Professor Patrick Rivett

Pioneer in operational research
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The Independent Online

Operational research - the use of scientific methods to solve organisational problems - came to the fore during the Second World War under the influence of distinguished scientists like Patrick Blackett, Charles Ellis and Charles Goodeve. The unique contribution of Patrick Rivett was to provide the focus and drive necessary to transform a military activity into one widely used in UK industry and governments.

Although he was born in Shropshire, Pat Rivett's family moved to London when he was only three months old, because an older brother had obtained a place at King's College. Their father was an inspector with the NSPCC, covering the Old Kent Road. Pat Rivett himself was a dedicated Christian and politically left of the centre until his mid-forties.

In due course, he followed in his brother's footsteps, with the intention of becoming a schoolteacher, but a first class degree in Mathematics resulted in his being drafted in 1943 into a statistics group within the Ministry of Supply. Rivett was assigned to a team working on the quality control of ammunitions production, and the transformation of the mathematician to a practitioner interested in real problems was quickly made. His natural talent for communication was first put to the test when explaining control charts to operatives who had left school at 14.

The ending of the war changed the nature of the work and Rivett was transferred internally to the Ordnance Board, working directly to military officers on fragmentation patterns of shells and bombs. He could not see the point of it, but kept himself very busy by first obtaining an MSc at Birkbeck College and then lecturing two nights each week at Battersea Polytechnic. The extra money that he earned enabled him to marry, as it so happened into a South Wales mining family, and that produced a strong emotional desire to work in the coal industry.

In 1951, he became head of the National Coal Board's Field Investigation Group, which he built up to what became the largest operational research group in the UK. High recruitment standards were set and staff then taught each other about new developments through a formalised learning process. The excellence of the work carried out became widely known, and Rivett was delighted when his staff went off to other jobs, so spreading operational research (OR), with many subsequently obtaining professorships.

During this period, he became the honorary secretary of the Operational Research Society when it was first formed from the OR Club. Working from his desk in the Coal Board, Rivett set about transforming the club into a learned society, with a quarterly publication which has since become a leading international monthly journal.

Whilst at the Coal Board, he had visited the United States and even taken a two-week course at the Case Institute of Technology, where he had struck up a close friendship with Russ Ackoff. When Lancaster University was founded, its first Vice-Chancellor decided that Operational Research would be one of the first two departments to be formed and Ackoff recommended Rivett to Charles Carter. Thus in 1963 he became the first professor of OR outside the US.

Once again, he was in at the beginning of something new and set about the work with enormous enthusiasm. The foundations were laid for the highest regarded OR department in a UK university. Close relationships were established with industry. Both teaching and research had a strong applications flavour. Other universities quickly noted its success and Rivett was approached by Sussex, which at that time had a glamorous image. Making what he later described as a great mistake, in 1967 he moved to Brighton. He was thoroughly miserable. The university did not like his contacts with industry, there were demonstrations against what he was trying to do and his filing cabinets were broken into. When his wife died and he was left with a young daughter, he worked part-time, before retiring in 1988 when the opportunity presented itself.

Shortly after retirement, he found great happiness in his second marriage. A move to Cumbria enabled him to renew his contacts with operational research at Lancaster. With more time for research, he worked with health authorities in Lancashire on the delivery of health care for the frail elderly and the preventive management of coronary heart disease, because he firmly believed that OR was to improve the human condition.

He also replied to the 50 or so letters that he received each week, for his natural affability had made many friends. Indeed his eloquence could make any topic sound exciting, not least when he was talking about football, in which Pat Rivett had a passionate interest, and he sentimentally supported Millwall to the end.

Alan Mercer