In memory of Philip Smith

Philip Smith was President of the EPS in 1987. He was Treasurer 1977-1984 and was Editor of QJEP, 1986-1989. He was also elected as an Honorary Member of EPS.


His colleague and friend Professor Philip Beaman writes, “Philip Smith was an inspirational teacher and researcher who contributed to many areas of cognitive psychology. A former head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Reading, a contributor to – and officer of – the European Society for Cognitive Psychology and the Mathematical and Statistical branch of the British Psychological Society, Philip did much to support the work of colleagues, often quietly and without fuss. He was known internationally as much for his unfailing generosity and humour as for his incisive intellect and was much-loved by students, collaborators, colleagues and friends.”

University of Reading School of Psychology have more information on their Facebook page

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Mark Haselgrove, University of Nottingham:

 Chatting with Philip on Graduation Day, 1996. His gown seemed to store an endless supply of bottles of wine. A remarkably welcoming, witty and wise person.

Bhismadev Chakrabarti, University of Reading:

Philip was an institution at our department, the quintessential academic, and representing that increasingly rare brand of academia which was never about all work and no play. Forever willing to help students and colleagues alike, he never lost his sense of excitement about the subject. When conversations over coffee turned to the less positive aspects of academic life in the current day and age, one could always bank on Philip for the much needed mix of joy, wit, and looking at the ‘bright side of life’. The two photos above show him how I’d like to remember him (in one organising / enjoying a game of croquet next to the department). The first photograph was taken in 2014 and the second was taken last month. Rest in peace, Philip. 

Nigel Holt, Aberystwyth University:

Philip taught me as an undergraduate, continued to teach me as a post doc, and remained a firm friend and teacher for many years afterwards. He was always there, a significant character in Reading and beyond. His sense of humour, his generosity in every way will be a  benchmark for those of us that knew him. I am honoured to have known him as a student and as a friend. Diolch yn iawn Philip.

Andre Vandierendonck, Ghent University:

Like Philip I was one of the early ESCoP members and we met at many of the ESCoP conferences. Philip was not only a scientist with a broad scope, he was also known to help people if he could. When he was Editor of the European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, Philip not only played his role as editor, he also copy edited the texts of the non-native English speakers to attain better formulations of the ideas and findings. Philip also had the habit to give a funny talk at the conference dinner of every ESCoP conference. No need to say these talks were great fun as Philip played with words and humour to produce memorable performances. Philip, we will miss you.

Hazel Mycroft, University of Exeter:

I didn’t know Philip personally for very long. I was member of his infamous coffee club while I was a teaching fellow at Reading University. He was amazingly funny, generous and very wise. I will remember him with great fondness with every coffee.

Lucy Henry, City University of London:

Philip interviewed me for my first academic job at Reading in 1989, and was a huge support to me both while I worked in the psychology department and afterwards when I had moved jobs and we continued to collaborate on a grant. Philip was the greatest advocate for the ‘celebratory meal’ and this was widely interpreted and enjoyed at every possible opportunity. His office was legendary, with piles of paper covering nearly all the available floor space and a single track leading to his desk. Yet he could always find what he needed! He loved whisky, live classical music (never recorded), lunch at the Blue Room, drinks at the Three Tuns, curries at the Garden of Gulab, and many types of sport (e.g. tennis). He really disliked travelling in cars and, related to this, had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Reading bus timetables. Philip’s character, humour and kindness will be much missed.

Marc Brysbaert, Ghent University:

Philip indeed always travelled by train to a conference (and I can imagine by boat before the Channel tunnel was built). The longer the trip the more he seemed to enjoy it. He was the first to invite me for a seminar when I came to work in the UK and his office was legendary indeed (and luckily not typical for his university). The last time I saw him was at the 70th anniversary of the EPS in Oxford 2016. I guess Philip was eccentric but in a kind way. He will be missed.

