Gavin Brown

Scotsman obituary

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The sudden death of Professor Gavin Brown on Christmas Day has caused heartfelt shock and deep sadness at either end of the Antipodean axis.

Though he was Scottish born and bred, and had many family and academic connections here, Brown's loss was most keenly felt in Australia where he gained great distinction as an academic and university administrator, so much so that he was appointed Officer of the Order of Australia.

One of the world's leading mathematicians, the retired vice-chancellor of both Adelaide and Sydney universities was among the most respected academic figures in his adopted country, and he was honoured in Scotland as well.

He was a corresponding Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, was awarded the Sir Edmund Whittaker Memorial Prize by Edinburgh Mathematical Society, and St Andrews (1997), Dundee (2004) and Edinburgh Universities (2010) garlanded him with honorary degrees.

Prof Brown was one of that legion of Scots who achieved great distinction in a land furth of these borders, having been nurtured in Scottish education and sensibility. His roots were most definitely located here in Scotland, and particularly in the Kingdom of Fife.

Born in the famous golfing village of Lundin Links, he was the only son of bricklayer Frank Brown and his wife Alexandria (née Duncanson). Brown was a precociously intelligent child, reportedly so good at the board game Scrabble that he was barred from local competitions at the age of eight.

He attended Madras College in St Andrews, becoming dux in his final year, and went from there to the town's university as recipient of the Harkness Scholarship.

Having graduated MA with first class honours in Mathematics and Latin, winning the Duncan Medal in doing so, Brown went to Newcastle University on a Carnegie Scholarship where he completed his doctorate.

After a spell at Edinburgh University as a junior research fellow, Liverpool University took him on its staff and he rose to become senior lecturer before his emigration to Australia where he became Professor of Pure Mathematics at the University of New South Wales.

While swimming in 1977 he contracted a virus which affected the muscles of his right eye, which remained closed for many years.

Despite this disadvantage, his list of academic achievement over the next 30 years was formidable: more than 100 research papers published; winner of the Australian Mathematical Society medal in 1982; visiting professor at Washington, Paris and Cambridge universities; and countless invitations to lecture at universities, especially across Australia and Asia.

Brown moved to the University of Adelaide as deputy vice-chancellor in 1992, becoming vice-chancellor two years later.

Shortly after suffering a heart attack, he moved from Adelaide to Sydney in 1996 as vice-chancellor, and began the work of what he called "the restoration" of Australia's oldest university.

Towards the end of his 12-year stint at Sydney, there was some comment at the revelation that he was earning a near seven-figure sum in salary and bonuses as a result of his fund-raising activities, which transformed the fortunes of the university. Yet in the meritocratic society of Australia, his rewards were seen as the natural consequence of a job very well done.

In his time as Sydney's vice-chancellor and principal, the university's income almost trebled, international student numbers quadrupled, and research income quintupled, while the highest-ever number of graduations was recorded. Sydney also gained the A$50 million United States Studies Centre, a new law school, the Brain and Mind Research Institute and much else besides.

Against this success was a background of personal trauma, his wife Barbara (née Routh) dying after a long illness in 2001. They had been together for 30 years and had two children, Janet and Colin.

He later found marital happiness again, this time with Diane Ranck, a manager in the university's administration.

It was his work at Sydney which made his name and gained him the Order of Australia in January 2006.

The citation read: "For service to tertiary education in Australia and internationally as an advocate for excellence and through the establishment of strategic links with overseas institutions, and to mathematical research."

Also in 2006, his standing among his peers was shown when he was elected chairman of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities, a grouping which he did so much to nurture in its formative days.

He was also a board member and chairman or member of numerous committees such as the Australian Technology Park. Upon his retirement from Sydney in 2008, he became the first director of the Royal Institution of Australia, an Adelaide-based body which exists to promote science in that country.

For all that he was a mathematician, Brown was no cold, calculating sort. He was a passionate defender of academic freedom, and regularly risked controversy by speaking his mind on important educational issues.

He had a lifelong love of sport, though he admitted to being more of a "spectator coach" than a participant.

Bridge and chess were his intellectual hobbies, but he particularly enjoyed horseracing, and latterly embraced ownership, thereby defying all the claims that mathematicians are supposed to be logical people - any owner will tell you that their hobby defies equations.

In one of his final speeches as vice-chancellor, Prof Brown said: "It is part of our task to prepare students for employment but I persist in the belief that the greatest gift we confer on our students is the opportunity to contribute more effectively to our society, both spiritually and materially."

With his wide range of accomplishments in various fields, Brown was an exemplar of his own philosophy. In short, he was a true Scottish "lad o' pairts" and the fact that he made his name and gained such distinction at the opposite side of the world should in no sense lessen Scottish admiration for his achievements.

On the contrary, Professor Gavin Brown's journey from bricklayer's son to becoming a brilliant adornment of Australia's educational system and a renowned academician is one that should prove inspirational for young Scots, indeed young people everywhere.

His burial took place on Thursday, 30 December, after a service in the Lutheran Church at Immanuel College in Adelaide.

Professor Brown is survived by his second wife Diane, his children Janet and Colin, and his two stepchildren Benjamin and Oliver.

Martin Hannan

Professor Gavin Brown, academician. Born: 27 February, 1942, in Lundin Links, Fife. Died: 25 December, 2010, in Adelaide, Australia, aged 68.

01 January 2011 © The Scotsman