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In memoriam: Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith (1938-2016)

The Birkbeck community has been saddened to hear of the news that Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith died on Monday morning (19th December) at the age of 78.

Here, Professor Denis Mareschal, Deputy Head of the Department of Psychological Sciences, remembers Professor Karmiloff-Smith and her contribution to the field.

“Annette was a hugely influential seminal thinker in the field of child development. She started her career as a UN translator in Geneva but her interests soon turned to the emergence of language in children.

“She trained in Geneva under Barbel Inhelder and Jean Piaget. Her first article in 1975 – "If you want to get ahead, get a theory!" – encapsulated her view that understanding cognitive processes was the key to understand the child's developing abilities.

“Annette always emphasised the importance of development itself when trying to understand both typically and atypically developing children. Under this view – outlined more fully in Development itself is the key to understanding developmental disorders, published in 1998 – typical and atypical development are construed as different life trajectories driven by the same underlying mechanisms.

“This theoretical work led her to take substantial steps forward in understanding the abilities of children with WiIliams and Downs Syndromes. Finally, in later years her work focused on understanding the complex epigenetic interactions involved in brain organisation across early development.

“Annette was also a prolific author and co-author of a series of influential books. Her most notable scientific books Beyond Modularity: A Developmental Perspective on Cognitive Science (published 1992) and Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development (published 1996) have been reprinted in several languages.

“As someone committed to the communication of science to a broader audience, Annette also wrote several extremely successful books directed at a lay audience, including Baby It's You: A unique insight into the first three years of the developing baby, published in 1994.

“Annette was hugely loved by her students and colleagues and received dozens of accolades during her career, including a Fellowship of the British Academy, Fellowship of the Cognitive Science Society, Fellowship of the Academy of Medical Sciences and honorary doctorates from universities across the world. She will be sorely missed.”

Published: 21 December 2016