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HFES Bulletin

April 2012
Volume 55, Number 4

Inside HFES

In Memoriam: Harold P. Van Cott

Harold P. Van Cott

?With each advance in technology, the human has become the increasingly weak link in systems,? wrote Harold (?Van?) P. Van Cott in 2001. The prominent behavioral scientist, formerly of Bethesda, Maryland, died February 3, 2012, in the Pittsburgh area. He was 86.

Van Cott came from a Dutch-American family with roots in New York since 1662. Born and raised in Schenectady, New York, he served in the U.S. Army in World War II. Under the G.I. Bill, he completed a BA degree in physiological psychology at the University of Rochester in 1948 and went on to earn an MA in social psychology in 1952 and a PhD in psychological science in 1954, both from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Over a 40-year career, Van Cott specialized in behavioral analysis and the interactions between people and technology. He was a pioneer in the then-emerging field of HF/E, particularly the study of human error and its causes and prevention. His areas of expertise and experience included such diverse topics as the design of nuclear power plants, human interface with military vehicles, medical errors, transportation safety, organizational performance, workplace injuries, and consumer product safety.

He held a number of prestigious positions, including principal staff officer at the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, manager of Human Factors with IBM Federal Systems, director of the Institute for Human Performance with the American Institutes for Research, manager of Publications and Communications of the American Psychological Association, and director of Consumer Sciences Research at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology. In the 1980s, Van Cott also served as chief scientist at Biotechnology, Inc., of Falls Church, Virginia, and as a vice president at Essex Corp. of Alexandria, Virginia. Throughout the 1990s, he worked as an independent consultant for a wide variety of government agencies, research laboratories, and private industries. He testified before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee in 1998 regarding highway safety.

A prolific writer in his field, Van Cott authored 10 book chapters and more than 150 journal articles and technical reports. He was editor of the widely used Human Engineering Guide to Equipment Design, sponsored by the Department of Defense. He held the positions of Fellow and president of both the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society and Division 21 of the American Psychological Association. He was also a Fellow in the American Psychological Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Washington Academy of Sciences. Van Cott was a member of the American Associations of Engineering Societies? Board of Governors, the Board of Directors of Oxford Research Institute, the Society of Sigma XI, and the Cosmos Club.

During a brief period when he taught psychology at Alfred University in New York, Van Cott met Madeleine P. Bouvier, a Fulbright scholar from Paris studying ceramic engineering. They married in 1952. Van Cott is survived by Madeleine, son Laurent Van Cott, daughters Jeanne Marie Van Cott and Anne Van Cott, son-in-law Mike Usman, and grandchildren Nicholas Usman and Samantha Usman.

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