John Towse, Lancaster University:

The wonderful thing about tiggers / Is tiggers are wonderful things! Their tops are made out of rubber / Their bottoms are made out of springs! They’re bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy / Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun! But the most wonderful thing about tiggers is / I’m the only one”

Thanks for reminding us to keep things fun and being one of a kind, Philip.

Andy Young, University of York:

I can’t claim to have known Philip well, but I did know him for a long time (since the early 1980s). As already noted by others, he was a delightful person – clever, witty, knowledgeable but remarkably modest, and exceptionally good company. Together with his colleague the late Roy Davis he did so much to dispel my preconception that EPS meetings would be cliquey and unwelcoming, and to create a very positive impression of the Reading Department. I have to confess to having much admired his consistently dishevelled appearance, too. A true boffin in all respects. He will be very much missed.

Patricia Riddell, University of Reading:

Philip was Head of Department when I was interviewed for my first and only permanent academic position. His welcome, both on the day I was interviewed, and when I arrived to take up my post, convinced me that I had made the right decision to return to the UK and to choose Reading. Reading is a special place known for its collegiality and warmth and Philip was central to this. He created an atmosphere in which people could discuss topics both inane  and erudite with light heartedness. He created reasons for us to be together – the School croquet set, putting on coffee at 11:00 am and bringing in high quality Friday biscuits being amongst these. We knew we could depend on Philip both for excellent academic advice and a friendly ear. We will all miss Philip greatly and will endeavour to maintain the collegiate spirit and friendly academic warmth that is his legacy, despite this loss.

Uta Frith, University College London:

vividly remember the Smithfest, now ten years ago. It was an occasion to reflect on Philip’s and my common interests: the EPS, cognitive psychology in general, and in particular, the fascinating question of how the alphabet gets into the mind/brain.

When I edited Cognitive Processes in Spelling, in 1980, Philip was one of the key contributors. His work on the linguistic information that is contained in spelling was of unusual subtlety. More than that, it revealed the secret beauty of English spelling. Philip’s work using cancellation tasks is a treasure in miniature, revealing complex knowledge that readers don’t even know they have. Here is a quick test. How many e’s are there in the following lines:

music memory spring coriander sound joy merry party train pink happy hand northern hay function strong best tested biscuit strawberry often ebony money invest personal passport door airport security west

8? music memory spring coriander sound joy merry party train pink happy hand northern hay function strong best tested biscuit strawberry often ebony money invest personal passport door airport security west

Actually it’s 15, you are likely to have missed e’s in unstressed syllables:

coriander northern tested strawberry often money security

Philip established that both the spelling and the way we assign stress to words is dictated by the perceived origin of words. Rather than taking English spelling as a hopeless case with more exceptions than rules, he directed his attention to the clues that are contained in the abstract representations of spelling patterns.

Take loot vs lute. Given that they sound the same, how do we remember which is which? The former spelling harks back to an origin in an Indian language, the latter to an origin in Old Provencal. Why do we pronounce the e at the end of apostrophe, but not at the end of exquisite? The former is Greek, the latter is Latin. We silently pay homage to the rules of many different languages that historically have formed the vocabulary of written English.

One of Philip’s most ingenious experiments, conducted with Rob Baker, is the Spelling Reform game. Here is an example: Would you keep or drop the e in the following words: love, move?

The most frequent answer is keep the e in love, drop it in move. Why? Love is based on Old German, move on Old French. With delightful understatement Philip described the preference for reforming words that are derived from Old French as ‘a surprising finding, 900 years after the Norman invasion’.

Jasper Robinson, University of Nottingham:

Very fond memories of Philip from my time as a Reading undergraduate – here we are at a graduation party by the old H-Block, summer 1992.


I fully vouch for Lucy Henry’s vivid description of Philip’s office ‘system’ and his impressive ability to be able to find, say, a particular psycholinguistics book under a pile of dot-matrix printouts. Under an old cardboard box. Under a table.