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Henry Oliver Lancaster (1913–2001)

by Neville Weber

Henry Oliver Lancaster (1913 – 2001), statistician and medical researcher, was the Foundation Professor of Mathematical Statistics at the University of Sydney. He was born in Sydney on 1 February 1913, the second son of Llewellyn and Edith (née Smith) Lancaster. Known always as Oliver, his childhood was spent in Kempsey, NSW, where his father practised medicine. Oliver’s father died from pneumonia when Oliver was only eight years old. His mother returned to nursing in Sydney and Oliver and his younger brother Richard became boarders at St George’s Hostel in Kempsey, where he stayed for six years. 

From a very young age Oliver stuttered, and the condition continued throughout his school years. He eventually overcame the condition but always spoke in a slow, deliberate manner. Difficulty in communication added to the impression of shyness. He was a very talented chess player and, as a youth, was an enthusiastic cricketer and rugby union player. 

After completing the Leaving Certificate with distinction at West Kempsey Intermediate High School in 1929, Lancaster moved to Manly in Sydney and enrolled in an Arts degree at the University of Sydney.  He achieved strong results including a High Distinction in Mathematics I but decided to transfer to Medicine at the end of his first year, graduating with Honours in 1937. 

During the next three years, Lancaster was a Resident Medical Officer and then Resident Pathologist at Sydney Hospital. In 1940, he obtained a Junior Fellowship at Prince Henry Hospital where he met his future wife, Joyce Mellon. They married on 20 December 1940. 

In July 1940, Lancaster joined the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps as a pathologist, eventually rising to the rank of Major. He spent one year in the Middle East and two years in New Guinea, and remained in the army until April 1946. He published his first papers (with T. Lowe) in the Medical Journal of Australia in 1944 on hook worm infection. This research reignited his interest in mathematics and statistics. He undertook formal study towards an Arts degree under an army education scheme, eventually graduating with Honours in Pure Mathematics. 

On returning to civilian life, Lancaster was appointed as a Lecturer in Medical Statistics at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at the University of Sydney. He spent 1948 as a Rockefeller Fellow in Medicine at the London School of Hygiene, where his interest in the statistics of blood-counting led him to a study of discrete distributions. He was encouraged to pursue his investigations of partitions of chi-squared statistics by the mathematical statistician J.O. Irwin. This research resulted in the thesis entitled The Application of Chi-Squared to Discrete Distributions for which he was awarded a PhD in 1953. 

Lancaster made many contributions to medical research. In addition to a long series of papers studying the changes in mortality in Australia due to different diseases, he published a classical paper in 1951 which established the influence of rubella during pregnancy on deafness in the offspring and an article in 1956 linking melanoma to latitude. 

In 1959 Lancaster was promoted to Associate Professor in the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Later that year he would accept the Foundation Chair in Mathematical Statistics and, working with Harry Mulhall who moved from the Department of Applied Mathematics, established the new Department of Mathematical Statistics. By his retirement in 1978 there were seven continuing staff positions in the Department.  While Chair, Lancaster successfully supervised eight PhD candidates and eleven research MSc students. 

Lancaster's many mathematical papers were devoted to the study of orthogonal functions and their applications to statistical problems. He was the centre of a very productive research group that probed the nature of statistical dependence. His research students in the 1960s included G.K. Eagleson, R.C. Griffiths, M.A. Hamdan, C.C. Heyde and J. Robinson. His monograph on The Chi-squared Distribution (1969) is highly cited. During his career, Lancaster produced over 130 research papers and six books covering both his medical and mathematical work. At the invitation of the International Statistical Institute, he started a project resulting in his massive detailed card index from which he produced the Bibliography of Statistical Bibliographies (1968) and a further twenty-one addenda, the last being published in 1989. 

In 1947 Oliver Lancaster, Stewart Rutherford, then lecturer in Economic Statistics at the University of Sydney, and Helen Turner from CSIR called a meeting that resulted in the formation of the Statistical Society of New South Wales. Oliver edited the new society's major publication, The Bulletin of the Statistical Society of New South Wales, for nine years until 1958. In 1959 he was appointed as the founding editor of The Australian Journal of Statistics, so named in anticipation of a national society that was finally established in 1962. He served as editor until 1971 and as the president of the Statistical Society of Australia in 1965-66. 

Lancaster was elected to the first council of the Australian Mathematical Society in 1956 and served as its secretary 1959-63 and as president 1966-67. He was a strong advocate for local learned societies and actively encouraged his students and peers to support Australian scientific organisations. 

In 1978, he was made Emeritus Professor and for the next twenty years continued to work from an office in the basement of Fisher Library in the university. Supported by a grant from the Australian Research Grants Committee, he returned to medical statistics and completed an extensive, scholarly survey of world mortality. This resulted in the 605 page Expectations of Life (1990), subtitled A Study in the Demography, Statistics and History of World Mortality.  Lancaster’s final monograph was on the impact of quantitative methods in the biological and medical sciences, Quantitative Methods in Biological and Medical Sciences (1994). 

During his career, Lancaster received many honours from learned societies including election as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1961. Oliver died in his sleep at a nursing home in Mona Vale, Sydney on 2 December 2001 as a result of coronary disease. He was survived by his first wife, Joyce, and their five sons. He was also survived by his second wife, Nancy Gee, whom he married in 1979 and later divorced. 

Quoting from Geoff Eagleson’s tribute, “Oliver Lancaster leaves a legacy which will not be forgotten: the societies and journals he helped found remain vigorous and healthy, modern researchers continue to use his publications, and, most importantly, there are many of us who remember him with affection and gratitude.” 

Selected Bibliography
G. Cohen, Counting Australia In, Australian Mathematical Society and Halstead Press, 2006.

G.K. Eagleson, ‘Henry Oliver Lancaster, AO 1913-2001’, Institute of Mathematical Statistics Bulletin, 2002, 31, 16.

H.O. Lancaster, ‘From Medicine, through Medical to Mathematical Statistics: Some Autobiographical Notes’, The Making of Statisticians, J. Gani (Ed.)  Springer-Verlag, New York, 1982, 235-252.

E. Seneta and G.K. Eagleson, ‘Henry Oliver Lancaster 1913-2001’, Historical Records of Australian Science, 2004, 15, 223-250.

E. Seneta, ‘In Memoriam Emeritus Professor Henry Oliver Lancaster, AO FAA’, Aust. N.Z. J. Stat., 2002, 44, 385-400.

Sydney Morning Herald, 4 December, 2001; 14 March, 2002

N. C. Weber, ‘Obituary: Henry Oliver Lancaster AO FAA (1913-2001)’, Aust. Math. Soc. Gazette, 2002, 29, 36-37.

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Citation details

Neville Weber, 'Lancaster, Henry Oliver (1913–2001)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 May 2024.

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