
Frederick Mosteller
19162006

Stephen E. Fienberg, Carnegie Mellon University, and Judith M. Tanur, State University
of New York, Stony Brook
Charles Frederick Mosteller (Fred to his colleagues and friends), one of the
towering figures in twentiethcentury statistics, was born in Clarksburg, West
Virginia, on December 24, 1916, and died in Falls Church, Virginia, on July
23, 2006. Fred spent most of his childhood in the Pittsburgh area, where he
attended Schenley High School and, later, Carnegie Institute of Technology
(now Carnegie Mellon University). In college, he was interested in mathematics
and, at an early stage, expressed interest in how to formulate problems—such
as the “three dice problem”: What is the probability that the sum
of the three faces equals 10?—in such a way that the answers didn’t
simply involve counting. This inclination led Fred to the statistician Edwin
C. Olds, who, in turn, steered him into the field of probability and statistics
by teaching him about generating functions. “It was the most marvelous
thing I had ever seen in mathematics. It used mathematics that, up to that
time, in my heart of hearts, I had thought was something that mathematicians
just did to create homework problems for innocent students in high school and
college. …I was stunned when I saw how Olds used this mathematics that
I hadn’t believed in…in such an unusually outrageous way.” From
that point, Fred was hooked on probability and statistics. He completed his
ScM degree at Carnegie Tech in 1939, and then enrolled at Princeton University
to work on a PhD with Samuel Wilks.
Fred spent his entire academic career (except for leaves and sabbaticals)
at Harvard University. His initial appointment in 1946 was in the Department
of Social Relations, and he was the founding chair of Harvard’s statistics
department in 1957. Later, he chaired two departments in the School of Public
Health: Biostatistics and Health Policy and Management.
Fred’s bibliography lists 65 books, nearly 350 papers in books and journals,
41 miscellaneous publications, and 26 reviews. Many of these were in collaboration
with others, a style of work he was enormously comfortable with. He encouraged
collaboration, setting up groups to work on various projects and, by shouldering
more than his share of the responsibility, inspiring others to turn out more
and better work than they might have otherwise. It is impossible to include
a full intellectual biography here; more details appear in the introduction
to Selected Papers of Frederick Mosteller, edited by Stephen Fienberg and D.
C. Hoaglin, and the Amstat News article “Frederick Mosteller: a Brief
Biography,” by Fienberg. His forthcoming autobiography, My Statistical
Life, gives many more details, including his early work on the 1948 preelection
polls, the Kinsey Report, psychological learning models, the disputed Federalist
Papers, and the Coleman Report on equal education opportunity. Many of Fred’s
accomplishments are chronicled in A Statistical Model: Frederick Mosteller’s
Contributions to Statistics, Science, and Public Policy, a volume assembled
by colleagues in honor of his 70th birthday.
Here, we concentrate on Fred’s activities directly connected with the
American Statistical Association. Of course, he was an ASA Fellow; he received
the Wilks award in 1986; he was president of the ASA in 1967; he received the
Founders Award in 1992; and he led the very successful Joint ASA/National Conference
of Teachers of Mathematics Committee on the Curriculum in Statistics and Probability.
As chair of the ASA/NCTM Committee, Fred led a twopronged attack on the problem
of getting statistics and probability included in the high school curriculum.
He saw the first task as one of persuading those responsible for setting the
curriculum—members of school boards and their constituents—of the
value of statistics and probability and the contributions of these disciplines
to the advancement of the biological, political, social, and physical sciences,
as well as their usefulness in everyday life. To make this case, the committee
decided to produce a book of essays recounting statistical success stories
in a style readable by laypeople. Although faced with skepticism that serious
writing at that level was possible, Fred and the other committee members wrote
examples to show it could be done, solicited essays from statisticians working
on problems of interest to the general public, edited and often rewrote the
essays, and, in 1972, published Statistics: a Guide to the Unknown. The book
was very well received, and Fred was the leader in publishing a slightly revised
second edition in 1978 and an almost completely new third edition in 1989.
