Jul 14, 2017

Obituary: Alastair Scott 1939–2017

Alastair Scott, one of the finest statisticians New Zealand has produced, died in Auckland, New Zealand on Thursday, May 25. He served the University of Auckland with distinction from 1972 to 2005.

His research was characterised by deep insight and he made pioneering contributions across a wide range of statistical fields. Alastair was acknowledged, in particular, as a world leader in survey sampling theory and the development of methods to efficiently obtain and analyse data from medical studies. His methods are applied in a wide range of areas, notably in public health. Beyond research, he contributed prolifically to the statistical profession in academia, government, and society.

Alastair was a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, the American Statistical Association, the Institute of Mathematical Statistics and the Royal Statistical Society, and an honorary life member of the New Zealand Statistical Association. In November last year, Alastair was awarded the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Jones Medal, which recognised his lifetime contribution to the mathematical sciences.

Alastair gained his first degrees at the University of Auckland: BSc in Mathematics in 1961 and MSc in Mathematics in 1962. After a period at the New Zealand Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, he pursued a PhD in Statistics at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1965. He then worked at the London School of Economics from 1965-1972.

Alastair returned to New Zealand in 1972 to a post in what was then the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Auckland; he and wife Margaret had decided that they wanted to raise their children, Andrew and Julie, in New Zealand. Throughout his career, Alastair was regularly offered posts at prestigious universities overseas, but turned them down. However, he held visiting positions at Bell Labs, the universities of North Carolina, Wisconsin, and California Berkeley in the US, and at the University of Southampton in the UK.

In 1994, the University’s statistics staff, led by Professor George Seber, had a very amicable divorce from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, and Alastair became the head of the new Department of Statistics. He helped set the tone for the department that still exists—hard-working, but welcoming, and social. The Department of Statistics is now the largest such school in Australasia.

In 2005, Alastair officially retired. A conference in Auckland that year in his honour attracted the largest concentration of first-rank international statisticians in New Zealand in one place at one time. Alastair kept an office in the department and continued writing and advising, coming into work almost every day.

Alastair Scott was an influential teacher and generous mentor to several generations of statisticians who valued his sage advice coupled with his trademark affability. Alastair had a full life professionally and personally. He was a wonderful teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend. We will all miss him greatly and we extend our sincere condolences to Margaret, Andrew and Julie, and his family, friends, and colleagues all over the world.

Written by Ilze Ziedins, Chris Wild, and Chris Triggs, Department of Statistics, University of Auckland, New Zealand

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