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Ian Howarth 1928-2019

An appreciation of the Society’s former President.

04 September 2019

Ian Howarth was born in Swinton, Lancashire on November 12, 1928. He was proud of his Lancastrian roots and an upbringing that valued both mind and body. He was never happier than when discussing ideas in science – never happier than when he was walking or sailing.

As an undergraduate at Oxford in 1950, Ian read Chemistry, followed by a combined degree in Physiology and Psychology. National Service in the RAF saw him complete a DPhil in human vision at the Institute of Aviation Medicine, a field he continued to research after returning to Oxford’s Institute of Experimental Psychology. The experience at the Institute for Aviation Medicine also gave him a lifelong interest in applied psychology.

After a period as a lecturer at the University of Hull he was appointed Professor and Head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Nottingham in 1964 at the tender age of 36. He remained its Head for no less than 30 years – always cheerfully shouldering the administrative responsibilities that came along with the job. During that time he built a Department that was broad based and innovative, a Department that had a reputation for excellent teaching and outstanding research. A Department with deep theoretical interests together with a wealth of applied research units. It was a well-found Department with its own workshops, technicians and computing infrastructure that was widely admired and which provided an autonomy and capability to build the tools and techniques its researchers needed. By the time of Ian’s retirement in 1994 the Department had centres of excellence in developmental, cognitive, physiological, social and occupational psychology, as well as a significant reputation in cognitive science and artificial intelligence. 

Ian’s own work was thoroughly eclectic. He researched human vision, motor skills, self-stimulation of the hypothalamus in rats, road accidents, mobility of blind people, the education of deaf children, and the cognitive effects of failure and its implications for helping and counselling work. My own collaboration with him concerned the computational modelling of neural plasticity, work undertaken with Terry Elliott, a young mathematical physicist who wanted to understand the brain. Ian saw in Terry echoes of his own passion for bringing the methods of one discipline into another. We used the techniques of statistical mechanics to build neural networks and in a trio of papers demonstrated how our models could recapitulate the development of neural pathways in the visual system.  

Ian was always a challenging influence, insightful and incisive. As Head of the Department, he ensured that Psychology at Nottingham was always quick to embrace new fields and new developments. This sometimes led to criticisms from those who thought he strayed too far from the orthodoxy of what they thought psychology should be about. But his confidence in an unorthodox approach to psychology, with liberal helpings of systems theory, cybernetics and AI, applied statistics, and borrowings from other sciences led to a Department that had variety, breadth and real quality.

He foresaw the developments afforded by the convergence of neuroscience, psychology and computation. He remained intrigued by two books that had so affected him as sixth former at Manchester Grammar school in the 1940s. One a popular science book by Erwin Schrödinger, What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell– in which the great quantum physicist hypothesised that an ‘aperiodic crystal’ contained hereditary information. This prefiguration of DNA through the principals of chemistry was a driving force in his decision to study the subject at Oxford. The other great influence wasD'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's book On Growth and Form. On lunchtime walks Ian would explain that for him, they exemplified the best sort of science – accessible but profound, a search for the deep organisational principals of nature, the deep structural and computational patterns that we might discern at all levels in psychology. 

Ian oversaw a Department that fostered many careers across a broad swathe of psychology. He wanted staff and students to feel passionate about their work. Ian’s own passion was the advocacy of the scientific method, and the appeal to evaluation in psychology’s many application contexts. And he was not shy in criticising those fields that fell short of these standards. In his work for the BPS, he was a particular advocate of the Codes of Practice that were key to the licencing of the profession. Ian was President of the BPS from 1984 to 1985.

His was an optimistic view of the human condition and of our capacity to understand ourselves. It was an optimism that provided the energy to lead a Department for 30 years, to help mentor generations of students and colleagues, and to be an inspiration to his family and friends.

Nigel Shadbolt

- A memorial event will be held on 9 September.