Robert McCredie May

Quick Info

8 January 1936
Sydney, Australia
28 April 2020
Oxford, England

Robert May was an Australian mathematical biologist whose work played a key role in the development of theoretical ecology.


Robert May's parents were Henry W May and Kathleen McCredie. They were living in Alison Road, Randwick, a suburb of Sydney, when their son Robert, the subject of this biography, was born. Robert's younger brother was born on 29 October 1939 at War Memorial Hospital, Waverley. At this time his parents were living at Kowarra, Pitt Street, Randwick. Henry May's family were from Northern Ireland but his father, Robert's paternal grandfather, was a politically active Protestant who was threatened by the IRA and, one week later, was on a ship emigrating to Australia. Henry went from a well-off middle class upbringing in Northern Ireland to poverty in Newcastle, Australia. He made a name for himself as a bright lawyer but became addicted to alcohol. Kathleen McCredie's family were originally from Scotland. Her father was an engineer. Henry May's alcohol problem led to a divorce in 1943 when Robert was seven and he only ever saw his father again a couple of times when he was in his teens. Robert was brought up by his mother and his maternal grandparents.

May attended Woollahra Primary School and from a young age developed a fascination with mathematical puzzles [1]:-
I was a fairly solitary child. I really did enjoy mathematical puzzles and puzzles of other kinds from when I was fairly young.
Leaving Woollahra Primary School in 1948, he began his secondary education at Sydney Boys High School. His maternal grandfather had attended this school, his mother had attended the girls' partner school, Sydney Girls High School, and one of his uncles had been an architect for these schools. This excellent school [1]:-
... had a lot of really bright people and it had superb teachers. The teachers I had in high school were uniformly excellent. One of the really formative influences on my life was the chemistry teacher, a chap called Lenny Basser.
Other than his academic subjects, his main activity at school was debating. He excelled at this and represented the school which had a outstanding reputation in the debating competitions. He completed his studies at Sydney Boys High School in 1952 coming top in every subject he took. This all round ability made the decision on which subject he should study at university a difficult one. The careers advisors at the school were unanimous in saying that he should study law. He knew that if he took that route it would distress his mother to see him follow the same route as his father. It was not something which attracted his anyway, since he felt that law is about humanity's imperfections. Did he really want to spend his life doing that? His mother wanted him to study medicine since a few close members of her family were doctors. May did not feel that was the right course for him either. His chemistry teacher Lenny Basser suggested that he should study chemistry at the University of Sydney and so May decided to investigate chemical engineering. After talking to Rolf Prince, the Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Sydney, and having him arrange for May to visit the Colonial Sugar Refinery, he decided this was right for him and, in 1953, entered the University of Sydney.

In his first year he took chemistry, mathematics and physics. The first two were at the honours level, but physics was only at the pass level. Despite having only taken the pass level course, he took the honours level physics examination at the end of the year, in part because his friends were taking it, in part because it was the last examination, and in part because he found examinations easy even if, as in this case, he had not prepared for it. He ended up winning a prize for chemistry and physics which was worth quite a lot of money. His family were poor so he could not turn down the money and accepting it required him to continue to study physics. Although advised against taking both chemical engineering and physics in his second year, he insisted on taking on the heavy load.

All this makes May sound like a student working very hard on his academic subjects but this was not quite the way it was [1]:-
I had a wonderful time [at university]. I had lived at home and had been a relatively solitary younger child. Very luckily, going to university, I had a cohort of friends who had many of my own characteristics - very oddly, in retrospect. Essentially none of us drank and most of us didn't go out with girls - we hadn't worked out how you did it, as it were. We were a very close-knit set of people who did things together. I spent roughly half my university years playing chess or snooker in the union and just having a good time. I did not do my second-year laboratory chemistry very conscientiously, because it was too time consuming. I used various tricks and devices to abbreviate the time, which I think required more scientific insight than actually doing it honestly.
The standard route to honours chemical engineering was to take your third year completing an honours science degree then completing two further years of chemical engineering. He could major in one of pure mathematics, applied mathematics or physics but May wanted to major in all three. Although strongly advised not to take on such a heavy load, he did all three subjects and came top in each of them. He graduated with a B.Sc. in 1956 and, after much thought, decided not to continue with chemical engineering but instead to undertake research for his doctorate in theoretical physics. He was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Sydney in 1959 for his thesis Investigations towards an understanding of superconductivity.

Max Robert Schafroth (1923-59), known as Robbie, was May's thesis advisor. He had been a student of and then assistant to Wolfgang Pauli in Zurich before taking up the appointment in Sydney in 1954. When May was in the third year of his research, Schafroth was appointed to the foundation chair in theoretical physics in Geneva, Switzerland and was due to begin on 1 September 1959. It had been May's intention to go to Geneva to undertake postdoctoral work with him after completing his Ph.D. but tragically Schafroth and his wife were killed in a small plane accident on 29 May 1959 while making a farewell tour of Australia. May was now keen to leave Australia.

