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.”

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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.

Lotte Meteyard, University of Reading:

I started at Reading in 2010, two years after Philip had retired and become Emeritus Professor. He was known for his generosity of time and spirit, his willingness to support others. He understood and lived the importance of community – of making work a nice place to be, of enjoying time at work. The first summer, Philip organised his favoured croquet on the lawn outside our staff room after the working day. I found myself drinking a glass of wine and playing croquet on a summer evening with a Professor. It remains one of the few times my dreams of what academia might be like were actually realised! He was an essential part of why I fell in love with the School and Department at Reading, and the feeling of working with a community of supportive, interesting colleagues. I miss him.

Jim Anderson, Kyoto University:

 As an undergraduate at the University of Stirling (1973-1977) I enjoyed Philip’s introductory lectures on language and thinking, and benefited from his advice on statistics. During my PhD at Stirling I also increasingly appreciated not only his helpfulness but also his thoughtful criticisms, wit, and gentle sense of humour.

He was always excellent company, and I have particular fond memories and few photographs of an enjoyable few days in Paris that a small group of us enjoyed around 1979 or 1980. After more than 20 years with no contact as a result of our places of work, I was delighted to see Philip again, in great form, when he served as an external examiner at Stirling just a few years ago. He is missed, but his influence continues.

Chris Eccleston, University of Bath:

I remember Philip as a man of tremendous kindness, patience, and humour. As a PhD student in the old Early Gate building back in the 90s, he accepted me and all my rough edges, and worked hard (if unobtrusively) to shape something approximating an experimental psychologist out of me. His generosity and enthusiasm were unbounded and rarely checked by anything as mundane as administration.  He was remarkably organised and ordered in his intellectual life, demanding of the highest standards of scholarship and reason, but if it went on paper, then we were lost. I remember one famous session when climbing over piles of files and books on the floor in search of papers I had sent him, but they were nowhere to be found. In a moment of vain hope he opened a filing cabinet, which was empty except for a bottle of red wine he was delighted to rediscover.  We didn’t need paper, so I just explained my work.  It turned into a valuable lifelong habit. Most supervisor sessions started with the same invitation: “tell me what you are doing again”, which forced me to narrate with clarity. It was the very best of training. Of course that generosity extended socially. In the 90s that meant into the ‘Three Tuns’ where we would often meet after a visiting speaker had had the ‘Reading’ experience (which always seemed to me like a bizarrely polite and very English form of intellectual autopsy). He always had access to a departmental fund to support students for a rare meal. It was only years later would I realise that there was no fund. Philip saw many students through to independent careers, in diverse areas of study, in statistics and methods and the psychologies of reasoning, cognition, ageing, and even pain. I am grateful, as I know many other of his past PhD students are, that he so patiently and generously gave me the opportunity to try harder, to be clearer, and to be better than I thought possible. Thank you Philip.

Richard M Young, retired:

I knew Philip first at school, where I was a year below him and rather followed in his footsteps. Like him, I was advised to take A-levels in Physics + Maths + more Maths; I followed him to Pembroke College, Cambridge; and like him I started by reading Maths and ended up taking Part II in Experimental Psychology. Our careers diverged while I was doing my PhD in USA, but we met again in the 1970s when he was at Stirling and I was at Edinburgh. As with many of the other contributors, I remember Philip’s warmth and dry humour. One particular memory of him is from undergraduate days, when on a rather wet, boring afternoon he decided it would be fun to make up a rude verse. He made a magnificent (and curiously now quite topical) start with “He was a priest, the dirty beast, his name was Alexander …”, but unfortunately never took it any further.

Derek Besner, University of Waterloo, Canada:

Eileen Davelaar and I spent many wonderful hours with Philip in the late 70’s before we left Reading to return to Canada. He was a gentle soul, and very witty. When he visited us in Canada I showed him how to make a Canadian fire (two logs on the bottom) and he quickly said “Ah yes…. Log to the base 2”. He also “borrowed” one of my overheads for his own talk when we were at Psychonomics to show that the second “i”  in “decision” (and other “ion” endings) were often missed. He was a wonderful colleague, and a wonderful human being.

