Statisticians in History

Florence David 

Florence N. David

by Megan Kruse Public Affairs Coordinator, ASA
Foreword by Nan Laird

As a graduate student in Statistics at Harvard in the early 1970s, I was always on the lookout for a female role model. They were almost impossible to find. While F. N. David was a very familiar name from academic publications, it was hard to know she was a woman; I do not recall ever seeing "Florence Nightingale" David in print. I learned what F. N. stood for from Fred Mosteller, who was fond of revising childhood notions about nurses by referring to the original Florence Nightingale as the Mother of Statistics. Years later I was complaining to former fellow graduate student, Persi Diaconis, about the Statistical Science series on "A Conversation with So-and-So," where So-and-So was always a male statistician. "Well, write one yourself," was Persi's reply, "and of course they will publish it." It was natural to pick F. N. David, and since Persi knew well some of her friends, he set up an introduction.

I think F. N. liked to think of herself as feisty, unconventional, and outspoken. Certainly this is how she characterized herself and how she came across in the interview. She struck me as also very compassionate, but uncompromising. Her guiding principles were hard work, learning, and research driven by the desire to understand and elucidate, and follow her own mind and heart. As a revered teacher, colleague, and department chair she was clearly very successful at what she did.

It was a great honor for me to receive the first F. N. David Award from the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies (COPSS) in 2001. I have always been very happy with my choice of profession. Like F. N., I have been fortunate to have wonderful teachers, colleagues, and students. She was an outstanding role model for women in statistics and I am pleased that our profession has named a prize in her honor.

F. N. David, named after her parents' friend Florence Nightingale, was born August 23, 1909, in Ivington, England. Her major areas of interest were combinatorics, symmetric functions, distribution of the correlation coefficient, and the history of probability.

She was educated as a child by the local parson, her formal schooling interrupted by World War I, then transferred to regular school at the age of 10. She wanted to attend University College, London, but at the urging of her mother, she attended Bedford College for Women instead. She graduated in 1931 with a degree in mathematics.

Upon her graduation, David attempted to secure a position as an actuary, but firms in London would only accept men. At the suggestion of a friend, she went to see Karl Pearson at University College. Pearson gave her a chance, arranging a scholarship for her to continue her studies as his research assistant.

During her time with Pearson, she became an assistant lecturer in the Statistics Department at University College. She also worked closely with Jerzy Neyman and Egon Pearson, Karl Pearson's son, launching a new statistical journal called Statistical Research Memoirs, in which she published several papers. She left University College in 1933, but returned to the lab to work with Jerzy Neyman a few months before Karl Pearson died. Neyman was surprised that David did not have her doctorate degree, so he encouraged her to move forward with her education. She submitted her last four published papers as a dissertation and was awarded a PhD in 1938. That same year, David published her first book, "Tables of the Correlation Coefficient," which came of her work for Pearson computing the solutions of difficult multiple integrals and calculating the distribution of the correlation coefficient.

David worked throughout World War II in the statistical sciences. She was an experimental officer for the Ordinance Board at the Ministry of Supply and a senior statistician for the Research and Experiments Department at the Ministry of Home Security. She was also a member of the Land Mines Committee at the Scientific Advisory Council and a scientific advisor on mines for the Military Experimental Establishment. Her statistical models helped anticipate the effects of bombs on population centers like London-the number of casualties, the effects of bombs on electricity, water, and sewage systems, and other potential problems.

From 1945-1962, David was a lecturer and reader in the Statistics Department at University College, and was promoted to professor in 1962. From 1958-1967, she also held positions as visiting professor and research statistician in the Department of Statistics and Applied Climatology and Forestry Division at the University of California, Berkeley. She later replaced Jerzy Neyman as chair of the department.

David joined the ASA in 1945 while still at University College. She became a Fellow of the Association in 1954. Her citation read:

Florence N. David, Reader in Statistics, University College, University of London, author of many substantial papers on the mathematical theory of statistics; lucid writer for the non-mathematician; teacher whose students are influential in many lands; scientific adviser to the Beach Clearance Committee after the war; research worker during the war doing crucial experimentation, field work and statistical analysis relative to home security and land mines.

In 1967, David relocated to the United States full time and took a position at the University of California, Riverside, in the Department of Biostatistics. In 1970, she became a professor and the first chair of the newly formed Department of Statistics. She retired from Riverside in 1977 and became professor emeritus and research associate in biostatistics at the University of California, Berkeley.

David authored nine books between 1938 and 1968, and wrote or co-wrote more than 100 papers in scientific journals such as Biometrika, Statistical Research Memoirs, and the Journal of the American Statistical Association.

David received the first Elizabeth L. Scott award in 1992 for her "efforts in opening the door to women in statistics; for contributions to the profession over many years; for contributions to education, science, and public service; for research contributions to combinatorics, statistical methods, applications and understanding history; and her spirit as a lecturer and as a role model." The Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies (COPSS) established the Elizabeth L. Scott Award to honor an individual who has helped foster opportunities for women in statistics.

In 2001, COPSS and the Caucus for Women in Statistics established the F. N. David Award. The award is granted to a female statistician who serves as a role model to other women through her contributions to the profession through excellence in research, leadership of multidisciplinary collaborative groups, statistics education, or service to the professional societies. The biannual award consists of a plaque and cash award.

David died on July 23, 1993, leaving behind a legacy of academic achievement and an open door for women in statistics.

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