After completing his Ph.D., May went to the United States to undertake postdoctoral work as Gordon MacKay Lecturer in Applied Mathematics in the Division of Engineering and Applied Physics at Harvard University. In his second year at Harvard he met Judith Feiner who grew up in Manhattan and, at the time they met, was an undergraduate at Brandeis University. She was born in 1943 to Jewish parents and had attended the New York High School of Music and Art. They saw each other for six months before May's time at Harvard came to an end in 1961 and by the end of that time decided to marry, which they did on 3 August 1962. They have one daughter Naomi Felicity.

After two years at Harvard, May returned to Sydney in 1962 and was appointed as a Senior Lecturer in Theoretical Physics. He was steadily promoted in the Physics Department, becoming a reader in 1964 and then given a personal chair in 1969. Let us give a few examples of papers he published (some as joint publications): Susceptibility of superconducting spheres (1959); Meissner-Ochsenfeld effect in the Bogolyubov theory (1959); Gauge invariance in the theory of superconductivity (1959); Superconductivity of a charged ideal 2-dimensional Bose gas (1959); Quantum statistics of ideal gases in two dimensions (1964); Relaxation of a fast ion in a plasma (1964); Magnetic properties of charged ideal quantum gases in n dimensions (1965); Exact equation of state for a 2-dimensional plasma (1967); Electron scattering and tests of cosmological models (1968); The rate of the proton-proton reaction and some related reactions (1969).

In [1] May says:-
But I would never have got elected to the Royal Society for what I did in physics. A few years after I returned from Harvard to Sydney, I accidentally got interested in problems in ecology. This was very much encouraged by Harry Messel [the head of physics at Sydney]. He said, 'If you want to do that, by all means stay in the physics department. If you want to go somewhere else, you should do it'.
May proved a wonderful theorem on mathematical models for predator-prey problems which was a generalisation of a physics theorem due to Eugene Wigner. He showed his result to Charles Birch, the head of ecology at the University of Sydney, who said, "You know that I think mathematics doesn't have much to say about ecology, but who knows who's right?" Although now keen to do more work on mathematical models in ecology, he had already arranged a sabbatical at the Plasma Physics Research Laboratories at Culham, England. He went to Culham for around nine months but spent most of his time there reading up on ecology. He then went, as already planned, to Princeton University in the United States. There he was offered a chair in biology but turned it down saying that he was happy in Australia.

Returning to Australia he wrote the article Will a large complex system be stable?, which was published in Nature in 1972. His major monograph Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems was published in 1973. A new edition which was published in 2001 stated the following:-
What makes populations stabilise? What makes them fluctuate? Are populations in complex ecosystems more stable than populations in simple ecosystems? In 1973, Robert May addressed these questions in this classic book. May investigated the mathematical roots of population dynamics and argued - counter to most current biological thinking - that complex ecosystems in themselves do not lead to population stability. 'Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems' played a key role in introducing nonlinear mathematical models and the study of deterministic chaos into ecology. ... In the quarter century since its first publication, the book's message has grown in power. Nonlinear models are now at the centre of ecological thinking, and current threats to biodiversity have made the questions about the role of ecosystem complexity more crucial than ever.
After a while his wife encouraged him to see if the Princeton appointment was still on offer. He found that it was and in 1973 he became Professor of Biology at Princeton University. He held this position until 1988 but he was also Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology from 1975 to 1988 and Chairman of the University Research Board from 1977 until 1988. He said [1]:-
It was a wonderful place. The ecology group was very small but consistently ranked as one of the top six in ecology in the country, and still is today. But at that time it was one or two orders of magnitude smaller than anywhere else. There were only four faculty members. ... During the 16 years that I was there, it was very small. We had a total of 48 graduate students and they were nearly all rather good.
He edited the books Theoretical Ecology: Principles and Applications (1976) and Population Biology of Infectious Diseases (1982). He published highly significant papers such as Biological populations with nonoverlapping generations: stable points, stable cycles, and chaos (1974), Simple mathematical models with very complicated dynamics (1976), Bifurcations and dynamic complexity in simple ecological models (1976), and Thresholds and breakpoints in ecosystems with a multiplicity of stable states (1977).

