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Robert (Bob) Audley 1928-2020

Nigel Harvey and Elizabeth Valentine pay tribute to the British Psychological Society President 1969-70, and President of the Experimental Psychology Society 1975-76.

06 August 2020

Bob Audley came from a working-class background and went to Battersea Grammar school: a child evacuee during the war, he was awarded an LCC scholarship to UCL which he entered in 1949 following national service (partly in Germany). He spent his first year mostly ‘drinking beer and playing bridge’; the second year concentrating on his statistics subsidiary (lecturers were E.S. Pearson and the formidable Florence Nightingale David); the third year there was a change of staff (Roger Russell was appointed head) and syllabus (a switch from textbooks to journal articles) and he got stuck into psychology seriously, obtaining a first-class degree. 

Bob thought he might be a prison psychologist, and applied to the Home Office. He was sent a form to apply to be a warder, which he tore up into little strips and sent back to them. He was then offered a R.A. position at Washington State University in the McCarthyism era, with ‘untold wealth’ plus a Fulbright scholarship. After this he returned to UCL as a postgraduate student studying with AR Jonckheere, whom he acknowledged, saying “much of the thesis is the result of long periods of almost daily argument with him”. 

Colleagues remember him as warm-hearted, urbane, intellectual, scientifically rigorous, and quirkily witty. He was a lovely person. But he was also a major figure in UK psychology in the second half of the last century.   

He made three important contributions. First, to decision making. He was one of the main mathematical psychologists of the late 1950s and the 1960s – Audley's 1960 Theory of Choice still stands the test of time. Then his further work on reaction time (Audley, Caudrey, Howell and Powell) and work on map understanding with Richard Phillips. But his final major contribution in the 1990s may have been the most important: with Charlie Vincent and Maeve Ennis, he triggered development of the now major research area of medical accidents. 

From the UCL Psychology department's point of view, he guided us through the dark days of the Thatcher years with aplomb. With the stringent budget cuts of 1981, many departments closed and some universities (e.g., Salford) almost did too. Tenure was eliminated and people were worried about their jobs. Bob's strategy, after moving us into Bedford Way, was to make the department much bigger – after becoming a major contributor to the UCL budget, we were safe. His plan to have a separate school of psychology outside life sciences didn't come off but, in hindsight, it still seems that it would have been a good idea.   

He also made critical contributions at a national level. It was at least partly, maybe even largely, thanks to him that psychology was categorised as a laboratory-based biological science rather than as a social science, addressing the Science and Technology Committee (on behalf of the BPS) on this issue. It ensured that psychology departments across the country were relatively well-funded.  

The academic landscape of psychology was fundamentally changed for the better by Bob Audley, and there are still many colleagues who are at UCL because of him. He was a staunch defender of psychology, and a very kind and generous colleague.  

- Nigel Harvey and Elizabeth Valentine 

Robert Audley was President of the British Psychological Society 1969-1970, during which time he hosted the International Congress of Psychology – diplomatically dealing with international delegates and editing the Proceedings. He also helped to set up the Mathematical, Statistical and Computing Section of the BPS and was inaugural Chair in 1970. He was the Editor of British Journal of Mathematical and Statistical Psychology, 1963-1969.


Presidential address 

Two interviews about the history of the Experimental Psychology Society. 

Part I

Part II