The University of Sydney News - 1 March 2002


Emeritus Professor Henry Oliver Lancaster, AO FAA

1 February 1913 – 2 December 2001

Oliver Lancaster's life as student and scholar was spent at Sydney University. During this time he achieved scholarly distinction in at least four fields: mathematical statistics, medical and public health statistics, the history of medicine and of statistical theory, and statistical bibliography. His early academic career was with the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine (S.P.H.T.M.), from which he was appointed to the Foundation Chair of Mathematical Statistics in 1959, a position he held until his retirement in 1978. His achievements on the medical side included definitive verification in 1951 of the connection between rubella in early pregnancy of the mother and congenital deafness of offspring. After his retirement, working in an office in the basement of the Fisher stacks, he produced the massive and scholarly study on world mortality Expectations of Life (1990), With his passing the University and the country lose one of their icons of a bygone era.

Henry Oliver Lancaster (H.O.L.) was born the second son of Dr. Llewellyn Bentley Lancaster, a medical graduate of Sydney University, and his wife Edith Hulda Smith during a visit to Sydney, and spent his early years in Kempsey, NSW, where his father practised. At the time Kempsey was, as he said when speaking of it, always affectionately, a pioneering town, and he remembered seeing men with pickaxes building the railway line, which cut the street half a mile from where the family lived, with an unimpeded view. He came to Sydney University from West Kempsey Intermediate High School, and after a year in Economics/Arts, enrolled in Medicine I in 1931, graduating MB BS in 1937. In 1938 he was Pathologist and Senior Medical Officer at Sydney Hospital, where he had some contact with the future Nobel laureates J.E. Eccles and B.Katz.

From 1940 he worked as Medical Officer in the A.I.F., first in the Middle East, then from early 1942 in the 117 Australian General Hospital in Townsville, this laying the groundwork for his first (joint) papers which appeared in the Medical Journal of Australia in 1944. Service in New Guinea followed, and there is a fine pencil sketch by the war artist Nora Heysen: Pathologist (Major Henry Oliver Lancaster) 1944 in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra from this time. The same year saw his secondment to the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit, and with it an awakening of interest in demography, and a return to the serious study of mathematics, for which he had shown extraordinary aptitude in his early years.

Given a temporary appointment in 1946 as Lecturer in Medical Statistics at the S.P.T.H.M. by Professor Harvey Sutton, he spent much of his time completing his mathematics education and reading the English and American medical statisticians. At the London School of Hygiene (1948-1949) as Rockefeller Fellow in Medicine. he shared an office with Peter Armitage, who was to become an outstanding biostatistician, a President of the Royal Statistical Society, and a friend for life. (UniNews, 33 , No.21, p3, recently carried news of a new edition of a classical collaborative work by Armitage and Geoffrey Berry, Sydney University's (recently Emeritus) Professor in Epidemiology and Biostatistics, who might be seen as a successor to H.O.L. at the School of Public Health and Community Medicine.) The major influence on H.O.L. at the School of Hygiene, however, was the mathematical statistician J.O. Irwin (1898-1982) who encouraged H.O.L. with his first paper in mathematical statistics, published in 1949, and in continuing work on partitions of chi-squared statistics. It had been H.O.L.'s interest in the statistics of blood-counting which initially led him to his interest in the "counting" branch of mathematical statistics.

On his return to Australia, there was a period of intense activity in medical statistics. Among the 50 or so articles which he was eventually to publish in the Medical Journal of Australia alone, were his striking finding of 1956 that melanoma (black mole cancer) was associated with latitude (i.e intensity of sunlight). This fact has now passed into standard usage in Australia, with its discoverer forgotten. The landmark paper on rubella deafness was published in the British Med. J. 2 (1951) 1429-1432, which resulted in wide recognition. It was the result of careful thought following on from the idea H.O.L. had on passing the old Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, of examining its admission records over time. He followed this by a careful examination of Australian census records, where he found (corresponding) peaks in the age distribiton of deaf people, which he connected with births in 1898 and 1899, a time of known rubella epidemics in Australia.