The 'Simple mathematical models' paper has been cited an incredible number of times. Here is the Abstract of the paper:-
First-order difference equations arise in many contexts in biological, economic and social sciences. Such equations, even though simple and deterministic, can exhibit a surprising array of dynamical behaviour, from stable points, to bifurcating hierarchy of stable cycles, to apparently random fluctuations. There are consequently many fascinating problems, some concerned with delicate mathematical aspects of the fine structure of the trajectories and some concerned with the practical implications and applications. This is an interpretive review of them.
This highly mathematical work leads naturally to the question, "Does May think of himself as a mathematician?" Let us record some of his thoughts on this question [1]:-
Mathematics is ultimately no more but no less than thinking very clearly about something. I like puzzles, so I am a mathematician. I am not a pure mathematician's mathematician because I don't like abstract, formal problems. I like tricks and devices. I am essentially a mathematician but in the sense that I like thinking about complicated things, asking what are potential simplicities hidden in them and expressing that tentative thought in mathematical terms and seeing where it leads me in testable ways.
After sixteen years at Princeton, despite feeling that this was the best place to be a faculty member, nevertheless he felt that he would like a change. Britain was a possibility for he had held a Visiting Professorship at Imperial College, London, since 1975 and had visited the College's Ecological Research Laboratories at Silwood Park every summer for four to six weeks every year. Another possibility was returning to Australia which May and his wife thought hard about as they also did the possibility of a move to Berkeley. In the end they decided that Britain was the most different.

In 1979 May had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London and, in 1988 he accepted the position as Royal Society Research Professor in the Department of Zoology of Oxford University. At the same time he became a fellow of Merton College, Oxford. In addition to his academic appointments, May became a civil servant when he was appointed as Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government and head of its Office of Science and Technology between 1995 and 2000. He was President of the Royal Society, 2000-2005.

May has received many honours. First we list the honours given by the Queen.
  1. On 30 December 1995 it was announced that "The Queen has been graciously pleased to signify her intention of conferring the honour of Knighthood upon Professor Robert McCredie May, F.R.S., Chief Scientific Adviser and lately Royal Society Research Professor, University of Oxford and Imperial College, London. For services to science."
  2. On 18 July 2001 it was announced that "The Queen has been pleased by Letters patent under the Great Seal of the Realm dated 18 July 2001 to confer the dignity of a Barony of the United Kingdom for life upon Sir Robert McCredie May, Knight, by the name style and the title of Baron May of Oxford, of Oxford in the County of Oxfordshire."
  3. On 8 November 2002 it was announced that "The Queen has been graciously pleased to make the following appointment to the Order of Merit: The Right Honourable Robert McCredie, Baron May of Oxford, AC, FRS.
Let us now list a selection of further honours that May has received. He was elected a Corresponding Member of the Australian Academy of Science (1991), a Foreign Member of the United States National Academy of Sciences (1992), an honorary Fellow of the American Society for Biochemistry (1993), a member of the Academia Europaea (1994), an honorary Fellow of the British Ecological Society (1995), an honorary Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology Sciences and Engineering, (2001), a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (2006), an honorary Fellow of the Linnean Society of London (2008), an honorary Fellow of the Australian Institute of Building (2009), and a Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales (2010). He has received honorary degrees from Uppsala University (1990), Yale University (1993), the University of Sydney (1995), Princeton University (1996), the University of Glasgow (2001), ETH Z├╝rich (2003), Queen's University Belfast (2003), the University of Oxford (2004), the University of York (2004), the University of Sheffield (2005), the University of East Anglia (2007), and Harvard University (2013). The citation for his Harvard degree states:-
A prodigious polymath and peerless peer whose mind conceives models that sustain life and whose voice resounds in support of enlightened inquiry.
By 2018 he had received at least 28 honorary degrees. His awards and prizes include the Weldon Memorial Prize by the University of Oxford (1980), the American Ecological Society MacArthur Award (1984), the Medal of the Linnean Society of London (1991), the Frink Medal of the Zoological Society of London (1995), the Royal Swedish Academy's Crafoord Prize (1996), the Swiss-Italian Balzan Prize (1998), the Japanese Blue Planet Prize (2001), the Royal Society's Copley Medal (2007), the Royal Society of Chemistry's Lord Lewis Prize (2008), the Charles P Nash Prize (2013).

You can read his profile given by the Asahi Glass Foundation, Tokyo, Japan, when they awarded him the Blue Planet Prize in 2001 at THIS LINK.

He received the IEEM Medal from the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management on 28 June 2012 for "Outstanding Commitment of Biodiversity and the Natural Environment."

References (show)

  1. Lord Robert May, physicist and ecologist, Australian Academy of Sciences. Interview by Robyn Williams (July 2008).
  2. May of Oxford, Who's Who (2017).
  3. Profiles of the 2001 Blue Planet Prize Recipients. Lord (Robert) May of Oxford, Asahi Glass Foundation.

Additional Resources (show)

Other websites about Robert May:

  1. zbMATH entry

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update January 2019