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
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
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.
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.
A PERSONAL TRIBUTE
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.