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Obituary: Peter Joseph O'Halloran (1931-1994)

The death occurred on 25 September 1994 of Peter O'Halloran, founder of the Australian Mathematics Competition and a range of national and international mathematics enrichment activities.

Peter was born in Sydney on 27 April, 1931, the youngest of a family of four boys and three girls. His father died when he was four years old, leaving the family in poor circumstances. His mother took in boarders to make ends meet and put several of the children through University.

Peter attended Marist Brothers School in Kogarah, Sydney, and it was there that he developed his life-long fascination with mathematics. He went on to the University of Sydney, on a government teaching scholarship, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science and Diploma of Education.

Peter married Marjorie in 1955 and taught mathematics in several high schools in Sydney and the country regions. At Manly Boys High School, which had a noted discipline problem at the time, Peter also coached the Rugby Union and Rugby League teams, both with high degrees of success.

In 1965 Peter became head of mathematics at the Royal Australian Navy Academy at Jervis Bay. It was there that he completed a Master of Science, specialising in oceanography.

In 1970, now with four children, Peter and Marjorie moved to Canberra. Peter was one of the original appointments at the Canberra College of Advanced Education (later to become the University of Canberra) and taught in the first official semester of the CCAE. At the CCAE Peter developed other interests, including operations research and what was to become his main interest, discrete mathematics.

In 1972/3 he was the first CCAE academic to take study leave. Part of this was taken at the University of Waterloo, Canada, where he gained the idea of a broadly based mathematics competition for high school students. On his return he often enthused to his colleagues about the potential value of such a competition in Australia.

In 1976, while President of the Canberra Mathematical Association, he established a committee to run a mathematics competition in Canberra. This was so successful that the competition became national by 1978 as the Australian Mathematics Competition, sponsored by the Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac Banking Corporation). It is now well-known that this competition has grown to over 500,000 entries annually, and is probably the biggest mass-participation event in the country.

In 1979 he established the Australian Mathematical Olympiad Committee.The activities of this committee have grown to a complex web of competition and enrichment activities, at the highest level culminating each year in Australia's participation in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). Australia has participated internationally with distinction, for example this year being placed 12th out of 69 countries.

In 1983 Peter founded University of Canberra Mathematics Day, based on a similar event he had seen in America. This is now well-established and supports similar days in other parts of Australia. It has in turn become a model for other Mathematics Days throughout the world.

In 1984 Peter founded the World Federation of National Mathematics Competitions. For several years the main activity of the WFNMC was the production of a Journal, which acted as a vital line of communication for people trying to set up similar activities in other countries. In recent years its activities have expanded to include an international conference and a set of international awards (the Hilbert and Erdos Awards, to recognise mathematicians prominent in enriching mathematics education. Most recently, the WFNMC has become a Special Interest Group of the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction (ICMI).

One of the highlights of Peter's career was hosting the 1988 IMO in Canberra, which attracted a record number of countries at the time and set new standards in many aspects of organisation.

In 1989 Peter established the Asia Pacific Mathematics Olympiad, providing a regional Olympiad for countries in the dynamic Pacific rim area.

In 1990 Peter completed the spectrum of competitions and enrichment activities in Australia, with the range of Challenge and Enrichment activities now organised by the Australian Mathematical Olympiad Committee.

Perhaps the most significant event in Peter's career in the last two or three years was his role in the establishment of the Australian Mathematics Trust, which is an umbrella body administering all the activities with which he has been associated and which are referred to above.

Peter's last main duty was to preside at the WFNMC conference in Bulgaria in July 1994. It was obvious to all who were there that Peter was ill. It was generally thought that he was experiencing another bout of pleuro-pneumonia, from which he had suffered in 1993. On his return home however further tests revealed that Peter's condition was much more serious, and cancer was diagnosed. He spent most of his last month at home.

On 31 August he was presented with the David Hilbert Award, which he had declined to accept earlier in the year while still president of the WFNMC. A small party of 30 to 40 of Peter's relatives and local colleagues were in attendance at his home. The David Hilbert Award is the highest international award of the WFNMC and in Peter's case was awarded for "his significant contribution to the enrichment of mathematics learning at an international level".

On 19 September he was awarded the World Cultural Council's "Jose Vasconcelos" World Award for Education at a ceremony at Chambery, France. This award "is granted to a renowned educator, an authority in the field of teaching or to a legislator of education policies who has a significant influence on the advancement in the scope of culture for mankind". The qualifying jury is formed by several members of the interdisciplinary Committee (of the World Cultural Council) and a group of distinguished educators.

Due to his illness Peter was unable to travel. Instead his eldest daughter Genevieve and son Anthony travelled to Chambery to receive the Award on his behalf. Fortunately Peter was still alive on 23 September on their return to Australia and was able to receive the award in person.

