Obituaries of RSS fellows now free to access

More than 500 obituaries of RSS fellows, published over the last century in the Society’s academic journals, are now available as a free-to-access resource. Shirley Coleman, who chairs the RSS Obituaries Commissioning Panel, brings attention to just a few of the former RSS fellows it features.

Obituaries have been published in Series A since 1920 and in the Society’s Series D Journal – The Statistician – from 1950 to 2003. Earlier obituaries can be found by refined search on the webpages.
The obituaries make fascinating reading, being short, concise, first-hand summaries of the lives of influential statisticians in all the many and varied fields of statistics.
Even a random search of the site (entered by clicking on the links) yields amazing tales of key events that motivated the person and inspired their love of the subject together with historic details of their early studies and meetings with influential mentors. Most obituaries include delightful personal details of hobbies and family giving a glimpse inside the person’s life.
The obituary of Stella Cunliffe (pictured above) from 2012 chronicles her long and fascinating career including war work in Belsen, Girl Guiding and prison visiting. She was inspired by tricky statistical problems encountered in her jobs in particular at the Guinness Brewery in London. She advised how to sample dung – an important issue for growing hops and was intrigued by the ‘vagaries of human behaviour’. She was the first female RSS President in 1975. The following year was when there was a rare and interesting controversy around how the next president was chosen and Henry Wynn became her successor. The reader is given a compelling insight into her personality and it’s an added bonus to know that she enjoyed keeping bees and chickens.
Robin Plackett (2010) latterly of Newcastle University, was the first recipient of the Guy Medal in all three metals. His obituary says he was a man of ‘dry wit and charming turn of phrase,’ who gathered early experience of the practical value of statistics whilst working for the Ministry of Supply in World War II. Alongside his profound contributions to statistics, he helped to keep footpaths open for walkers and climbed over 100 Munros (Scottish mountains over 3000 ft) in his retirement.   
In 1974, Gopal Kanji (2010) founded a small departmental journal at what is now Sheffield Hallam University, called BIAS (Bulletin in Applied Statistics) and built it up over the years into what is now the major international Journal of Applied Statistics. He was known for attending conferences ‘not just as organiser, participant or speaker, but often in all of those roles’.
Obituaries of younger people are cloaked in sadness but it is some compensation to honour their contributions. For example, John Anderson (1984), also of Newcastle University, researched in multivariate statistics and analysis of ordinal data, working extensively with medical colleagues. He was also a popular Secretary of the Senior Common room and therefore influential in the organisation of refreshments and snooker tables.
John Disney (2019) was a main stay of the RSS Business and Industry Section and the Quality Improvement Section. He was renowned for his deep and broad knowledge of the transport system, particularly railways and was famous among his many friends for his detailed knowledge of timetables and the various quirks of different train routes. He was a keen walker and a mainstay of the voluntary Yorkshire Dales bus service.
In 1885, the obituary for Cornelius Walford says he was a well-known figure who had the ‘pen of a ready writer, and apparently, without effort, would throw off elaborate articles and essays on every description of topic’, including one on the History of Life Assurance and another on Railway Unpunctuality. His library contained ‘probably, almost every book, pamphlet, or paper ever written on any subject connected with insurance’.
William Ogle’s obituary was published in 1912. He was Superintendent of Statistics in the General Register Office. He had eclectic interests singling out some particular subject for fuller treatment in each Annual Report including: Small-pox and the marked decline in the mortality therefrom since the introduction of compulsory vaccination (1880); illegitimate births in workhouses (1882); ages at marriage of bachelors in different occupations (1883); deaths and death rates from hydrophobia in counties (1869-88).
Presidential addresses are also available for free access and date back to 1869. There has never been a better time to evaluate the present by pondering on the past.
Search for Obituaries published in Series A (1920-2019)
Search for Obituaries published in Series D (1962-2003)

The above photo of Stella Cunliffe was originally published in an interview with her for a 2006 issue of Significance magazine.
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