Obituary: Professor Philip Holgate
Thursday 22 April 1993
PHILIP HOLGATE was a statistician with a long-standing interest in biology, and had been Professor of Statistics at Birkbeck College, London, since 1970.
Holgate was born at Chesterfield and graduated in Mathematics from what is now Exeter University in 1955. After five years as a schoolteacher, he joined the Statistics Section at Rothamsted Research Station, in Hertfordshire, and then moved to the Biometrics Section of the Nature Conservancy, where he began to publish in academic journals.
Holgate developed an interest in biology while working at the Nature Conservancy, and many of his papers have their roots in biology or ecology, relating to the interaction between biology and mathematics. They include stochastic models of animal and plant populations (including the relationship between the numbers of prey and their predators). He also contributed to the development of the properties of discrete distribution theory relating to animal populations, and substantially to the theory and applications of Genetic Algebras. He was delighted when Yuri Lyubich's splendid monograph on this specialised area was published in English last year, hoping that this would lead to further interaction between biology and mathematics.
Holgate also contributed to the theory of probability, and had a professional interest in the history of mathematics. He joined Birkbeck College as a Lecturer in 1967, and quickly achieved promotion to professor. At the time of his sudden death, from a heart attack, he had produced over 80 clearly written and scholarly contributions to the literature.
Holgate did not shirk what he saw as his responsibility to play a full part in the work of his college, and in the mathematical and statistical community outside. He edited Series B of the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, was President of the British Region of the Biometric Society, Treasurer of the Joint Mathematical Council, and a valued member of various committees of all those bodies, and of the London Mathematical Society. At Birkbeck, as well as remaining Head of Department for over 20 years, he had two spells as Dean of Science, was a College Governor, and Vice-President of the local Association of University Teachers (AUT). The academic world relies on conscientious scholars to take on the underpaid job of external examiner: Holgate served 14 universities in this way, always constructively, and was motivated to see that fair judgements were made on students.
He was a clear and thoughtful lecturer, and successfully supervised 14 students to the degree of Ph D. Mathematical success is most commonly associated with youth, and full-time study: it requires someone of Holgate's qualities to take on late-developing and part-time research students, and guide them to a doctorate in probability or in theoretical statistics. His own delayed start to an academic career showed his students what could be achieved.
His reputation, especially in genetic algebras, led to frequent invitations to overseas conferences and colloquia. He took advantage of this travel, enjoyed walking round new cities, and was a keen photographer. Although his entire university career was spent in one institution, he will be mourned by friends around Britain, Europe and further afield. A quiet and private man, Philip was trusted and valued for his integrity, his willingness to shoulder responsibility, and his concern for his colleagues and their students.
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