Brain Sciences


Robert (Bob) Audley 1928-2020

21 August 2020

Academics have paid tribute to Professor Robert (Bob) Audley, former Head of UCL PALS and Vice-Provost of UCL, following his death at age 91.

Robert Audley

Robert (Bob) Audley passed away on Friday, 31 July in London, aged 91. Bob was the Head of UCL’s Psychology Department (now the UCL Division of Psychology and Language Sciences) between 1979-1994. His research included work on mathematical learning theory and decision making with an important landmark paper on Theory of Choice. Later he worked on reaction times, map cognition and, perhaps most importantly, he triggered the development of research into the psychology of medical accidents in the 1990s. He held the position of British Psychological Society President 1969-1970 and was President of the Experimental Psychology Society between 1975-1976.

At a national level, Bob was a major figure in UK psychology. He successfully argued in parliament (to the Science and Technology Committee) that psychology should be classified and funded as a laboratory-based biological science rather than as a social science. It ensured that many psychology departments across the country were relatively well-funded. 

Friends and former colleagues have paid tribute to Bob:

Robert Audley was a pioneer of modern psychology in the second half of the last Century. His scientific career reflected his broad interests. A mathematical psychologist modelling human decision making, turned experimentalist studying reaction time and reading but ending up as an applied psychologist working on medical mishaps. As a leader of the Psychology Department he ensured that UCL retained its leadership role in UK psychology and that it gained an equally prominent position amongst UCL Science Departments. His broad vision of the subject guaranteed that in the 1980s when many psychology departments narrowed their interests focusing on the core areas such as  perception and cognition, applied interest continued to thrive at UCL laying the foundation for the large multidisciplinary research and teaching grouping which we have become. Bob was a gentle, kind and wise leader with a crystal clear vision who rarely gave instructions,  but those working with him quickly learnt that, almost invariably, following  his lead would take you to further and faster than you thought possible. He was a scholar and a gentleman. Not sure if they make them like that anymore." – Head of the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences at UCL Professor Peter Fonagy.

"Colleagues remember him as warm-hearted, urbane, intellectual, scientifically rigorous, and quirkily witty. He was a lovely person. But he was also a major figure in UK psychology in the second half of the last century.”  The Psychologist.

 “The academic landscape of psychology was fundamentally changed for the better by Bob Audley, and there are still many colleagues who are at UCL because of him. He was a staunch defender of psychology, and a very kind and generous colleague.” – Professor Nigel Harvey and Professor Elizabeth Valentine.

“Bob was a lovely, wise and generous man as well as a visionary Head of Department. Bob’s vision played a major role in laying the foundations for the modern-day colossus that PALS has become. It is only recently that I realised how much I owe to him and how much he guided us.  He will be hugely missed by all who had the pleasure of knowing him.” – Divisional Head of Administration John Draper.

“Bob moved in a way mysterious to me, first as a student and later as a new and rather junior member of faculty, his wonders to perform. And I still don’t really have a clear idea of how he managed to increase the size of the department in terms of the number of staff, the number of students, and even the physical space. He appointed young lecturers destined to be stars, including Phil Johnson-Laird and Tim Shallice, among others. And he laid the foundations for the department to become a world leader. All this as a kind of benign presence working on our behalf behind the scenes. At a personal level, he rescued me from a provincial university that I’d been longing to escape (Cambridge), and brought me to metropolitan UCL. For this, I am forever grateful. Mind you, he did promise me that the Psychology Department would soon be housed in its own brand new building to rival Harvard’s William James Hall.”  UCL PALS Emeritus Professor Brian Butterworth.