Obituary: Philip T Smith
Friday, 18 May 2018
It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Professor Philip T Smith.
Philip was born in Poole, Dorset in January 1943 and attended school at Berkhamsted School for Boys, before graduating from Cambridge University with a BA in Mathematics in 1964. In quick succession, Philip became a visiting researcher at the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies, founded only four years earlier by Jerome Bruner and George Miller as part of the ”cognitive revolution” in psychology, a junior research fellow at Queen’s College Oxford, and a visiting scholar at Stanford University. In 1972 he moved to Stirling University where he was a lecturer before coming to the University of Reading in 1980.
Philip was to spend the remainder of his career at the University of Reading. Philip was an immensely popular and engaging lecturer and later, when Head of Department of Psychology (1992-1997), oversaw a period of expansion in the department and its successful move into a new building. A former member of staff recently remarked that he led with ‘grace, kindness and wit’.
During this time, Philip published research on reading and visual word recognition, including the edited book “Recent Advances in the Psychology of Language” with Robin Campbell, which introduced the nonsense word CINEMPA and triggered much current research on visual word recognition. Philip retained a life-long interest in words and a sense of fun in playing with words both professionally and personally. For example, when a new corridor linking the Psychology and Meteorology buildings was built in 2005, Philip quipped that “…the thing Psychology and Meteorology have in common is Deep Depressions”. Philip’s research interests later moved on to broader questions of memory and emotion, contributing to the famous practical and theoretical aspects of memory conferences of the late 1970s and early 1980s, but importantly he continued his habit of providing help and advice- particularly of a mathematical or statistical nature - for students, junior colleagues and anyone who had the sense to listen to him.
In later years Philip made good use of his mathematical background becoming editor of the British Journal of Mathematical and Statistical Society from 1991-1996. He remained a consulting editor for the journal up until his death. An early member of the European Society for Cognitive Psychology, he was Secretary of the European Society from 1993-1996 and editor of the European Journal of Cognitive Psychology from 1997-2001. He was also an active member of the Experimental Psychology Society, acting as Treasurer from 1977-1984, President in 1987, and editor of the Society’s flagship journal, the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, from 1986-1989. In 2006 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Experimental Psychology Society.
Tales of Philip’s sense of fun and his apparently uncanny abilities abound. One member of staff had a habit of leaving their dirty mug on the shelf and returned one day to find a series of little cones, police tape and a 'Health Hazard' sign around it, all apparently Philip’s work. His acute but always supportive questioning during research seminars was often remarked upon. As described by one professional colleague, “it was always a pleasure to meet with him, and I always finished a conversation with him happier than when I started it.” Many will also have experienced visiting Philip in his office and navigating the feet high piles of paper in his famous vertical filing system – a system from which he seemed able to retrieve relevant documents perfectly and at a moment’s notice.
Philip’s influence extended well beyond Psychology. He was a member of the University’s Senior Common Room for many years and had many friends both within and outside of the university community. It was easy to understand Philip’s popularity. He was knowledgeable on an endless number of topics, he was modest and understated, and he had a refreshing capacity to listen without passing judgement. He was the quintessential academic and taught many generations of students and staff the importance of balancing hard work with a sense of fun. He will be sadly missed by us all.