Ross Henry DAY (1927 - 2018)

Professor of Psychology (1965 - 1992)

Ross Henry Day was an eminent experimental psychologist who was fascinated by illusions. He once joked that he would die in an illusory set of circumstances. However, there was nothing remotely ostensible about his life of achievement.

Ross, who has died at his home in Sale, aged 91, came to Monash as the foundation chair of the department of psychology in 1965. He strongly influenced the direction in which experimental psychology developed in Australia. The international recognition that Australian experimental psychologists have gone on to achieve is in no small part due to his leadership and mentoring.

Ross was a scientist who was determined that psychology should stand shoulder to shoulder with other scientific disciplines. It was his mission to broaden the public’s understanding of psychology as more than a “treatment procedure for people with emotional problems.”

Such was his desire to separate his work from the realm of counselling that he took to describing himself as a “cognitive scientist.” Once, on a long ‘plane journey, fearing a verbal avalanche of self-disclosure if he revealed his true profession to the female passenger sitting next to him, he claimed to be a botanist. Unfortunately for him, the woman’s son turned out to be a distinguished academic in that particular field.

At Monash, the department Ross established profoundly influenced the manner in which psychology came to be represented in Australian Universities. Until the mid-1960s, psychology was generally located within the Arts wing, and funded as such. On his watch, it was a discipline firmly embedded within the Faculty of Science with laboratory-based equipment, technical support and resources to match.  He once joked that the word ‘psychoanalysis’ was never uttered in the corridors, “at least not in my hearing.”

As foundation professor, Ross led by example in a style of leadership which demanded inquiry, rigour, commitment and productivity. His particular area of expertise was perceptual processes. He saw perception as a window on the dilemma which lies at the heart of contemporary psychology; consciousness. He believed that illusions were much more than just a form of entertainment, they were the starting point for understanding everyday awareness.  He and his colleagues were noted for their convincing explanation of the Ames effect, an illusion of reversal of direction in a rotating trapezium-shaped object.  Ross was also pioneering in the area of neural inhibition and excitation – the Yin and Yang states of the brain. Much of the research undertaken by Ross was concerned with perceptual effects resulting from ambiguous stimulation, and particularly with questioning how ambiguity was resolved.

In the 1970s, he began a program of collaborative research into infant space perception with a PhD student. Continuing, long-standing research in this field led him to becoming widely recognised as an authority on perceptual competency in the young.  Although unequivocally an experimental psychologist with a commitment to laboratory-based investigation, Ross had continuing interest in applying knowledge in the real world.

This dated back to his PhD studies in Bristol, England, in the early 1950s where he undertook experimental studies of the skills involved in aircraft control, particularly when it came to perceptual confidence.  Later, at the University of Sydney, Ross collaborated with members of the Aeronautical Research Laboratories in developing and evaluating a visual aid for pilots to use in the final approach. Such was the extent of his knowledge that he was called as an expert witness at the Royal Commission into the Air New Zealand Flight 901 ‘plane crash at Mount Erebus in 1979, providing an analysis of the visual factors which had made it impossible for the crew to detect the hazards ahead.

Ross Henry Day was born in Albany, WA, in 1927.  His family were well-to-do bakers and he enjoyed an “idyllic existence” growing up.  An able scholar, he loved school and was always one of the first to put up his hand. He particularly loved science and went on to do a BSc at the University of Western Australia in 1946. Initially he hoped to be a zoologist and work in Antarctica, but instead developed a curiosity for the workings of the brain, under the auspices of a lecturer who introduced him to experimental psychology. He was appointed to the position of graduate assistantship (associate lecturer) in his third year. After graduating with first class honours in 1949, he was offered a teaching job at Bristol University, England. Here he combined lecturing with studying for a PhD which examined perceptual factors in the control of high performance aircraft and was funded by the UK’s Air Ministry.  However, poor salaries and the relentlessness of the British winter led him to apply for a lectureship at the University of Sydney.  He returned in 1955, the year of the great floods in the Hunter River Valley.

After almost ten years at Sydney – including a year long sabbatical to Brown University in the US - Ross moved to Monash. From the very start, he made the focus on postgraduate teaching and research in experimental psychology. As a teacher, Ross had substantial impact on his students and became a role model for generations of PhD candidates. As a member of the Australian Research Grants Committee (now the Australian Research Council) he was an influential advocate for psychology when it came to research funding, and was determined that it would be considered on par with other sciences. When the Australian Psychological Society was formed in 1966 he was responsible for drawing up the Articles of Association.

Ross retired from Monash in 1992 at the age of 65. However, he was only away for year before returning to chair the Monash University Animal Welfare Committee (MUAWC), a position he held until 2008.   Ross also worked as an Adjunct Professor in Psychology at La Trobe University (Bundoora) and Deakin University (Geelong).

His distinguished work was recognized in 1990 when he was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Sciences – the first psychologist to receive this distinction.  In 1992 he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society (APS), an organisation of which he was President from 1966-1967.   He was Chair of the APS from 1964 to 1965 and a member of the Council for ten years, as well as editor of the Australian Journal of Psychology for four years. Between 1966 and 1986 he was a member of the Victorian Psychological Council, (now the Psychologists’ Registration Board of Victoria). He also held Chairs on the Australian Aeronautical Research Committee (Human Research Factors Committee 1966 -1968) and the Australian Road Research Board (Human Research Factors Committee 1969-1973) and was President of the Council of the Lincoln Institute from 1981 until 1987.  He was awarded the title Emeritus Professor at Monash in 1993.

Colleagues remember him as a brilliant lecturer and conversationalist who turned black humour into an art form. In a festschrift in the scholarly journal Perception to commemorate his retirement from Monash, a former student described how Ross once met him at Melbourne airport and drove him into the city on a hair-raising ride which left him vowing never to set foot in a car with him again. As the car fogged up due to atrocious weather conditions, he recounted how Ross proceeded to draw Muller-Lyer and Poggendorff figures on the windscreen whilst continuing to steer the car through traffic.

Whilst in England, Ross married Grecian, a historian whom he met at a hall of residence when they were both students at the University of Western Australia. In his later years, Ross enjoyed researching and privately publishing a family history.

Extended version of article published in The Insider, 31 October 2018.