Statisticians in History

Frederick Hoffman 

Frederick L. Hoffman

"I WOULD MAKE ANY SACRIFICE of time, pleasure, leisure, wealth, yes, of life itself, to attain the realization of my dreams." July 1921

By Francis J. Rigney, Jr. (grandson)

The seventh president of the ASA, Frederick Ludwig Hoffman was born in Germany on May 2, 1865, into a professional family. His father, an accountant named Augustus Franziskus Hoffmann, died of consumption two months before Frederick's eleventh birthday. His mother, Antoinette Marie Elise von Laar, sent Frederick to a boarding school to prepare him for college. However, when he returned home in 1880, he found his mother in financial ruin and was forced to leave school and go to work, where he decided-after repeatedly trying various jobs-he was of the scientific temperament and totally unsuited to trade and industry.

Between 1880 and 1884, Frederick was fired from every job he attempted, exasperating his mother and resulting in a get-your-life-in-order letter from her. He even tried to join the officers' training school of the German military, but, at 5'7" and 110 pounds, was rejected as physically deficient. At the point of near starvation, Frederick decided he would never achieve success in Germany and borrowed enough money for passage to New York from an uncle. At 19, he set sail for America with a letter of introduction to a German shopkeeper in Manhattan and the address of a German storeowner in Cleveland, Ohio. He wrote in his unpublished autobiography, "I was without a single practical aim, and I had been a failure at everything that I had tried to do. I was thoroughly misunderstood by those who were nearest and dearest to me, but I was blessed with a deathless faith in my own destiny and with a willingness to work at anything my hands might find to do."

He arrived in New York on November 28, 1884, with $5 in his pocket. The German shopkeeper told him employment was scarce and that he should press on to Cleveland. In Ohio, he found Herr Bohlken, who offered a temporary position in his general store for $10 a month, plus room and board. Frederick learned English by delivering groceries. He also learned to emphasize key words so he could avoid conversations that were out of his depth-a tactic he found useful for his world travels.

Having a restless spirit and longing for adventure, Frederick began moving southward in March of 1887. His diary shows this time to be complex and chaotic. He read a number of diverse books, met his wife to be, and experienced mosquitoes in New Orleans that piqued his interest in malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. He wrote of seeing his wife, Ella George Hay, for the first time: "Little do we know on what slender threads hang everlasting things. …Looking across the street, my attention was attracted to a little figure…which, once seen, made an indelible impression on my mind and heart. …I have had every reason during the remainder of my life to bless this chance occurrence, which gave me the first sure foundation of a business life and, in time, a home, a wife, and all the happiness which I call mine."

In 1888, Frederick was on the move again-this time to Boston, Massachusetts, in search of his friend Henry Carruthers, who he met on a Mississippi riverboat. Carruthers loaned Frederick a few dollars until he found a job, which he did as an industrial insurance agent for Metropolitan Insurance Company. There, Frederick collected weekly penny/nickel premium payments for policies that covered a modest amount of working-class burial costs. He began to study political economy and state government statistical reports on labor, which he viewed as a powerful instrument for the reform of industrial conditions. In a letter to his wife-dated January 18, 1890-he expressed his conviction that statistical reports were a persuasive means of bringing social injustice to light.

Frederick also went into the brokerage business with Carruthers, but did not do well because of hard times, lack of finances, and unemployment. Eventually, he accepted an offer with the Life Insurance Company of Virginia in the Norfolk office as assistant superintendent. He did well there and sent Ella a letter saying he thought they soon would be able to have a happy, comfortable home of their own together. Indeed, they married on July 15, 1891, and began their family in 1892 with the birth of Ella, the first of seven children (one would die at birth). Also in 1892, Frederick became an American citizen and published his first paper, "Vital Statistics of the Negro," in The Arena. This paper on the African-American population attracted the attention of the Prudential Life Insurance Company, which hired Frederick as a professional statistician in the actuarial department of Prudential in Newark, New Jersey. His assignment was to improve risk assessments, promote the credibility of the company, and enhance the company's public image.