Alan M Leslie, Rutgers University, USA:

I knew Phil for a relatively short time and long ago – 1997/98 – at the then Max-Planck-Projektgruppe für Psycholinguistik in Nijmegen,  before it became a full Insititut. There were many kinds of academic visitors to or at the Planck that year. I was lucky enough to be one,  a Leverhulme European Scholar, writing up my D.Phil. Phil was another, but a more senior kind of visitor who happened to have the office next door to mine. He ended up employing my wife as his research assistant that year: her job was to cancel the “e”’s in bodies of text that he then used in his experiments. To this day, we both remember Phil for his remarkable kindness, his humour, and his sense of fun. I also remember how easy it was to engage Phil’s serious intellect on almost any question in cognition.

Dorothy Bishop, University of Oxford:

I first met Philip when I was a callow undergraduate and he gave me tutorials for a paper called Measurement, Decision and Control. I have few memories of the content, but do remember finding Philip to be a warm and insightful tutor, who was patient with the limitations of a naive undergraduate.

I got to know him better in the context of the EPS, where he was a regular presence, always with a twinkle in his eye, ready to gossip over a glass of wine. His own contributions to EPS meetings were exemplary: always clear and crisp. He also in effect mentored me when I first took an editorial role at QJEP. As a newbie, I had little idea of how to handle papers, but Philip was always there to advise and help.

He will be greatly missed: just as the House of Commons has a Father of the House, I saw him as a Father of the EPS: someone who knew the organisation inside out, and embodied its spirit.

Vicki Bruce, Newcastle University:

I was so sad to hear the news about Philip. I didn’t know him terribly well, but always loved seeing him when our paths crossed at conferences or in Stirling where he visited from time to time. Clever and insightful, witty and kind. Enormous fun. He will be hugely missed.

Helen Ross, University of Stirling:

 This photo shows Philip Smith in a black top hat, and Neville Moray (who also died recently), both organising an outdoor competition for the Psychology Department at Stirling University in 1978.  They were both wonderful at running social events, in addition to their outstanding academic accomplishments. 

Mike Oaksford, Birkbeck College, University of London:

I first met Philip when I was part of an Erasmus consortium back in 1990, which included Roy Davis, Derek Blackman and John Weardon. Roy had organised an annual meeting of the consortium in Reading, which I drove down to from Bangor in North Wales, in an old mini. Roy had arranged a variety of social events that Philip also attended. Philip  was great company and I recall both Philip’s and Roy’s offices in the huts and coming away with the feeling that this is how my office ought to look if I  wanted to be a serious academic. This  was soon followed by a few trips to Reading to give seminar talks, when Philip would invariably come to the drinks and meal afterwards. I will never forget drinking a pint of Dogs Bollocks, brewed by the Wychwold brewery, with Philip in a pub in Reading. A lovely man and a real academic, who will be sorely missed.

Karalyn Patterson, MRC-CBU, University of Cambridge:

As so many of the contributions to this collection indicate, Philip was a loveable and loved character. At EPS meetings, we used to joke about the fact that – whatever the hour of day or evening – he always looked as if he had just got out of bed; but it was a joke based on pure affection. And whenever he opened his mouth to speak, his clear and to-the-point question or comment made it instantly obvious that he had not been at the least asleep. Thank you, Philip, for so enriching the lives of experimental psychologists.

Chris Jarrold, University of Bristol:

As many have already commented, Philip was a joy to be around. He was generous with his time and always full of fun. As a result if there was ever a spare space next to Philip at an EPS dinner I would always grab it (the fact that he always made sure a good supply of the best available wine came to his table was just an added benefit). Philip was obviously a stalwart supporter and key member of the EPS, and was very conscientious about attending meetings.  His passion for travelling by train stood him in particularly good stead after the EPS meeting in Granada in April 2010 when the Eyjafjallajökul volcano eruptions in Iceland meant that the rest of us who had flown to Spain risked being stranded there.  The twinkle that was always in his eye was particularly sparkly then!