A completely new fourth edition, produced by a new team of editors, recently
appeared.
As the second prong of its attack, the committee provided real and interesting
instructional material for teachers in high school to use in courses in statistics
and probability. To this end, the committee prepared four volumes under the
general title Statistics by Example, with the intention that teachers should
feel free to use these materials in the classroom—books designed for “plagiarism” in
a good cause. (This is a rather commonplace idea in our current age of web
searches and opensource programs; it was almost unheard of in the 1970s.)
The subtitles of the volumes give some idea of Fred’s mapping of the
field of statistics: Exploring Data, Detecting Patterns, Finding Models, Weighing
Chances.
Several accomplishments of Fred’s tenure as ASA president are particularly
noteworthy. It was during his watch that ASA made the decision to employ a
fulltime executive director. This change from the previous arrangement of
having a statistician look after the office as a parttime job had enormous
implications for the increased range of services the ASA could offer to its
members and to the profession. It was the first step toward the broad functions
the ASA offers today. The step also had (and continues to have) financial implications:
It resulted in a dues increase (to $18 a year). Also during Fred’s watch,
the Journal of the American Statistical Association (JASA) split into two sections,
one on Theory and Methods and the other on Applications. This division was
inspired by the perceived low rate of submission of papers on applications,
of expository papers, and of review articles. The goal of broadening the coverage
of JASA is a continuing one for JASA editors and for the ASA. Of the sections
going into effect in 1967, Fred wrote in recognition of the unity of the field
of statistics and his own conviction that theory and applications feed off
each other, “Classification will be based on the primary contribution
of the paper. …Precise delineation is not important and borderline cases
may appear in either part.”
Fred’s 1967 presidential address, published in JASA, was groundbreaking,
representing the first time such an address dealt with serious issues in statistical
methodology. Fred spoke about the analysis of contingency table problems, including
those studied by his students and colleagues, many of whom provided draft materials
for possible inclusion. Several of the components derived from work associated
with the National Halothane Study, a massive National Research Council project
studying the safety of anesthetics and whose statistical component Fred coordinated.
This was one of the first expositions on loglinearmodel methods, as they
were to emerge and ultimately be described in Discrete Multivariate Analysis:
Theory and Practice, a volume Fred influenced and edited repeatedly, but of
which he chose not to be a coauthor so as to let others gain professional recognition.
From the 1960s onward, Fred was engaged in a multiplicity of group projects,
sometimes involving a handful of colleagues and students and other times involving
large faculty groups meeting as a seminar. Many of these activities took the
form of research evaluation and synthesis, especially in the areas of medicine
and public health (e.g., with respect to different kinds of surgery). Products
from these efforts included many papers and books that can be found in Selected
Papers of Frederick Mosteller.
Fred was always a fine teacher and very involved with his teaching (a detailed
discussion of his teaching activities appears in A Statistical Model: Frederick
Mosteller’s Contributions to Statistics, Science, and Public Policy).
A muchcited article on classroom and platform performance, “Classroom
and Platform Performance,” appeared in The American Statistician in 1980
and was reprinted in Amstat News in 2002. Though the technology referred to
(e.g., be sure you have blackboard chalk with you) is somewhat outdated, the
spirit of the advice (e.g., be prepared; be sure you’re keeping the students
awake—by opening windows, if necessary) remains useful and helpful for
modern students, teachers, and researchers.
Recognition of his accomplishments came in many forms. Fred received honorary
degrees from the University of Chicago (1973), Carnegie Mellon (1974), Yale
(1981), Wesleyan (1983), and Harvard (1993). In addition to his ASA fellowship,
he was a fellow of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics; an honorary fellow
of the Royal Statistical Society; an honorary member of the International Statistical
Institute; and an elected member/fellow of the American Academy of Arts and
Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Institute of Medicine, and
the National Academy of Sciences. He also served as the Committee of Presidents
of Statistical Societies’ R. A. Fisher Lecturer on methods for studying
coincidences, discussing work done in collaboration with Persi Diaconis.
