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Remembering Chuck Snowdon, renowned primatologist and professor emerit of psychology

January 23, 2023 By Mary Anderson
Headshot of Charles Snowdon

Charles T. Snowdon Hilldale Professor Emeritus of Psychology Michael Forster Rothbart

Charles T. Snowdon, Hilldale Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, died Jan. 8 at UW Hospital in Madison at age 81.

A phenomenal scientist, dedicated teacher and leader in comparative psychology and primatology, Snowdon’s contributions as mentor and friend were felt by the great many people to whom he brought wisdom, humor and unfailing support.

“His leadership and positive impacts on department climate and the wellbeing of students, staff and faculty were transformative and remain deeply valued,” says Allyson Bennet, professor of psychology and department chair.

A distinguished primatologist, Snowdon and his laboratory pioneered a series of non-invasive methods for use in studying a species of endangered primates, methods which continue to be applied to other captive primates and adopted in the field to furthering our knowledge of wild populations.

“Chuck was a primatologist ahead of his time,” says Karen Strier, Vilas Research Professor and Irven DeVore Professor of Anthropology. “Although most of his research involved small monkeys housed in social groups in his lab in the psychology department, he also had a deep appreciation for field research and the value of studying primates in their natural habitats.”

Building on Snowdon’s work, Strier and Toni Ziegler, Wisconsin National Primate Research Center distinguished scientist emerit, were able to describe the reproductive biology of critically endangered wild muriqui monkeys.

“It was magical to be able to merge new hormonal data with behavioral observations, without interfering in any way with the animals in the wild,” Strier says.

Snowdon studied vocal and chemical communication, social cognition, social development, behavioral endocrinology and paternal behavior in monkeys in captivity and in the field. His broad perspective helped launch more than 35 students and postdoctoral scholars into professional careers in science and conservation throughout the world, from research on the effects of human activities on wild pygmy marmosets in Ecuadorian Amazonia (Stella de la Torre, who earned a doctorate in 1999) to research on and conservation of gorillas across Africa (Martha Robbins, who earned a doctorate in 1996).

A member of the Psychology Department faculty for 44 years, Snowdon served four years as department chair and five years as director of the College of Letters & Science Honors Program.

“He contributed immeasurably to the Department of Psychology,” says Janet Hyde, psychology professor emerit and a colleague of Snowdon’s for decades. “He selflessly served a 4-year term as department chair, putting terrific attention to detail as well as civility into the job. He was always a voice of fairness and reason in department decision-making. With a strong commitment to gender equity, he was a great friend and colleague to many of us, and he will be sorely missed.”

Snowdon held continuous research grants from the National Institutes of Health from 1977 through 2008 and had 23 years of support through a Research Scientist Award. He received the Distinguished Primatologist Award from the American Society of Primatologists and the Clifford Morgan Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology of the American Psychological Association. Snowdon served as American Editor of Animal Behaviour (1985-88) and editor of the Journal of Comparative Psychology (1995-2000) and as associate editor and on the editorial boards of several other journals.

In a 2019 interview, Snowdon expressed his hope that, “my most lasting contribution will likely prove to be my influence on students. It is gratifying to see students get excited about a field and pursue it and also to hear back from them years later about what they have accomplished.”

“Throughout my entire career, Chuck has been my mentor, collaborator, colleague and friend,” says Ziegler. “He was especially supportive of me continuing my career without interruption while having children. I have always been impressed at his mentoring and engaging with all members of his lab: undergraduate, graduate, colony supervisors, research support and post docs.”

After his retirement in 2012, Snowdon continued to mentor, publish research and participate in primatological societies. He served with UW–Madison’s ombuds, as a member of the Psychology Department Board of Visitors, and he chaired the faculty advisory committee to the Study Abroad program. As recently as last fall, he and Ziegler published a book chapter together for “Patterns of Parental Behavior: From Animal Science to Comparative Ethology and Neuroscience.” Long a member of the UW–Madison Choral Union, he remained active in the community as a teacher of Scottish country dance and as president of the Board of Trustees of Madison Opera.

“Chuck was extremely generous about sharing his time, networks, knowledge and advice,” Strier says. “He took great pleasure in helping others, and as a result, he touched many of our lives in deep and meaningful ways. Chuck was both respected and beloved throughout the international primatological community. He has left a lasting legacy.”