Lancaster, Henry Oliver

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MB BS 1937 MD 1967 FAA 1961 DSc 1971 PhD 1953 BA 1947

Henry Oliver Lancaster was the Foundation Chair of Mathematical Statistics at the University of Sydney, the founding editor of the Australian Journal of Statistics and was instrumental in establishing the Statistical Society of New South Wales. Among other research achievements, he was the first to quantify the connection between melanoma and latitude and, following in the footsteps of Norman Gregg, he further clarified the connection between maternal rubella and congenital birth defects.

Henry (Oliver) Lancaster was born in Sydney in 1913 enrolling in Medicine in 1931 and graduating in 1937. He worked as a Resident Medical Officer at Sydney Hospital, and from 1938 to 1939 as Senior Resident Medical Officer and Pathologist. Oliver joined the Australian Imperial Force as a Medical Officer in 1940, and served as a pathologist in the Middle East and New Guinea. His first two (joint) papers on worm infestations in troops were published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 1944. The same year, a secondment to the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit awakened his interest in demography and sparked his return to the serious study of mathematics. He enrolled as an external student at the University of Sydney in 1945, spending his tropical nights studying under a kerosene lamp. In 1946, he appeared in the third-year honours mathematics class, still in the uniform of a Major.

From 1946 to 1948, while on a temporary appointment to the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, he took the opportunity to study advanced mathematics and read the works of English and American medical statisticians and epidemiologists. After being awarded his BA, he left to spend a year as Rockefeller Fellow in Medicine at the London School of Hygiene, where he was influenced by the mathematical statistician Joseph O Irwin (1898–1982) and Peter Armitage, an outstanding medical statistician. Henry went on to become president of the Royal Statistical Society.

After returning to work at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, Oliver’s research focused on statistical and epidemiological studies of national trends in the causes of disease and death in Australia, including diabetes, cancer (notably melanoma and its association with latitude) and tuberculosis. In 1941, the Sydney ophthalmologist Norman Gregg had observed that many cases of cataract were the result of maternal rubella in the first months of pregnancy. This was to lead to Henry’s landmark discovery that the ‘ordinary’ rubella infection of pregnant women (rather than a new, highly virulent strain, as many had thought) was linked with congenital deafness of offspring.

Oliver was instrumental in the founding of the Statistical Society of New South Wales in 1947, which, with the Statistical Society of Canberra, became the nucleus of the later Statistical Society of Australia. In 1959, Oliver was appointed to the Foundation Chair of Mathematical Statistics at the University of Sydney, a position he held until his retirement in 1978. Also in 1959, he became the founding editor of the Australian Journal of Statistics until 1971. In 1961 he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and awarded its Thomas Ranken Lyle Medal for Physics and Mathematics in the same year. After being awarded an MD in 1967, he returned to intensive writing on medical statistics, with a strong mathematical and historical flavour.

In 1972 he was made Honorary Life Member of the Statistical Society of Australia and in 1980, was awarded its biennial Pitman Medal for distinction in research. Oliver was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1992 for services to science.[1]

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Lancaster, Henry Oliver. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.