Dickens Waddell Warfield (Baltimore Sun / October 25, 2011)

Dickens W. Warfield, a psychologist who as associate director of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. became an outspoken advocate for fair housing, died Oct. 21 of liver cancer at the Broadmead retirement community in Cockeysville.

The longtime Towson resident was 86.

The daughter of a lawyer and a homemaker, Dickens Waddell was born in Detroit, and later moved with her family to Pittsburgh, where she attended what is now Carnegie Mellon University for two years.

After the death in 1944 of her father, she and her mother moved to Roland Park, where she enrolled at Goucher College and was a 1946 Phi Beta Kappa graduate, earning a bachelor's degree in psychology.

She was an assistant professor of psychology at Goucher for a year before entering Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass., where she earned a master's degree in psychology in 1950.

After earning a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Cornell University in 1953, Dr. Warfield remained in Ithaca for a year as a Cornell instructor.

She taught at Vassar College for a year before moving to Baltimore in 1956, when she married H. Branch Warfield, a social worker who worked for the state of Maryland.

From 1956 to 1959, when her first child was born, she was an assistant professor of psychology at Goucher.

Meanwhile, she began conducting hearing and deafness experiments in the Otophysiology Laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

While at Hopkins, Dr. Warfield and her co-workers, who studied 10 cats, arrived at the conclusion that cats "can discriminate between different spoken words," reported The Baltimore Sun in a 1964 article.

"Words are actually longer than they need be for comprehension. Dr. Warfield was able to chop off as much as one-third of tape-recorded words before the cats failed to realize them," according to the article.

In 1971, she began teaching psychology part time at what is now the Community College of Baltimore County at Essex, and wrote widely for Psychological Journal and Auditory and Otolaryngology Journal.

Dr. Warfield, who maintained an interest in fair-housing matters, became associated with Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit organization, in the 1950s.

After leaving teaching in 1977, she went to work full time for BNI, eventually becoming associate director and serving as a member of the organization's board.

"Dickens is a mentor, trainer, teacher, advisor and visionary for the entire BNI staff. … A consistent presence at the BNI office, her infectious dry wit helps lighten the burden of a staff ensconced in the battle against discriminatory housing practices," according to a BNI profile of Dr. Warfield.

Dr. Warfield had been BNI's fair-housing trainer and archivist, and compiled demographic maps.

"Never try intellectualizing the issue of fair-housing discrimination or the state of racism in America to Dickens," said the profile.

"Sure, she has her credentials, the history, facts, and maps, but when it's all said and done, it's her will, her stamina, her dogged determination and her work that speak volumes to her conviction to end racism and discriminatory housing practices," it concluded.

"Dickens has been a real champion for fair housing in Maryland. She was our institutional memory and always excelled in her duties," said BNI director Elijah Etheridge. "She taught every employee that we had for more than 20 years. I was taught about fair housing by Dr. Warfield. Her death is a great loss for us."

Mr. Etheridge said that Dr. Warfield was fondly called "Grandmother" by the organization's employees.