La Jolla scholar-philanthropist Rita Atkinson dies at 91

Rita Atkinson, a longtime benefactor of UC San Diego, died on Christmas Day, the university said.
Rita Atkinson, a longtime benefactor of UC San Diego, died on Christmas Day while visiting her daughter in Hollywood, Fla., the university said.
(UC San Diego )

The wife of former UC San Diego Chancellor Richard Atkinson co-authored a widely used psychology textbook.


Rita Atkinson, a longtime benefactor of UC San Diego and co-author of one of the most widely used introductory psychology textbooks in academia, died on Christmas Day of a stroke, the university said Jan. 6. She was 91.

Atkinson died peacefully in Hollywood, Fla., while visiting her daughter, Lynn Atkinson, a retired neurosurgeon, the family said.

The university said Atkinson was born in 1929 in Richmond, Va., and raised in Leonia, N.J., near New York City. She went on to earn a doctorate in psychology at Indiana University, where she met fellow psychology graduate student Richard Atkinson, who later became her husband.

In 1954, the Atkinsons moved to California, where Richard later joined the Stanford University faculty. During his Stanford years, the Atkinsons and a colleague, Ernest Hilgard, co-authored an influential entry-level psychology textbook.

“The book went on to become the leading psychology text of its era,” UCSD said in a statement. “It was translated into multiple languages and gave millions of college students throughout the world their first exposure to psychology.”

In 1980, Richard Atkinson became chancellor of UCSD and invigorated the campus, bringing in many private donations and doubling enrollment. Rita Atkinson also was involved in campus life, serving on a variety of advisory boards and helping strengthen ties between the university and the business community.

She also threw a lot of her energy into supporting Planned Parenthood and the La Jolla YMCA’s after-school program. And she helped build support for an on-campus graduate student housing complex that became known as Rita Atkinson Residences.

Richard Atkinson left UCSD in 1995 and served for eight years as president of the University of California system.

The couple continued to support UCSD, including through philanthropy. In September, they donated nearly $7 million to the university to support a physician assistant education program.

“We remember well her kindness and her wisdom, critical traits more powerful in combination. She leaves an incredible legacy,” UC President Michael Drake said in a statement.

In addition to her husband and daughter, Rita Atkinson’s survivors include her son-in-law David Drucker, grandchildren Natalie and Adam, and great-grandchildren Annabelle and Connor, the university said. ◆