During the 1990s, despite his putative emeritus status, Fred continued his
interests in applications and methodology of statistics. Besides his work on
research synthesis, he remained an advocate for evidencebased decisionmaking
for policymaking. He was particularly enthusiastic about the Tennessee Class
Size experiment, which actually randomized children into small vs. large classes
in the early grades and traced the effects of that differential treatment through
their years in public school, finding that the beneficial effects of being
in a small class persisted for many years, even after students were integrated
into normalsized classes.
Honors continued to pour in, even after Fred’s move to Virginia in 2004.
The Campbell Collaboration honored him for his contributions to metaanalysis
and systematic reviewing and inaugurated the Frederick Mosteller Award for
distinguished contributions to research synthesis. In 2005, he received the
first Peter H. Rossi Award for Contributions to the Theory or Practice of Program
Evaluation from the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management.
Additional Reading
Albers, D.J. and Reid, C. (1990). “[An Interview with] Frederick Mosteller.” In
More Mathematical People: Contemporary Conversations. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
241–260.
Bishop, Y.M.M.; Fienberg, S.E.; and Holland, P.W. (with contributions by R.J.
Light and F. Mosteller). (1975). Discrete Multivariate Analysis: Theory
and Practice. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.
Bunker, J.P.; Forrest, Jr., W.H.; Mosteller, F.; and Vandam, L.D. (1969).
The National Halothane Study, Report of the Subcommittee on the National
Halothane Study of the Committee on Anesthesia, Division of Medical Sciences,
National
Academy of Sciences—National Research Council. U.S. Government Printing
Office: Washington, DC.
Diaconis. P. and Mosteller, F. (1989). “Methods for Studying Coincidences.” Journal
of the American Statistical Association, 84: 853–61.
Fienberg, S.E. (2002). “Frederick Mosteller: a Brief Biography.” Amstat
News, 303: 10–12.
Fienberg, S.E. and Hoaglin, D.C. (eds.). (2006). Selected Papers of Frederick
Mosteller. SpringerVerlag: New York.
Fienberg, S.E; Hoaglin, D.C.; Kruskal, W.H.; and Tanur, J.M. (eds.). (1990).
A Statistical Model: Frederick Mosteller’s Contributions to Statistics,
Science, and Public Policy. SpringerVerlag: New York.
Mosteller, F. (1967). “The President Reports: Three Major ASA Actions.” The
American Statistician, 21: 2–4.
Mosteller, F. (1968). “Association and Estimation in Contingency Tables.” Journal
of the American Statistical Association, 63: 128.
Mosteller, F. (1980). “Classroom and Platform Performance.” The
American Statistician, 34: 1117.
Mosteller, F. (1995). “The Tennessee Study of Class Size in the Early
School Grades.” The Future of Children, 5: 113–127.
Mosteller, F. (2007). My Statistical Life. SpringerVerlag: New York.
Mosteller, F.; Kruskal, W.H.; Link, R.F.; Pieters, R.S.; and Rising, G.R.
(eds.) (1973). Statistics by Example (Volume 1: Exploring Data, Volume 2: Weighing
Chances, Volume 3: Detecting Patterns, Volume 4: Finding Models) AddisonWesley:
Reading, MA.
Peck, R.; Casella, G.; Cobb, G.; Hoerl, R.; Nolan, D.; Starbuck, R.; and Stern,
H. (eds.) (2005). Statistics: a Guide to the Unknown (4th ed.). BrooksCole:
Belmont, CA.
Tanur, J.M.; Mosteller, F.; Kruskal, W.H.; Link, R.F.; Pieters, R.S.; and
Rising, G.R. (eds.) (1972). Statistics: a Guide to the Unknown. HoldenDay:
San Francisco.