Toby Lewis at 100

Toby Lewis

On 19 October 2018, in a West London care home, Toby Lewis turned 100. Physically fit, if a bit frail, he looks and sounds as anyone who had not seen him for 40 years would recognise instantly. He greets you with the same polite, gentlemanly air that always masked a certain eccentricity, even anarchism, that made him such an interesting and lively companion.

Together with a sharp intelligence and a total lack of deference towards authority, he inspired many of us eagerly to await his contributions to statistical seminars where he would often ask pertinent questions that illuminated otherwise opaque deliveries.

I first met Toby in 1959 while studying maths as an undergraduate in Manchester and wondering what I really wanted to do with my life. I remember the day we were due for a statistics lecture and Toby appeared, sporting a campaign for nuclear disarmament badge, which instantly decided me. We became friends and for a short time were colleagues at University College London, before he went to a chair at Hull in 1968.

Toby’s family – his wife, Catherine, and two daughters, Rae and Gina – all enjoyed the change from Greenwich, and here Toby developed his lifetime interest (fittingly) in statistical outliers and fully pursued his fruitful collaboration with Vic Barnett, which had started in Manchester when Vic was a PhD student, and resulted in what remains one of the standard texts in this area.1

Toby was highly gifted from the start. Immediately before the outbreak of World War II, he left Oxford with a first-class degree in mathematics. During the war, he spent time attached to the Australian army, partly in Borneo, and at the end, having become “Major Lewis”, he spent three years working on what he described as “unexciting operational research”. It was during a spell at the National Physical Laboratory with Edgar Feiller after the war, followed by work in the statistical advisory unit of the Ministry of Supply, that he transformed himself into a statistician. He had married by then and his big career opportunity came in 1957 when he was recruited by Maurice Bartlett as a lecturer in statistics in Manchester. Then Maurice moved to UCL to replace Egon Pearson, and Toby followed him in 1962.

When he moved to Hull in 1968 to take charge of a new department of statistics, he quickly joined the cultural scene by moving into a grand house next door to Philip Larkin, whom he would consistently defend as “not really being a misogynist”.

Moving to the Open University in 1979 to establish a new statistics group, which quickly gained a high academic reputation, was an exciting time for Toby and he really enjoyed the whole concept of distance teaching and making video programmes. His anarchist tendency made him a natural enemy of bureaucracy, and he found a splendid opportunity to mock it when, having already been well established in his post, the University Senate was then asked to approve his appointment: Toby voted against!

It was during this time that he took up the case of a Bristol maths student who he regarded as having been treated unfairly by the university establishment on suspicion of cheating. What really outraged him was the way they had utilised statistical evidence from the pattern of his examination answers in order to downgrade his degree, which Toby demonstrated was wholly unjustifiable. The case he put forward on behalf of the student was eventually lost, at least partly – as he pointed out – because the student had been assumed guilty and was then required to prove his innocence! The episode testifies to his keen sense of justice and his determination never to give up on a cause he believed in.

He retired in 1986 and with Catherine moved to Diss in Norfolk, quite near Great Yarmouth – his place of birth. He remained active by teaching and researching at the University of East Anglia, where he had an honorary professorship that lasted until he was in his early nineties. He worked with the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) in organising public outreach conferences, and actively campaigned to get the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS; now the British Science Association) to understand that statistics could be a great motivating factor in persuading young people to take an interest in maths. Together with Debra Hurcomb at the RSS, he did achieve some success in getting statistics featured at the BAAS’s annual conferences.

Toby also began to spend some time in our multilevel modelling centre at the Institute of Education, one result of which was a jointly edited book on quantitative educational assessment in 1996,2 as well as a paper about engine design in 2006 that introduced multilevel modelling to the engineering profession.3 A particularly noteworthy achievement was his prowess at croquet, where often he belonged to the winning partnership at the Centre’s annual tournament (see below)!
 

ABOVE Toby Lewis and Michael Healy: multilevel croquet champions, 2004.
 

A few years after Catherine died in 2007, Toby decided to move back to London to be nearer to his daughters and, until very recently, he lived independently in a sheltered apartment.

Toby isn’t very active now. His life revolves around the daily routine of a friendly care home, and regular visits from Gina and Rae. Just as he always did, he enjoys the life he has, and welcomes visitors with all his familiar courtesy. It has been a privilege to know him, to have shared many of the things he cared about and enjoyed, and to have had an example to try and emulate.


About the author

Harvey Goldstein is professor of social statistics at the University of Bristol Centre for Multilevel Modelling. He is a chartered statistician, is currently joint editor of the Royal Statistical Society's Journal, Series A, has been a member of the Society's Council and was awarded the Society's Guy medal on silver in 1998. He was elected a member of the International Statistical Institute in 1987, and a fellow of the British Academy in 1996. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Open University in 2001.


Acknowledgements

I am grateful to the following for supplying helpful materials and useful comments: John Bibby, Barbara Goldstein, Rae Lewis, Gina Lewis and Kevin McConway.


References

  1. Barnett, V. and Lewis, T. (1994). Outliers in statistical data. Chichester, Wiley. 3rd edition. ^
  2. Goldstein H & Lewis T. (1996). Assessment: Problems Developments and Statistical Issues. April, J Wiley & Sons, pp. 265. ^
  3. Goldstein, H & Lewis, T. (2006). Holliday’s engine mapping experiment revisited: a design problem with 2-level repeated measures data. Int. J. Vehicle design, 40, 317-326. ^