Top 10 Famous Statisticians

10 Famous Statisticians
10 Famous Statisticians

The field of statistics has deep roots that trace back centuries. Because statistics have been used for so long, people often ask, “who invented statistics?” There is no simple answer to this question, though, since the field has evolved over time. History includes many famous statisticians from around the world with a wide range of accomplishments.

Famous statisticians

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Many notable individuals have made significant progress in shaping the discipline of statistics in innovative ways. While this top 10 list of famous statisticians is certainly not exhaustive, it is an introduction to those whose contributions greatly influence how we manage data today.

Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777–1855)

  • Nationality: German
  • Major contribution: Early foundational mathematics
  • Overview: A mathematical prodigy, Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss laid much of the groundwork for statistics, particularly in the area of probability theory. He may be best known for the method of least squares, which focuses on managing errors in observations.

Florence Nightingale (1820–1910)

  • Nationality: American
  • Major contribution: Pioneer development in the field of statistical graphics
  • Overview: While Florence Nightingale is widely celebrated as a nurse, she is also considered one of the great American statisticians. Nightingale traveled as a nurse to a hospital during the Crimean War in 1854 and found the conditions alarmingly unsanitary. She proceeded to use her skills in data collection and analysis, which had been honed by her study of mathematics. Doing this, she provided evidence that the conditions surrounding the soldiers were likely more deadly than the wounds incurred during battle. She created a polar area diagram that clearly established that fact—a novel approach at that time.

Karl Pearson (1857–1936)

  • Nationality: British
  • Major contribution: Application of statistical techniques to the development of modern statistics
  • Overview: Pearson’s scholarly work facilitated the use of statistics in scientific discovery. Highlighting the importance of correlation and curves, he developed the chi-square distribution and the method of moments. Pearson founded the statistics department at the University College London in 1911 and wrote “The Grammar of Science” (“Statistics is the grammar of science”) in 1932.

William Sealy Gosset (1876–1937)

  • Nationality: British
  • Major contribution: Development of t-distribution, a method for interpreting information extracted from small samples of data
  • Overview: Among the most famous statisticians is a man who was not a statistician at all. William Sealy Gosset was, in fact, the head brewer of Guinness beer. Gosset was tasked with testing the consistency of hops in small batches and thus was born the now prominent t-distribution. Why isn’t he better known? When he published his findings, Gosset was required to adopt a pseudonym in order to protect Guinness trade secrets, so he is often recognized as “A.Student.”

Ronald A. Fisher (1890–1962)

  • Nationality: British
  • Major contribution: Groundwork for much of experimental design, statistical inference, and the procedure known as Analysis of Variance (ANOVA)
  • Overview: Along with Karl Pearson, Ronald A. Fisher is considered a pioneer of modern statistics. In addition to his groundbreaking statistical design work, Fisher argued for the concept of randomization in experimental design in his 1925 book, Statistical Methods for Research Workers. Fisher also developed the maximum likelihood method of estimation, which calls for estimating parameters of a statistical model given observations.

Gertrude Cox (1900–1978)

  • Nationality: American
  • Major contribution: Statistics education and research with a focus on experimental design
  • Overview: A leader among American statisticians, Gertrude Cox experienced many “firsts.” She was the first recipient of Iowa State’s master’s degree in statistics. She was the first full female professor and the first female department head at North Carolina State College in 1941, founding the Department of Experimental Statistics. She was also the first woman elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 1975. Cox viewed statisticians as “partners in science.” Recognized as the “First Lady of Statistics,” she has inspired many women to pursue the career path that she described as “wide open to women.” 

Edwards Deming (1900–1993)

  • Nationality: American
  • Major contribution: Innovation in organizational and systems management
  • Overview: Another of the outstanding American statisticians, Edwards Deming excelled in systems expertise. As a pioneer in quality improvement, he served as a consultant to organizational leaders and engineers in post-WWII Japan. His influence led to a revolution in Japanese industry and the country’s position in the global marketplace. Deming also taught industry leaders how to focus on both internal groups and external groups, and how they relate to and work with each other. This form of collaboration is fundamental in research endeavors today.

 John Tukey (1915–2000)

  • Nationality: American
  • Major contribution: Coining of the term “bit” from binary digit 
  • Overview: John Tukey’s contributions to statistics were wide-ranging and numerous. He is known for robust methods, graphing, and creating the ubiquitous box plot, which was introduced in his classic book Exploratory Data Analysis. The Tukey HSD test is often employed in ANOVA when doing multiple comparison procedures to test if means differ significantly. Tukey is credited with the statement, “the best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone’s backyard.”

George Box (1919–2013)

  • Nationality: British
  • Major contribution: Expertise in data transformations
  • Overview: A chemist, George Box considered himself an “accidental statistician.” He was called upon as a sergeant in WWII to study the effects of poisonous gases. Studying under Fisher, he developed expertise in data transformations, developing the Box-Cox transformation, which converts non-normal dependent variables into a normal shape. He may be best known for his statement, “essentially all models are wrong, but some are useful.” This was not intended as an indictment, but as a principle to ensure that model results could be applied to everyday life.

 Janet Norwood (1923–2015)

  • Nationality: American
  • Major contribution: Enhancement of critical government statistics
  • Overview: The first female commissioner of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Janet Norwood was appointed in 1979 by President Carter and re-appointed twice by President Reagan. Known for promoting independence of the BLS from political interests, her dedication was to the integrity of the data. Norwood’s contributions included advancements in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and unemployment measurements. She was elected president of the American Statistical Association in 1989 and was a senior fellow in both the Urban Institute and the New York Conference Board, a think tank established in 1916.

Will You Be One of the Next Famous Statisticians?

The field of statistics continues to develop as modern statisticians discover new ways of analyzing and using data. Earning a master’s degree in applied statistics is one of today’s best pathways to advancing a career in statistics. Michigan Technological University’s online Master of Science in Applied Statistics degree is designed with a flexible schedule and convenient access, making the program ideal for working professionals. Explore the possibilities for your future in statistics.

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