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Gerald Noelting

1 June 1921 - 23 October 2004

When Gerald Noelting’s father sent him to Geneva from Shanghai at age 16 to complete his studies, Noelting senior was determined that young Gerald would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a chemist. Gerald dutifully carried out his father’s instructions, and took out a D Sc. at the Université de Genève. At the same time he fell under the spell of one Jean Piaget, took a second doctorate, this time in psychology and changed his life’s direction. He worked in the Genevan research team for 12 years, then departed for Canada where he took up a professorial post at Université Laval. His research activity continued unabated even after his retirement and was still incomplete when he passed away after one of his daily gym workouts at age 83.

My copy of The Growth of Logical Thinking (Inhelder & Piaget, 1955/1958) has a rust-coloured maple leaf marking the start of Chapter 7: Combinations of Colored and Colorless Chemical Bodies: The leaf I collected from the Noelting garden in 2000 after a particular lively couple of days of ‘discussion’ about many things Piagetian; Chapter 7 because the colourless chemicals task was developed by Gerald to replace an earlier inadequate combinatorial task used for Inhelder’s research into inductive thinking. While Gerald remained fascinated by the impressive mind of le patron, he remained particularly devoted to Bärbel Inhelder for whom he worked directly as assistant. A funding cut to the Genevan research program resulted in the premature termination of Inhelder’s longitudinal research in which Gerald was key assistant, and both he and Morf ended up in the former French colony of Quebec, Canada.

Prof Noelting’s team at Laval consisted of his wife Hedwige and an ever evolving group of graduate students who undertook an ongoing series of empirical research projects, developing new investigative tasks as well as bringing quantitative analyses such as Gutmann scaling and factor analysis to bear on their systematically collected developmental data. To the very end of his life Gerald kept an open mind to new analytical and theoretical possibilities, and maintained an almost child-like wonder at the revelations of his results and the structures he felt sure supported them.

While he was never accorded the honour of a central role in the meetings of this Society, he always felt privileged by the opportunity that JPS meetings provided for him to expose his ideas to the critique of others and vigorously to discuss with colleagues the Piagetian ideas that remained at the core of his research program. To that end, he made regular visits to Geneva and was in the process of revising the manuscript of a book which theoretically contextualized his empirical research when his life abruptly ended one Saturday afternoon.

Gerald is survived by his wife Hedwige, their sons: Christian who lives in Geneva, and Jean, his wife and two grand-sons in Toronto. His past students hold professorial and research positions in a variety of north American universities and other institutions. I remember him as both open-minded and argumentative, always willing to confront empty theorizing with his wealth of empirical evidence.

Trevor Bond
Quebec, April 2005.