The Passing of Phebe Cramer

To the Williams community,

It is with a heavy heart that I share the news that Phebe Cramer, emerita professor of psychology, passed away on Friday, April 2, at Berkshire Medical Center. 

Having earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1962 from New York University, she taught at Barnard College and the University of California at Berkeley before joining the Williams faculty in 1970. At that time, she was only the fifth woman on the faculty and went on to become the first woman to serve as full professor and to chair a department. For nearly four decades at Williams she taught courses in developmental psychology and child clinical psychology, and also maintained a small private practice until her retirement in 2009. Afterward, she continued to conduct research, publish and lecture.

During her career she authored more than 90 scholarly articles and five books, including Protecting the Self: Defense Mechanisms in Action and Story Telling, Narrative and the Thematic Apperception Test, advancing our understanding of how children become adolescents and then adults, and of the roles in that process of defense mechanisms, fantasy and play. Credited with reviving narrative research in the field of psychology, her work also aimed to understand how people manage to not know things about themselves that they do not want to know.

“Phebe had rigorous scholarly standards,” said George “Al” Goethals, Dennis A. Meenan ’54 Professor of Leadership Studies, Emeritus. “During her time as chair of the department she fiercely and effectively pushed for the interests of her faculty.”

Her numerous honors include the Society for Personality Assessment’s Bruno Klopfer Memorial Award in 2014 and the Association for Research in Personality’s Henry A. Murray Award in 2018 for her scientific and humanistic scholarship in the psychological study of individual human lives. One of her many contributions to the field was a coding system that allows researchers to identify different defense mechanisms in the answers provided based on the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) images, a research tool developed by Murray and used throughout Cramer’s career. She also conducted extensive research in the Murray tradition by studying personality development throughout the course of life.

As Saul Kassin, Massachusetts Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, noted, “Phebe was the consummate productive scholar, one of the leading researchers on defense mechanisms, development and measurement, especially using the TAT. It’s remarkable how productive she remained in her scholarship even after she retired.”

Beyond academia, she was an avid world traveler, frequently taking adventures to all corners of the globe. In addition, she was a world-record-holding swimmer and a U.S. Figure Skating judge.

A memorial service has not been announced, but I wanted to share this news now, as many in our community will want to share memories and offer condolences.

Our thoughts and hearts are with Phebe’s colleagues, students, friends, and especially her family.


Maud S. Mandel
Professor of History; Program in Jewish Studies