Professor A. Kimball Romney’s research led to this mathematical visualization of cone photo receptor sensitivities. In theory, this visualization is the operational key to creating uniform, high quality color in a variety of fields. His work on this model was featured in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2009 and patented by UCI in 2012. Courtesy of UCI Strategic Communications.

Kimball Romney, UCI anthropology research professor, former dean of the School of Social Sciences, and fellow of both the National Academy of Sciences and American Academy of Arts and Sciences, passed away on December 29, 2023. He was 98.

Widely considered a founder of cognitive anthropology, his 68-year career as a professor yielded 10 books and more than 100 academic articles appearing in journals as diverse as American Anthropologist, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Social Networks, American Journal of Sociology, Journal of the Optical Society of America, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, to name a few.

“When Kim joined UCI in 1969, the campus was a cattle ranch with cows grazing on all sides,” says Mike Burton, anthropology professor emeritus. “Our mandate was to develop a first-class research university within a planned city, and Kim was a leader in that development, beginning with becoming the second dean of the School of Social Sciences.”

“Kim was a mentor to many students. He saw dissertation research as a partnership among equals. His students brought many new perspectives, and he was inclusive of all,” he says. “Kim was our good friend, and we will all miss him.”

Born August 15, 1925, in Rexburg, Idaho, Romney earned his bachelor’s and master’s in sociology at Brigham Young University and his Ph.D. in social anthropology from Harvard University. He arrived at UCI following professorships at the University of Chicago (1955-56), Stanford University (1957-66) where he was named a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and Harvard University (1966-68). He served as dean of the School of Social Sciences (1969-71) and stepped down after two years to focus on teaching and research. His first decades of research consisted of seminal research on kinship and culture, and in the 1980s development of the cultural consensus theory, which impacted multiple fields and was one of the most cited publications in the field. His work earned him election to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (1994) and National Academy of Sciences (1995). 

“Kim Romney had a profound interest in how to understand and characterize the cognitive representations shared by members of communities. These investigations ranged from the understanding of kinship terms in indigenous Australian groups to the cognitive organization of color and animal words in adults,” says Barbara Dosher, UCI Distinguished Professor of cognitive sciences and former dean of social sciences (2002-13).

Romney and colleagues developed sophisticated mathematical methods to measure and understand the culturally shared cognitive representations from simple verbal or perceptual judgements, she explains. The cultural consensus theory mines the consistencies between judgements of many individuals to understand the meanings of terms from new or unknown cultures to create a culturally sensitive answer key.

“He was a true gentleman and intellect. A long-time member of the social sciences community, often seen in conversation with colleagues or students, he will be widely missed,” she says.

Coauthor John Boyd, UCI anthropology professor emeritus, adds: “Kim was very productive and collegial, for example teaming up with Bill Batchelder to revolutionize anthropology with the theory of cultural consensus and leading to his election to the National Academy of Science. His work on color vision continued well past retirement.”

“Kim was an ardent supporter of science in anthropology and was a widely read student of science in many other fields,” he says. “When he went on his beloved cruises with his family, he spent much of his time reading an eclectic stack of books. However, he would often say ‘We know absolutely nothing of human behavior!’”

In 1995, Romney officially retired, but his work was far from finished. For the next 28 years, he continued to work closely with affiliates in the Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Sciences at UCI. More than half of his published studies were done post-retirement and focused largely on color vision, an entirely new area of study for the emeritus professor. He developed a mathematical model that explains how the human eye sees color and allows that to be accurately replicated in televisions, computers and other digital devices. His model yields a 99.4 percent match, based on International Commission on Illumination standards, and was patented by UCI in 2012.

"Kim Romney was 'salt of the earth' as an educator and academic advisor. He was an extremely kind and respectful mentor, always joyfully engaged in students’ research aims, and able to pleasantly impart complex ideas and technical tools in ways that encouraged young scientists to go beyond status quo levels of quantitative cognitive anthropology scholarship," says coresearcher Kimberly Jameson, UCI project scientist. "Kim’s friendship and Ph.D. advising was a gift to me - as it was for many other students whom he guided intellectually. His encouragement and insight always led to tangible achievements – typically in the form of co-authored peer-reviewed publications, conference presentations, and extramural grants. Since 2000 I regularly interacted with Kim on color research topics, immensely enjoying our shared research interests. To me Kim Romney was a mentor, colleague and friend. Our 40-years of interaction shaped who I am as a cognitive scientist and quantitative anthropologist. I will forever cherish Kim and his influence on my thinking."

In 2016, Romney was named the recipient of UCI’s Outstanding Emeritus/a Award. The honor, awarded each year by the UCI Emeriti Association, recognizes special accomplishments of a retired professor.

“As one of the first deans of social sciences and one of the campus’s most eminent faculty members, Professor Romney helped to build UC Irvine into the top-flight research university it has become,” says Bill Maurer, UCI anthropologist and social sciences dean. “But what always amazed me was how he always looked so relaxed. Sweater over the shoulder, coffee cup in hand, standing around outside chatting with his peers and students. And meanwhile, developing a whole new scholarly identity. It is as if, having had a stellar career as an anthropologist for 40 years, he woke up one morning and casually said to himself, ‘I think I want to be a psychologist now.’ And then he just did it—catching up to and then surpassing even some of his most productive colleagues in that field. His presence on campus and in the field he helped craft will be sorely missed.”

Willie Schonfeld, political science research professor and former dean of social sciences (1982-2002), agrees: “Kim Romney was a genuinely distinguished scholar (one of the rare social scientists elected to the National Academy of Sciences) and a wonderful colleague. Once you got to know him, he revealed perhaps his most attractive trait: his drive and passion for science and discovery,” he says. “He believed in science and devoted his entire life to figuring out key problems. This excitement continued into his late 90s. Kim was never too busy to help a colleague or a student. He always had keen and typically trenchant insights to offer into any issue being discussed--whether it be during a conference, a seminar, or over a cup of coffee.”

William Watt, UCI cognitive sciences professor emeritus, fondly recalls Romney as a distinguished scientist, accomplished sailor, and cherished friend.

“Kim Romney was, in many respects, a great man. He was a great friend, a great scientist, and a great sailor. We spent a lot of good times together, on land and sea, and I will miss his company till the end of my days,” he says. “He was a co-founder of cognitive anthropology, which had a profound effect on both anthropology and linguistics. And to see him sail up to a dock, slow (still under sail) to a halt, pick up a passenger, and ease back into the harbor, all under sail, was to watch a master. I see him now in my mind's eye, at the helm...  A noble sight.”

Romney was preceded in death by his longtime partner, Afton Romaine Barber, who passed away in 2022 and to whom he was married for 77 years. Their oldest daughter (Rebecca McCauley) passed away in 2020.  He is survived by three daughters (Patricia Conner, Katherine Thorn and Lisa Romney), one son (Robert K. Romney), their partners, six grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren. He is remembered fondly by his extended family of friends and colleagues at UCI and beyond.

A memorial will be held at the University Club on the UCI campus Friday, February 16 at 1:00 p.m.

In 2013, Romney shared some of his work as part of the UCI School of Social Sciences Distinguished Professor video series. Watch and listen for more from the esteemed anthropologist.

pictured: Professor A. Kimball Romney’s research led to this mathematical visualization of cone photo receptor sensitivities. In theory, this visualization is the operational key to creating uniform, high quality color in a variety of fields. His work on this model was featured in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2009 and patented by UCI in 2012. Courtesy of UCI Strategic Communications.

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