The driving forces behind the inaugural meeting of the Statistical Society of New South Wales, held at the University of Sydney on 25 September 1947, were H.O.L., Helen Newton-Turner (of the C.S.I.R.O who became first President), and R. S. G. Rutherford (later Professor of Economic Statistics). In these early years the Society included a number of University-associated statisticians who became eminent overseas subsequently, such as Herbert O. David and David Duncan. 1959 saw the appearance of the Australian Journal of Statistics with H.O.L. as its founding editor. He served continuously till 1971, running the journal from his office in the Carslaw Building, and compiling his famous bibliographic card index, in which mathematical statistics students were made to play a part. The name of the new journal anticipated there being a Statistical Society of Australia, whose nucleus was the amalgamation of the N.S.W and Canberra Statistical Societies in 1962. H.O.L. was also involved in the founding of the Australian Mathematical Society in 1956/57, and later (1967/1968) served as its President. At the founding of its organ, the Journal of the Australian Mathematical Society, the first editor, T.G. Room, F.R.S., Professor of Pure Mathematics at Sydney University, declared that "the standard of our Journal can be taken as equivalent to the Annals of Mathematical Statistics". Although professedly surprised at the time, H.O.L. aspired to such standards in "his own" statistical journal, and the policy was successful for both journals. After his appointment to the Chair of Mathematical Statistics in 1959, the first 4th year students that he taught were E. D. Fackerell (later Associate Professor in Applied Mathematics) and Ann Eyland (nee Wight), in recent years an elected member of the Sydney University Senate. The first 4th year Honours class in Mathematical Statistics was in 1960, with M. Aitkin, R. B. Armson, B. Bennett, C. C. Heyde, and M. A. Hamdan. Most of these went on to distinguished academic careers in mathematical statistics, as did one of the first Ph.D. students to be supervised, G.K. Eagleson. C. C. Heyde F.A.A. who after an M.Sc. supervised by H.O.L., went on to A.N.U. for Ph.D., is now Professor of Statistics at both A.N.U. and Columbia University in New York. Many of the students which the then Department of Mathematical Statistics (D.M.S.) produced over the years still work as statisticians in the Sydney area, including Mary C. Phipps (nee Pusey, one of the early (1963) 4th year Honours students), Howard D'Abrera, and Neville C. Weber in the Mathematical Statistics group of Sydney University's present School of Mathematics and Statistics.

So it was that, with Professor P.A.P. Moran (1917-1988, who was at the Institute of Advanced Studies, A.N.U., having returned from England in the wake of the Murray Report which was also responsible for setting up of the D.M.S.) H.O.L. presided over the glory days of Australian Mathematical Statistics, when the discipline was young worldwide, its importance recognized, and the need for mathematically trained statisticians (as it still is) great. H.O.L. was much honoured in his lifetime. He was elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (FAA) in 1961, and awarded its Thamas Ranken Lyle Medal for Mathematics and Physics in the same year. He was made Officer of the Order of Australia in 1992. A full account of his career (edited by his brother Richard): Some Recollections of Henry Oliver Lancaster (1996) is in the Sydney University Archives. The Fisher Library, which he held in high esteem and to which he made financial contributions, has various memorabilia, including his various Medals. In all representatives of 4 generations of Lancasters have graduated from Sydney University (University of Sydney News, 11 May, 1993).

He died peacefully in his sleep at a Mona Vale nursing home, the quintessential quiet Australian, on a Sunday afternoon after watching a game of cricket on TV in the company of his youngest son Jon. His other children are Paul, Peter, Llewellyn and Andrew. His coffin was draped by a Sydney University flag during the funeral service at St Barnabas' Anglican Church, Broadway, close to his academic home. Professor Eugene Seneta FAA succeeded Professor Lancaster in the Chair of Mathematical Statistics in 1979.

Professor Eugene Seneta