In Memoriam: University Professor Emeritus Endel Tulving (1927-2023)

October 16, 2023 by Natasha Lan

It is with deep sadness that the Department of Psychology announces the passing of University Professor Emeritus Endel Tulving.

Tulving— one of the most influential researchers in cognitive psychology — died peacefully on September 11, 2023, surrounded by his family at the seniors' residence where he had been living since May 2023.

His work on the structure of long-term memory revolutionized the field and set the stage for decades of memory researchers. The starting point for this was separating procedural memory (largely unconscious, such as how one rides a bicycle) from declarative memory (largely conscious, the recollection of facts and events). One of his major contributions was partitioning declarative memory into semantic memory (recalling facts) and episodic memory (recalling personal experiences). 

Tulving coined the term “mental time travel” as he believed that it is our ability to relive previous episodic events in our minds that allow us to imagine our future episodes. He was also a pioneer in the neuroscience of memory and was an early user of newly developed neuroimaging methods, such as positron emission tomography (PET), to determine areas of brain activity during the acquisition and recollection of memories.

A giant in the field of cognitive psychology, he also represented the critical shift in the U of T Department of Psychology’s transition from a counseling/therapy unit following the World Wars, to the experimental science-based department it continues to be to this day.

Tulving was born in 1927 in Petseri, Estonia, and as a teenager lived through the German occupation of the country during World War II. His last year of high school was in an American displaced persons’ camp, and after a short stint studying medicine at the University of Heidelberg he immigrated to Canada in 1949. He had met his future wife Ruth Mikkelsaar in Germany; they were married in Toronto in 1950.

Attending the University of Toronto, Tulving obtained both his bachelor’s degree (1953) and his master’s degree (1954) in psychology. He received his PhD from Harvard in 1957 and then returned as faculty member at the U of T. He chaired the Department of Psychology from 1974-1980. With mandatory retirement (in place at the time in Ontario), he moved to the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Hospital in 1992.

During his long career he became a Fellow of the Royal Societies of Canada and London, and an Officer of the Order of Canada. He is survived by two daughters and five grandchildren.