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Joseph Mark (Joe) Gani (1924–2016)

by Daryl J. Daley

Joseph Mark Gani (1924 – 2016), statistician and administrator, was, among many other leadership roles, Chief of the Division of Mathematics and Statistics, CSIRO. In his time there (1974–1981), he more than fulfilled his brief that it become more broadly involved in both research and applications of mathematics and statistics that can arise in supporting the wide range of scientific endeavours of that organisation.

Joe, as he was always known, was a founding member of the Australian Mathematical Society in August 1956 and its president in 1978–1980. He was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1976, but he considered his major international marks to be the founding of the Applied Probability Trust and starting its publications, the Journal of Applied Probability, Advances in Applied Probability, The Mathematical Scientist (which ceased publication in 2018) and Mathematical Spectrum (ceasing in 2016).

Joe was born in Cairo, Egypt, on 15 December 1924. He first spoke both Italian (his mother’s tongue) and French (his father’s), before learning English in Japan, where the family went in 1931 to escape the Great Depression. Serious study of science, engineering and mathematics resumed back in Egypt seven years later, and, in August 1945, Joe was enabled to sail to England on a troopship and enrol as a student at Imperial College. He graduated with First Class Honours and the Sherbrooke Prize for the first-ranked mathematics graduate of his year in June 1947. War had broken out in the Middle East in May 1948, and anti-Jewish feeling was running high, so the remaining family members fled from Cairo to England, albeit as stateless refugees, but there they were able together to make application to several English-speaking countries as emigrants.

Australia was the first country to offer them visas. Joe was recommended to Professor Tom Cherry at Melbourne University as a lecturer, and the Ganis course for Australia was set. Joe’s three years there, mainly teaching applied mathematics, were marked by his reading broadly so that, having contact with Maurice Belz, Geoffrey Stuart Watson and Evan James Williams, he decided that his interests lay much more in probability and statistics than classical applied mathematics.

Back in England at the end of 1950, and a few years later in Melbourne again, Joe had difficulty finding a position because of his outspoken actions on social issues. With Cherry’s support, he was ultimately offered three positions of which he accepted a lectureship at the University of Western Australia. This choice was fortuitous because Albert Laurence (Larry) Blakers, Head of Mathematics there, was a broadminded academic supervisor. Within a year, Joe was granted leave by Blakers for PhD study for two years at ANU under Pat Moran, and then a further year as a Nuffield Fellowship holder at the University of Manchester under Maurice Bartlett. He returned to UWA for four years, significantly the years of the formation of the Australian Mathematical Society and introduction of its journal.

In his second year as a PhD student at ANU, Joe met Ruth Stephens, a botanist from the UK working with Otto Frankel in the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry. Theirs was a relatively short courtship, leading eventually to the birth of four children in diverse places to which Joe’s academic life took them both: Jonathan (born in Perth), Miriam (in New York), Matthew (in Canberra) and Sarah (in East Lansing, Michigan). Ruth interested Joe in sundry biological problems on which he wrote a multitude of papers describing simple mathematical models for the related phenomena. Then in the 1990s as Joe started to reduce his travels Ruth took ill with cancer; she lived in remission for three years till her death in 1997. Thereafter, Joe felt their lives together were cheated around the very time that he confined his travelling to Australasia.

While at the University of Western Australia and with encouragement from Blakers, Joe became interested in documenting the state of mathematics and statistics at Australian universities. It was evidence of his concern for others and the society in which he lived. Joe’s activities when back in Perth after his PhD studies and work in Manchester were duly noted by Moran who invited him to return to ANU in 1960 to a more senior position.

Joe ran successful Summer Research Institutes in Canberra for the Australian Mathematical Society, gathering together like-minded researchers who studied questions in a range of probability modelling areas that included interests of Moran and Warren John Ewens in genetics. Ted Hannan and Joe both began as PhD students at ANU in 1954 and became lifelong close friends. Ted remained within ANU until his death in 1994. All these researchers sought publication in the established journals of the day, usually successfully but not without difficulty. They were egged on by Joe and others to consider having their own journal of applied probability. Joe, Ted and Norma MacArthur (an ANU social scientist) could provide half the necessary funds; the balance ultimately came from the London Mathematical Society (LMS) with influence from David Kendall and Sir Edward Collingwood.  The three ANU people and the LMS formed the Applied Probability Trust which published Volume 1 of the Journal of Applied Probability in June 1964. Its first editorial board reads as a list of Who was Who in applied probability at the time, reflective of Joe’s breadth of contacts.

