BSc (Eng) (Nottingham), BSc, PhD (London), DSc (ANU), CPsychol, FAPsS, FBPsS, FNZPsS, FSS
(Deceased), 2017-09-29

Emeritus Professor Robert Anthony Mills Gregson

(1928 to 2017)

Emeritus Professor Robert Gregson died on 29th September 2017 after a very brief illness and just a few weeks short of his 89th birthday. His family was with him when he died. Robert was born in Bury, Lancashire in December 1928, and he received his school education locally. By all accounts he was not particularly engaged in his early educational experiences but he showed a very keen interest in the world around him, in nature, and in how things worked from a physical perspective. And so it was not surprising that while his future career would lie with the discipline of Psychology, Robert took his first degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Nottingham in 1951. It was at university that he truly excelled academically and it was from engineering that his enduring love of mathematics began. His very distinguished career in psychology, which started just a little later, was always founded on his strong belief that mathematics held the key to understanding the intricacies of the human mind.

Following his graduation as an engineer, Robert worked in industry for several years, initially on the design of gas turbine engines for Armstrong Siddeley, and then with the UK Department of Scientific and Industrial Research examining factors affecting industrial productivity. However after a very short period solely in the arena of industry, a small inheritance gave Robert the financial freedom to redefine his academic interests. He enrolled in a second degree program in psychology and statistics at the University of London and took a First Class Honours degree in 1955. He then took up employment as a research psychologist with J Lyons and Company in London, employing his newfound skills in psychophysics to research food taste and perception. And simultaneously he enrolled in a PhD in experimental psychology, also at the University of London, from where he was awarded that degree in 1961. With a new PhD in hand Robert’s noteworthy academic career really began.

With his wife and a young family, Robert left the UK for New Zealand where he took up a Senior Lectureship in Psychology at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. Within four years he had been promoted to a Personal Chair that he held until 1980. Having by then become a New Zealand citizen – which he remained the rest of his life – he nonetheless moved to Australia in 1980 to take up the Chair of Psychology, and sometime Head of Department, at the University of New England, a position he held until his retirement in 1991. Then as an Emeritus Professor, he moved to Canberra and began his long and fruitful association with the Australian National University as a Visiting Fellow in the School of Psychology, an appointment he held almost until the time of his death.

A clear and very strong devotion to good scholarship defined Robert’s professional life. His academic beginnings in the sciences of engineering and mathematics brought with it a rock-solid, evidence-based foundation to his research that achieved wide respect not just from his fellow psychologists but also from many in the biological and mathematical sciences. Robert researched and published widely across a broad spectrum of fields in psychology – initially on the psychophysics of sensory perception but, as his naturally inquiring mind was freed from the specific constraints of employment in industry, to such diverse areas as abnormal psychology, occupational psychology, psycho-physiology, cognitive decline following alcohol and other substance abuse, and the perception of aesthetic preferences. But in the latter part of his academic career his deep belief in the enabling role of mathematics in psychological research led him to challenge – and to write persuasively on – the logical and statistical underpinnings of psychological data itself. Robert challenged the conventional parametric approached to data analysis in psychology and, rather to the chagrin of many of his colleagues, became a champion of Bayesian alternatives to the statistical treatment of psychological data. And in parallel with this, he became a true pioneer in the emerging field of time series analysis and non-linear dynamics. This area posed for him the conceptual complexity that Robert loved and flourished in. In 2001 he was appointed to the Editorial Board of the journal Non-linear Dynamics, Psychology and Life Sciences, and he remained a contributing member of that Board – and a deeply respected one – right through until his death. Robert’s several books on time series analysis and non-linear dynamics continue to be benchmarks in their area.

He received many academic accolades throughout his career. He was a Fellow of psychological societies in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and was a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society of London. Robert was duly proud of his Fellowship of this Academy to which he was elected in 1989. And in 1998 his research and scholarship in mathematical and experimental psychology was recognized by the award of the prestigious degree of Doctor of Science from the Australian National University.

