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Former statistics chair Watson dies at 76 after surgery complications

Geoffrey Stuart Watson, chair of the statistics department, emeritus, died on Jan. 3 from complications following heart surgery. The native-born Australian was 76 years old and a Princeton resident at the time of his death.

Watson received his degree in mathematics from Melbourne University in 1942. After teaching mathematics at Melbourne for five years, he went on to earn a Ph.D. from North Carolina State University in 1951.


Though Watson would later rise to prominence in the American academic community, he began his teaching career in Australia. Watson took a senior lectureship in the Department of Statistics at Melbourne and then went on to a senior lectureship at the Australian National University. Watson's longtime friend and colleague, Professor Emeritus of Mathematical Economics Harold Kuhn, said Watson would often return to Princeton "wearing an Australian hat from the Outback."

"He was a very vigorous person, full of life," Kuhn added.

Watson also held positions at the University of Toronto and Johns Hopkins University before becoming the chair of Princeton's Department of Statistics in 1970. He assumed emeritus status in 1992.

Though Watson was well known for his work on econometrics, Kuhn said he would be best remembered for his work on spherical statistics and related research on the continental drift theory. Watson wrote or co-authored five books on a wide range of topics, all regarding the practical application of statistical research.

"He started with practical problems, something in the real world, and would develop mathematical and statistical techniques to solve real life problems," Kuhn said. While at Princeton, Watson dealt with several public policy issues including estimating the U.S. oil and gas reserves, assessing the effects of air pollution and researching climate trends.

In addition to teaching, Watson served on several advisory committees of the Environmental Protection Agency. His analysis of the repeal of the motorcycle helmet law in the early '80s and his EPA work earned him a spot on the Reagan "hit list," which labeled him as a "smooth but extreme environmentalist."


Watson wrote that his scientific background and expertise in the application of mathematics had led him "into all sorts of interesting corners of science and the world." He once traveled to Antarctica with a team of biologists to study penguin nesting sites and later developed a method for estimating the total size of the penguin population.

Watson is survived by his wife of 45 years, Shirley Elwyn Jennings; his four children, Michael, Catharine, Rebecca and Madeleine; and two grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Adirondack Conservancy and Land Trust or the Bendigo Historical Society in Australia.

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