Peter was also recognised in many other ways throughout his career. In 1983 he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM), in 1991 he was awarded a Doctor of Science (honoris causa) from Deakin University and in 1994 he was promoted to Professor in his own University.

Many mathematicians have made significant individual contributions to the subject itself. Peter's influence was much more direct, bringing mathematics to the world. With his driving energy and the institutions he created he has significantly increased people's awareness of mathematics and what it can do, throughout the world.

One of Peter's main concern in life was to assist the disadvantaged. He saw the AMC as being able to bring mathematics to children in remote places. In the earliest times of the AMC he travelled the Pacific and introduced the competition to a large number of island nations, such as Fiji, Tonga, Western Samoa, French Polynesia (for whom the paper was made available in French) and many smaller countries, some of which only had radio or occasional steamer contact with the outside world.

The Australian Government recognised these efforts and funded this project as one of the few cultural links between Australia and its Pacific neighbours.

Peter was proud of the fact that more than 50\% of the AMC entrants were girls, but concerned that they did not get the same representation among the medals. He was also proud of the many letters he received from country schools, thankful for the opportunity to participate in the same event as their city cousins.

Peter saw the main advantage to be derived from the WFNMC was the help it could give to mathematics education in developing countries. I was seated next to him in a debate on the value of competitions at the 1992 International Conference on Mathematical Education in Quebec where he was payed the ultimate compliment to which he would have aspired. One delegate gave a well-planned attack on competitions, based on the usual lines, that competitions encouraged elitism, etc. In response, a delegate from the small African country of Malawi, unknown to Peter, responded with an emotional thank you to Peter and the people of the Australian Mathematics Competition for what they had made possible in her country. This was a most moving experience.

I made these observations to Peter's eldest brother Ted after Peter's funeral. Ted had become senior partner in one of Australia's largest law firms before going into semi-retirement and was both a father-figure and inspiration to Peter. Ted reflected on these comments and noted the similarity between Peter and another brother Michael (now deceased). Michael had gone into the Marist order and had shown the same concerns for the disadvantaged. He had become responsible in the order for the distribution of international aid. It was probably no coincidence that Peter's and Michael's paths once crossed. Several years ago they found themselves together on the same remote Pacific island, each going about their own separate tasks.

Peter, of course will be irreplaceable. Fortunately, however, he had the foresight to establish institutions in such a way that they all have the resources, particularly human resources, to ensure that the good work will continue.

Peter is survived by his wife Marjorie, four children and six grandchildren.

Peter Taylor
10 October 1994

The above obituary was also published in the January 1995 edition of the Bulletin of the Institute of Combinatorics and its Applications, where it was preceded by the following personal tribute by Professor Ralph Stanton. Professor Stanton was the first head of mathematics at the University of Waterloo, and as a result was responsible for the appointment of excellent teachers to the faculty and the establishment there of what became the Canadian national mathematics contests.


R.G. Stanton, University of Manitoba

Early in September, I was talking on the telephone, from the University of Leeds, with Peter O’Halloran at his home; he was his usual cheerful self, but it was evident, from his coughing, that he was extremely unwell. When Peter Taylor sent me an email later in the month that Peter had died, I felt a deep sadness because the mathematical world has lost a man who could still have contributed a great deal. But we can all be very proud of the enormous impact that he has had on Australian mathematics and, indeed, on world mathematics.

My own feeling is that Peter O’Halloran contributed more to the development of mathematics in the past 25 years than any other single person. Those of us who write research papers typically publish results that are read by a small circle of researchers interested in similar ideas. This is true even of “important” papers. But Peter influenced millions of students. He took the idea of a Mathematics Competition, as he had seen it operate at the University of Waterloo, and developed it to an extent and scope that would have been impossible to anyone who did not possess his driving energy, his boundless enthusiasm, and his love for the subject. The Australian Mathematics Competition alone attracts more than half a million entries a year, and its importance is underlined by the fact that His Royal Highness, The Prince Philip, K.G., K. T., graciously consented to be Patron of the Competition. And the other activities that Peter initiated and promoted have likewise possessed a widely ranging impact.

Many people over-emphasize the importance of mathematical research. Research is important, but it is only one facet of mathematics. As mathematicians, we must also be alive to the importance of the preservation of knowledge, the transmission of knowledge, and the formation and nurturing of the next generation of mathematicians. Peter’s great service to mathematics was his phenomenal contribution to the stimulation of mathematical interest in young people around the world. Through his Competition, and the other activities now preserved though the Australian Mathematics Trust, he has had a tremendous influence that no contemporary mathematician can match.

We are fortunate that Peter’s colleague, Peter Taylor, has contributed an account of Peter’s life and work; this follows immediately after these few words of recognition.


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