Renfrey B. Potts

October 4, 1925 – August 9, 2005

Brief Biography

Renfrey Burnard Potts was an Australian mathematician who made significant contributions to transportation science and statistical mechanics. Born in South Australia, Potts went to college in his home town at the University of Adelaide. He was an avid sportsman, playing tennis, hockey, squash, and badminton. Potts was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Queen’s College, Oxford. He remained at Oxford for his doctorate. His dissertation introduced the Potts model, a generalization of the Ising Model in statistical mechanics.

Potts returned to Adelaide as a Lecturer in Mathematics before joining the faculty at the University of Toronto in Canada. During his time in North America, Potts became a consultant to General Motors in Detroit, Michigan, where he joined a team lead by Robert Herman. With General Motors, Potts was part of a traffic researcher group that included Denos Gazis, Elliott W. Montroll, Robert E. Chandler, Richard Rothery, and Herman. This group of six men wrote a trio of articles for Operations Research on the subject of traffic dynamics and traffic flow. The three papers were awarded the 1959 Frederick W. Lanchester Prize for best publication in operations research from that year. They were lauded for the representation of “a fruitful application of a rich body of mathematical theory persuasively supported by experimental and computational evidence.” Potts co-authored two of the three papers and played an important role in the discovery of the identical equation for steady-state behavior of vehicular traffic. That year’s award set a precedent for the prize selection Committee to encourage the publication of series of papers reporting to a single research agenda as it progresses.

In 1959, Potts returned to Australia when he was appointed the newly created chair in applied mathematics at Adelaide. He stayed with the university for the remainder of his career, retiring from active professorship in 1990. In that time, he continued his work in transportation science, publishing a book on addressing key transportation issues in Australia.

Potts had an active role in the professional scientific and applied mathematics community of Australia. From 1978 to 1979, he served as chairman of the Australian Mathematical Society Division of Applied Mathematics. He was a Fellow of the Australian Mathematical Society, an Officer in the Order of Australia, and was awarded the first Australian and New Zealand Industrial and Applied Mathematics Medal. In 2001, the Australian Government awarded him the Centenary Medal for “service to Australian society and science in operations research.” Potts passed away in 2005.  

Other Biographies

Wikipedia Entry for Refrey Potts

University of St. Andrews School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences. Potts Biography. Accessed June 9, 2015. (link)


University of Adelaide, BS 1947

Oxford University, DPhil 1951 (Mathematics Genealogy)

Oxford University, DSc 1968


Academic Affiliations
  • Oxford University
  • University of Adelaide
Non-Academic Affiliations

Key Interests in OR/MS

Application Areas


Campbell L. H. & P. G. Taylor (2014) Renfrey Burnard Potts 1925-2005 Historical Records of Australian Science 2014, 25, 291-304 (link

Tuck E. O. (2005) Renfrey B. Potts obituary. Australian Mathematical Society Gazette, 32(4): 287-288. (link)

University of Adelaide News. Obituary - Professor Renfrey Burnard Potts. Published October 2005. Accessed June 9, 2015. (link)

Awards and Honors

Frederick W. Lanchester Prize 1959

Australian Academy of Science 1975

Officer of the Order of Australia 1991

Australian and New Zealand Industrial and Applied Mathematics Medal 1995

Australian Government Centenary Medal 2001

Professional Service

Australian Mathematical Society Division of Applied Mathematics of the Society, Chairman 1978-1979

Selected Publications

Potts R. B. (1952) Some generalized order-disorder transformations. Mathematical Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 48(1): 106-109.

Herman R., Montroll E. W., Potts R. B., & Rothery R. W. (1959) Traffic dynamics: analysis of stability in car following. Operations Research, 7(1): 86-106.

Gazis D. C., Herman R., & Potts R. B. (1959) Car-following theory of steady-state traffic flow. Operations Research, 7(4): 499-505.

Jones T. R. & Potts R. B. (1962) The measurement of acceleration noise - a traffic parameter. Operations Research, 10(6): 75-763.

Gazis D. C. & Potts R. B. (1963) The Oversaturated Intersection. International Business Machines/Thomas J. Watson Research Center: Yorktown Heights, NY. 

Kirby R. F. & Potts R. B. (1969) The minimum route problem for networks with turn penalties and prohibitions. Transportation Research, 3(3): 397-408.

Oliver R. M. & Potts R. B. (1972) Flows in Transportation Networks. Academic Press, Inc.: Waltham, MA.

Potts R. B. (1978) Transport in Australia: Some Key Issues. Australian Academy of Science: Canberra. 

Potts R. B. (1982) Differential and difference equations. The American Mathematical Monthly, 89(6): 402-407.

Potts R. B. & Yu X. (1992) Analysis of discrete variable structures systems with pseuo-sliding modes. International Journal of Systems Science, 23(4): 503-516.