Robert shared his wide knowledge and his deep wisdom generously to all those who approached him and requested it. He held strong views on many things both academic and beyond – and he was always ready (indeed, I think sometimes, quite delighted) to defend his position against all whose thoughts were at odds with his, with open, robust and evidence-driven debate on pretty much anything he knew something about, and that covered a lot of territory. But when anyone – colleagues, students or anyone else – actively sought Robert’s guidance on a matter of scholarly work, and particularly in the analysis and interpretation of data, he gave himself fully to providing that help. He loaned – and often gave – books from his own large professional library to generations of postgraduate students to help them along the way, guiding them gently and patiently through the mathematical intricacies of complex data analyses, and always with full confidence that what he was able to offer would add materially and beneficially to sound and defensible interpretations of their data. He was a generous and greatly respected mentor, deeply appreciated by very many doctoral students who were fortunate enough to have had contact with Robert in their early careers as researchers. Shakespeare in Henry VIII (Act 4, Scene 2) wrote of Cardinal Wolsey, that:

He was a scholar, and a ripe good one,

Exceeding wise, fair spoken and persuading;

Lofty and sour to those who loved him not,

But to those men who sought him, sweet as summer.

And while he would have cringed at being likened to a Cardinal – those who knew Robert also knew that he wore his atheism with pride – I cannot think of a better summary of Robert Gregson. He was indeed a ripe good scholar, and whether his peers fully shared his views or not, few would think of disputing the excellence of his scholarship.

While Robert’s academic career had been largely in New Zealand and Australia, he was in spirit an internationalist, and held visiting professorships for extended periods of time in the US, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. Robert had a particular affinity with Sweden and became fluent in Swedish. Until quite recently he would regularly log on to Swedish newspapers because, as he told me, their balanced and scholarly take on world events far surpassed that which he was able to obtain here. He developed an admiration for Swedish literature too, and read widely in that language. I mentioned to him in passing once that I was watching the British produced television series on Henning Mankell’s fictional Swedish detective Wallander – and I was enjoying it greatly. Robert, who also enjoyed Wallander, was horrified. He went home and retrieved his own DVDs of the original Swedish production (in Swedish, but happily with sub-titles), gave them to me and insisted that I could only gain a proper understanding of Wallander’s melancholic character if I saw the Swedish version. I did, of course, take his advice.

But Robert’s interests also extended beyond the realms of conventional psychological scholarship. He was a talented artist who painted landscapes in water colours. He collected stamps and was well known among philatelists for his collection of the front covers of Scandinavian parcel posts of the Nineteenth Century. Drawing on his early engineering skills, he also built model trains and his back garden was largely covered with his famed garden railway – many metres of track on which ran beautiful replicas of classic European trains passing through stations and workshops and across bridges over a small lake. And the wonder of this was that Robert had constructed almost everything himself. Generations of the children of Robert’s friends and colleagues spent happy times at the Gregson home watching the trains run their given routes under the direction of Station Master Gregson – and it was not just the children who enjoyed the show.

Robert was a practical humanist who cared sincerely for people and for their rights – for the right to live in an unpolluted environment, for the right of women to determine for themselves the means to control their own fertility, for the right of children to be free of abuse from those who supposedly cared for them, and for the right of all to die painlessly and with dignity at a time of their choosing. And he spoke and worked openly for the causes he believed in.

In all these respects Robert Gregson stood out – his scholarship, his intellectual integrity, his generosity, his dry and sometimes (slightly) black humor, his caring, and his concern for society, will all be missed by many. He is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter, and two grand-daughters.

Emeritus Professor Don Byrne FASSA

  • Gregson, R.A.M. (2015), Synchronization of Fractals in Logarithmic Spirals, Chaos and Complexity Letters, vol 9, issue 3.

    Gregson, R. A. M. (2002) Scaling quasi-periodic psychological functions, Behaviormetrika, 29, 41-57.

  • Gregson, R. A. M. (1995) Cascades and Fields in Perceptual Psychophysics. Singapore: World Scientific.