Professor Henry Oliver Lancaster

Henry Lancaster

AO, FAA (1913-2001)
Prof HO Lancaster

Oliver Lancaster was born in Sydney in 1913 and spent his childhood in Kempsey, N.S.W. He graduated with Honours in medicine at the University of Sydney in 1937. During the next three years he was a Resident Medical Officer and then Resident Pathologist at Sydney Hospital. Following the outbreak of war he joined the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps as a pathologist, eventually rising to the rank of Major. He remained in the army until 1946 but his interest in mathematics and statistics had developed rapidly during this period and he completed an Arts degree, majoring in Mathematics, as an external student under the army education scheme.

On returning to civilian life he joined the staff of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in Sydney. He spent 1948 as a Rockefeller Fellow in Medicine at the London School of Hygiene. In 1953 he was awarded a PhD for his thesis entitled "The Application of Chi-Squared to Discrete Distributions."

In 1959 Oliver Lancaster was appointed to the Chair of Mathematical Statistics at the University of Sydney, a position he held until his retirement in 1978.

He made many contributions to mathematical statistics and to medical research. In addition to a long series of papers studying the changes in mortality in Australia due to different diseases, in 1951 he published a classical paper which established the influence of rubella during pregnancy on deafness in the offspring. On retirement from the Chair of Mathematical Statistics he returned to medical statistics and completed an extensive, scholarly study on world mortality and the impact of quantitative methods in the biological and medical sciences. His many mathematical papers were devoted mainly to the study of the structure of bivariate distributions, statistical dependence in general, and to the chi-squared distribution. He produced six books covering both his medical and mathematical work:

  • Bibliography of Vital Statistics in Australia and New Zealand (1964);
  • Bibliography of Statistical Bibliographies(1968);
  • The Chi Squared Distribution (1969);
  • An Introduction to Medical Statistics (1974);
  • Expectations of Life (1990) and
  • Quantitative Methods in Biological and Medical Sciences (1994).

In 1947 Oliver Lancaster, R.S.G. Rutherford and Helen Turner called a meeting that lead to the formation of the Statistical Society of New South Wales. This Society joined with the Canberra Statistical Society in 1962 to form the Statistical Society of Australia. Lancaster served as the Society's President in 1965-6. In 1959 he was appointed as the founding editor of "The Australian Journal of Statistics" and served as editor for 12 years.

Oliver Lancaster was a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and was President of the Australian Mathematical Society (1966-7). His research was honoured by the award of the Thomas Ranken Lyle Medal for Mathematics by the Australian Academy of Science in 1961 and the Pitman Medal by the Statistical Society of Australia in 1980. In 1992 he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia. He died in Sydney on 2 December, 2001.