, basically, involves a study of animal and human brains
through physical reactions to stimuli, using non-invasive
methods. "I am a believer in simplicity in experiments," she
     Her early experiments as a Yale graduate student involved
rats and how they responded to stimuli in a discriminative
learning situation. The rats were placed in an alley, and when
they heard one tone, by pressing a bar at the far end of the
alley, they received a pellet. When they heard another tone, they
did not receive a pellet. "They learned to discriminate," she
recalled. "They would hurry down the alley when they got the
signal that a pellet was waiting; otherwise, they just ambled."
She also began measuring startle reactions with rats-research
that she later continued with human subjects.
     Married to an internist, David Graham, and the mother of
three, she moved to Washington University Medical School as a
clinical psychologist, where she began her work with infants,
babies suffering oxygen deprivation, brain-damaged children and
infants born without forebrains. Using electrodes, she studied
the response of children to visual stimuli and colors and, by
inference, what part of the brain was responding to different
stimuli. It was there that she was part of a team to develop a
test of brain function still used today.
     The family's next move was to the University of Wisconsin in
1957 where she first worked in the Department of Pediatrics and
from 1969, also in that school's Department of Psychology. Her
research was supported by grants from the National Institute of
Mental Health, the National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development, the National Institute of Neurological Disease and
Blindness, the National Science Foundation and the William T.
Grant Foundation.
     While at Wisconsin, she completed research on infants and
the effect of brain-damaging events. Since coming to Delaware in
1986, Graham has been working with Robert Simons, conducting
research on the body's automatic responses to certain stimuli and
how the brain processes these.
     Using students as subjects, electrodes are placed to measure
variations of heart rate, scalp-recorded brain changes and eye
blinks to specific stimuli to determine how the brain processes
     Tones of varying loudness are used. In some instances, no
task (i.e., listening to a tone) is given to the subject and the
response is less than if the subject is told to listen for a
tone. Other research showed that a soft tone pre-stimulus
prevented blinking to a subsequent loud tone. Tests of loudness
showed that the soft tone sounds louder and the loud tone sounds
softer, than when the tones are sounded alone.
     With infants, the lesser tone does not decrease the blink
reaction to the louder tone, indicating that babies' brains are
not as fully developed as adults.
     In 1994, a tribute to Graham's career achievements was held
in Atlanta at the 33rd annual Meeting of the Society of
Psychophysiological Research. The meeting was attended by
distinguished scientists from around the world who spoke about
their research and how it had been shaped and influenced by
Graham's teachings and scholarly activity.
     Graham has been a member of several publication and
editorial boards. She has received a Distinguished Alumna Award
from Pennsylvania State University, where she received her
bachelor's degree, and the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal from Yale
University. She also was named a William James Fellow of the
American Psychological Society in 1990.
                                        -Sue Swyers Moncure