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Norman B. Anderson, 1955-2024: Pioneering Psychologist and First Director of OBSSR

March 4, 2024 1712

Norman B. Anderson, a clinical psychologist whose work as both a researcher and an administrator saw him serve as the inaugural director of the U.S. National Institute of Health’s Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research and as chief executive officer of the American Psychological Association, died on March 1 while recovering from knee surgery. He was 68.

Anderson was among the early scientists to research how the stress of living in the United States affected Black people’s health. His joint work on stress on biology and risk for hypertension has been honored repeatedly by his peers, from the 1991 Award for Outstanding Contributions to Health Psychology from the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1991 to the Society of Experimental Social Psychology’s Scientific Impact Award he shared with Rodney Clark, Vernessa R. Clark and David R. Williams last year.

He was also president-elect of the Federation of Associations in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a post he was expected to start in 2026. “Norman had a unique combination of off-the-charts professional accomplishments besides humility and kindness. He was wise and thoughtful, supportive and generous with his time, and insights,” said Juliane Baron, the federation’s executive director. “I was honored that he was willing to be nominated to serve as FABBS president and delighted when he won. Words cannot capture the profundity of the professional and personal loss of Norman’s passing.”

Norman Bruce Anderson was October 16, 1955, in Greensboro, North Carolina, where his parents – the Revs. Charles W. and Lois J. Anderson –were co-pastors of United Institutional Baptist Church. His parent’s vocation influenced his own career decisions, he would later tell the American Psychological Association’s Monitor of Psychology:

“When you lead in a very large church like my parents did, there are a lot of relationship issues that you are constantly dealing with. Ministers are often addressing people’s emotional needs and their psychological well-being. So, in fact, there are a lot of similarities between being a psychologist and being a minister, and perhaps on some level, growing up as a preacher’s kid may have piqued my interest in psychology.”

“My parents, especially my mother, always thought that I would go into the ministry,” he detailed. “Then, when I became a psychologist, she’d introduce me to her friends saying, ‘His ministry is psychology.'”

He started his higher education at North Carolina Central University, which had offered him an athletic scholarship but which he declined on his parents’ counsel. “[M]y parents didn’t want me to take it. They didn’t want me to be obligated to basketball. They had saved for my college education and wanted to pay for it,” he told Contemporary Black Biography in 2004. (He did excel, however, on the court as the Fighting Eagles’ starting guard, and while he would quit the team to focus on psychology, Anderson remained a fan of the team for the rest of his life.)

After receiving his bachelor’s in psychology in 1976, he entered the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and earned a master’s and a doctorate in psychology. Getting a Ph.D., he would tell Monitor, was his professional highlight.  “I really think it overshadows everything else because of how far I had to come academically in order to earn it. The rigor of the program that I was in stretched me beyond what I perceived to be my limits. Nothing else has done that to the same extent.”

After earning that Ph.D. in 1983, he took a post-doc fellowship in psychophysiology and aging at the Duke University Medical Center and completed a clinical psychology internship at the Brown University School of Medicine.

While at Duke, Anderson researched how stress affected the African American population, and with a coterie of other pioneers – including his student Rodney Clark – modeled how the biological, psychological and social effects of racism was harming that population, The work, first published in 1999, saw the Society of Experimental Social Psychology award him its Scientific Impact Award last year.

He was at Duke in various roles through 1999, and was on the faculty there when in 1995 he was the founding director of the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research. In addition to his focus on bringing behavioral science into studies of health 9and his continuing focus on the effects of racism), he saw the fledgling directorate’s budget rise from $2 million to $19 million over his five-year term.

As he would tell Monitor, “I tried to keep in mind a revised version of John F. Kennedy’s famous quote: ‘Ask not what NIH can do for behavioral and social science, ask what behavioral and social science can do for NIH.’”

After leaving NIH he spent three years as a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, again with a focus on health disparities. In 2003 he became the CEO of the American Psychological Association, a position he held for the next 13 years. As when he was elected president of the Society of Behvioral Medicine in 1998, he was the first African American to serve in the role.

After ending his time with APA, Anderson took a role at Florida State University as both a professor and assistant vice president for research and academic affairs.

His obituary at legacy.com noted that Anderson had been examining and teaching contemplative practices and spirituality later in life, and had been accepted at the San Francisco Theological Seminary.

In addition to his research articles, Anderson served as editor-in-chief for the APA’s American Psychologist journal and wrote or co-wrote several books, including the public-facing book he wrote with his wife Elizabeth, Emotional longevity: What really determines how long you live in 2003 and 2004’s Critical perspectives on racial and ethnic differences in health in late life. For Sage, the parent of Social Science Space, Anderson edited the two-volume Encyclopedia of Health and Behavior, published in 2004.

Among his honors, in 2012, Anderson was elected to the Institute of Medicine (now part of the National Academies of Science) and the next year was inducted into the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, APA, the Association for Psychological Science, the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research, and the Society of Behavioral Medicine.

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