Now secure in his professional status and statistical expertise, Frederick began to campaign for social reforms. Between 1895 and 1900, he investigated, studied, and recorded details about subjects such as safety and health conditions of industry workers, especially that of miners. His research was done from the perspective that large quantities of exact statistical data needed to be gathered in a standardized way in order to obtain reliable results. His tenacious data gathering and record-keeping eventually took the guesswork out of the insurance industry, giving credence to ratings and the scientific analysis of mortality rates and public health conditions.

Throughout his life, Frederick was an advocate for accuracy, especially in hospitals and government offices, which he considered storehouses for vital statistics. His investigations often started from scratch, and he did most of the field and lab work himself-including designing and administering surveys and questionnaires and tabulating results. When he visited factories, mines, or hospitals, he learned every detail. When he visited a new place, he wandered through the streets to observe the total environment. These observations led to improvements in general industrial conditions, which reduced the incidence of accidents and occupational diseases. Later, he became known for his leadership in campaigning for governmental, industrial, and health care institutions. His obsession to gather exact data on every facet of a subject was a major reason for his success. His insatiable curiosity was motivating.

By 1896, Frederick had written his first book, The Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro, which documented racist views of the times. Published by the American Economic Association and distributed by major publishers in the United States and Britain, it was widely reviewed and discussed. The book catapulted Frederick to world prominence, despite being utterly wrong in its reliance on racist theories and in its conclusion that the Negro was a dying race. He was seen as an influential analyst who could comment on social and public health problems of the day and make constructive, long-range contributions to the public good.

Some of Frederick's happiest moments seem to have been spent among the Indians of the southwestern United States. On one occasion, he was made an honorary Navajo chief. He admired Indian civilizations and was interested in the value of Indian herbal remedies and medicines. He also enjoyed writing poetry, and some of his most appealing poems are on Indian themes. Forever consumed by work, he campaigned for better health care for minorities, especially American Indians, and urged Prudential to accept American Indians as insurable.

As Prudential's third vice president, Frederick traveled to Europe to attend congresses and meet with government and industry officials to discuss insurance matters. During one such trip, he was so fascinated by the Rock of Gibraltar that he acquired a one-ton piece and had it shipped back to Newark. When the piece arrived, the Newark Sunday Call published an article, "Prudential Owns a Part of Gibraltar," and credited Frederick for finding the stone that became Prudential's icon.

Between 1901 and 1921, Frederick researched and wrote papers about such topics as malaria, tuberculosis, cancer, leprosy, homicide, suicide, national health and social insurance, aviation, geography, American Indians, and aesthetics. He became one of the first board members of the (National) American Tuberculosis Association, was awarded an honorary doctorate by Tulane University, and was appointed a trustee of the American Cancer Society and chairman of its committee on statistics. His data from cancer research was compiled in The Mortality from Cancer throughout the World, and he was among the first to call attention to the association of pulmonary disease with workers in the asbestos industry. Frederick also addressed Congress to recommend the establishment of a national leprosarium under the administration of the Public Health Service. The facility opened on February 1, 1921.

Frederick resigned from Prudential in May 1922 but remained on call as a consultant until 1935.
Because of his leadership in cancer research, he was awarded the American Cancer Society's Clement Cleveland Medal in 1943. He also was named a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society of London, made a member of the German Society for Insurance Science, named an associate fellow of the American Medical Association, made an associate member of the American Academy of Medicine, and made an honorary member of the Essex County Anatomical and Pathological Society. Additionally, he was a member of the American Economic Association, the American Academy of Social and Political Science in the City of New York, the National Institute of Social Sciences, the American Sociological Society, the Southern Sociological Congress, the National Conference on Charities and Corrections, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Editor's Note: An extensive bibliography with a complete listing of Hoffman's publications, all cross-referenced for researchers, may be found in Frederick L. Hoffman: His Life and Works, edited by F. J. Sypher, July 11, 2002 (Copyright 2002 by Francis J. Rigney, Jr.).

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