By then Joe had become frustrated with Canberra as a base, and the USA beckoned. He headed to Michigan State University at East Lansing in 1964, but stayed only eighteen months before the University of Sheffield was successful in enticing him to establish a Department of Statistics and Applied Probability which continues to this day (2023).

In 1973 following the death of Edmund Alfred Cornish as head of the CSIRO Division of Mathematical Statistics (DMS), the CSIRO Executive invited Joe to review the whole DMS operation. His 32-page report to the Executive provided a blueprint for redirecting the Division which he saw as being focussed on work that was ‘subservient to customer demand, ... not ordered on the basis of well-defined scientific priorities’ (Speed, 1988). Joe was eventually persuaded to leave Sheffield in 1974 and implement his recommendations. These included replacing DMS by a Division of Mathematics and Statistics that would provide a much wider range of mathematical research and consulting services in an expanded Division. The Executive supported Joe: the period 1974–1981 marked a diversification of the Division in both deed and name, no longer concentrating on agricultural statistics and undertaking much more of its own research. With its new recruits, its international standing grew through both an active visitor program and much increased publication.

Seven years later the CSIRO Division that Joe headed was reviewed in praiseworthy terms that noted his significant achievements, at the same time recommending that it move away from its emphasis on research so as to embrace work of a more commercial nature. Joe was not opposed to the principle of such a direction, but he could not agree to overseeing the running down of a successful research enterprise, so he found full-time employment elsewhere: first for four years at Kentucky State University in Lexington, and then a little longer, until retirement in 1991, at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He returned to Canberra but for some years continued to commute to Santa Barbara for three months of the year. Throughout the period 1965–1981, Chris Heyde was a strong second lieutenant to Joe.  

What can be said of Joe’s research and written work? He was forever curious to discover how mathematical approaches to social and biological phenomena might increase our understanding of them, whether by deeper modelling assumptions or simple superficial descriptions. His mathematical writing reflected his belief that mathematical methods should enable us the better to understand scientific phenomena. He was an inveterate collaborator, responding quickly to any written suggestions or edited versions from his colleagues.

Joe’s bibliography lists some fifteen books (six are festschrifts, two are biographical concerning applied probability) and some 351 papers (the majority in mathematical research but including 30 obituaries and 104 book reviews). A partial list of these items is included in Seneta (2017), including all his publications on epidemics.

Joe lived his life well and to its fullest extent. He was proud of his adopted country which in turn honoured him as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2000, and awarded him a Centenary Medal in 2001. He died on 12 April 2016.

Acknowledgements. I thank several people for help with material on which much of this brief account of Joe’s life is based, notably Sarah Gani, Eugene Seneta, Bob Anderssen and Randy Swift. This work has been adapted from Daley (2017). Seneta (2019) and the Academy interview are more extensive publications. 

Daley, D.J. (2017). Obituary: Joseph Mark Gani, Aust. Math. Soc. Gaz. 44, 225–230.

Gani, J. (1988). Some autobiographical notes. (Manuscript.) Heyde, C.C. (ed.) (1988).

Studies in Modelling and Statistical Science (papers in honour of J. Gani). Aust. J. Statist. 30A, (1988).

Seneta, E. (2017). Obituary: Joseph Mark Gani AM, DSc, FAA, FASSA, J. Appl. Prob. 54, 1–11.

Seneta, E. (2019). Joseph Mark Gani 1924 – 2016, Historical Records of Australian Science 30, 32–41. See also Professor Joe Gani (1924-2016), mathematical statistician | Australian Academy of Science. 

Speed, T.P. (1988). The role of statisticians in CSIRO: Past, present and future. In Aust. J. Statist. 30B (Bicentennial History Issue), C.C. Heyde and E. Seneta (eds), 15–34.

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Daryl J. Daley, 'Gani, Joseph Mark (Joe) (1924–2016)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 February 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


15 December, 1924
Cairo, Egypt


12 April, 2016 (aged 91)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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