Alison Harcourt, the almost-forgotten genius

Forgive me this indulgence, which is not strictly relevant to the public sector, but I'd like to acknowledge a wonderful woman: my mother in law.

Alison Harcourt, who turned 89 late last year, is an unassuming genius whose great love has always been numbers. Her brilliance was obvious early; she raced through her schooling in country Victoria and finished at age 16 – too young, back then, to be admitted to university. So she completed year 12 a second time, taking on about 50 per cent more subjects than most other students, and achieved near-perfect grades.

Pioneer statistician Alison Harcourt in Canberra last month for the Australian of the year awards. Photo: Mick Tsikas

Pioneer statistician Alison Harcourt in Canberra last month for the Australian of the year awards. Photo: Mick Tsikas

Over the past few months, something very gratifying happened: many other Australians began to learn about Harcourt's remarkable impact on our society, which went largely unnoticed for most of her life.

Almost 60 years ago, she and a collaborator in London, Ailsa Land, wrote the paper An Automatic Method of Solving Discrete Programming Problems, published in the journal Econometrica. It proved to be a phenomenally important breakthrough in "optimisation". It sped up calculations of massive permutations, and has been described as one of the bases of efficient computer processing. It's used everywhere: logistics, telecommunications, ecology, medicine.

When she and Land submitted their paper for publication, they used their initials rather than their first names. There was a genuine likelihood at the time that the mathematical community would dismiss the work of women without fair scrutiny.

Unfortunately, as a pioneer female statistician, those attitudes – and the prevailing social order of the time – continued to stymie Harcourt's career. Yet they didn't end her contributions.

She went on to develop, with social scientist Ronald Henderson and economist R. J. Harper, Australia's first systematic measure of poverty, which sparked a royal commission in 1972. Her statistical analysis of how the so-called "donkey vote" advantages certain political parties and candidates led directly to changes in electoral law; we can thank her for the double randomisation of positions on today's ballot papers.

Perhaps most importantly, she has taught, with unending enthusiasm, several generations of statisticians at the University of Melbourne. She still teaches there now: somewhat frail in body but as sharp as ever.

I could tell you much more; like how, when I first met this small, bent-over woman, she would spend much of her spare time weeding public land at the local creek or delivering meals-on-wheels to people far younger than her. But you get the point: she's special.

By chance, a speech she gave at a public event last year, and the ensuing media coverage, snowballed into a series of belated acknowledgements of her life's work. Harcourt was named Victoria's senior Australian of the year for 2019, and was celebrated in Canberra last month with the rest of the nation's nominees. Late last year, the University of Melbourne, where she has worked for more than half a century, granted her its highest honour: the degree of doctor of science (honoris causa). It was wonderful, and emotional, after so many years, to see the community give this woman the praise she thoroughly deserves.

Well done, mum.