Benjamin Wright came to the University of Chicago as a physicist, but his interest in social science measurement prompted him to make a drastic switch, leading to a distinguished teaching and research career in psychology, psychometrics and education. The practical and objective social measurement tools and theories that he developed are now widely applied around the world.
Benjamin Drake Wright, PhD’57, professor emeritus in education and psychology at UChicago, died Oct. 25 at Warren Barr Pavilion, a Chicago nursing home. He was 89.
Wright started at UChicago as a graduate student in the physics department in the fall of 1947, after obtaining his bachelor’s degree in physics at Cornell University. He took a part-time job as a counselor at UChicago’s Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, a coeducational residential treatment program for children and adolescents in need of emotional support. His work at the school, headed by Bruno Bettelheim, a renowned child psychologist and writer, motivated him to take classes in psychology and psychological measurement and to gradually switch his academic focus from physics to psychology.
He obtained a certificate in psychoanalytic child care from the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis in 1954, followed by a doctorate in human development from UChicago in 1957. Upon graduation, Wright taught statistics and psychology in UChicago’s departments of education and psychology.
In 1960, Danish mathematician and psychometrician George Rasch, who had developed a class of measurement models known as Rasch models, was invited to UChicago to deliver a series of lectures. This sparked Wright’s strong interest in social science measurement, and led to a decade-long collaboration with Rasch.
In subsequent years, Wright was largely responsible for the widespread adoption of Rasch’s measurement principles and models, which he believed offered more practical and objective methods of measuring and verifying educational, psychological and physical functioning. Wright published 150 papers on Rasch measurement; co-authored 12 books, including Best Test Design and Rating Scale Analysis; and directed the development of the two most widely used Rasch measurement computer programs, BIGSTEPS and Facets. He ran annual workshops and taught courses on Rasch measurement beginning in 1969, and chaired 70 doctoral dissertations on that topic.
“No one has done more than Wright to make a fundamental measurement theory accessible to researchers,” says William Fisher, a psychometrician who was mentored by Wright when he pursued his doctorate degree at UChicago.
Nikolaus Bezruczko, another former student of Wright’s, agreed. “Ben emphasized objective knowledge, and his personal commitment was to change educational measurement and research, bringing it more in line with traditional scientific ideas,” he said. “More importantly, he understood how to develop measurement methods. His students quickly understood that he was a master at it.”
Throughout his career, Wright made significant contributions to the areas of estimation, item banking, adaptive instruments, model fit analysis, models for test, rating scales and other concepts in educational testing. Wright cofounded the Institute for Objective Measurement and the Rasch Measurement Social Interest Group within the American Education Research Association.
“My father was passionate about what he did and he had planned to never retire,” recalled Sara Baumrin, Wright’s daughter. “He was an amazing educator, inspiring and very accessible. He had a very good way to invest in the people that he taught, and knew what to say to encourage his students and to get them to think further.”
Baumrin said her father was a lover of life, which is a secret to his longevity. Wright was an avid swimmer and loved music. He played the recorder “unbelievably well” with no formal training.
In 2001, Wright suffered a stroke while he was on his way to his class. The illness incapacitated him, preventing him from his teaching and research. He took comfort in the fact that many of his students had advanced in their careers and have continued with his research.
“Ben’s students appreciated his furious rejection of contemporary social research conventions, and many of them in their careers have continued to push back against them,” said Bezruczko, professor of statistics at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
Wright is survived by his children: Amy, Andrew, Christopher and Sara Baumrin; eight grandchildren and one great grandson. His wife, Claire, passed away on Dec. 30, 2001.