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July 26, 2000

Statistician John W. Tukey dies

PRINCETON, N.J. -- John Wilder Tukey, an emeritus Princeton professor considered to be one of the most important contributors to modern statistics, died Wednesday. He was 85.

Tukey developed many important tools of modern statistics and introduced concepts that were central to the creation of today's telecommunications technologies. In addition to his formidable research achievements, Tukey was known for his penchant for coining terms that reflected new ideas and techniques in the sciences and is credited with introducing the computer science terms "bit" (short for binary digit) and "software."

Tukey, Princeton's Donner Professor of Science Emeritus, actively applied his mathematical insights to real-world problems in engineering and social sciences, serving as staff researcher and associate executive director for research at Bell Labs, now the research and development arm of Lucent Technologies. For decades, he was an active consultant to such companies as Educational Testing Service and Merck & Co., and contributed to such areas as military operations in World War II, U.S. census-taking strategies and projecting the election-day results of presidential contests for national television.

"He probably made more original contributions to statistics than anyone else since World War II," said Frederick Mosteller, retired professor of mathematical statistics at Harvard University.

"I believe that the whole country -- scientifically, industrially, financially -- is better off because of him and bears evidence of his influence," said retired Princeton Professor John A. Wheeler, who is a major figure in the history of physics and the development of the atomic bomb.

"He had a penetrating understanding of so many areas in the field of statistics and was happy to share those insights with anyone who engaged him in a discussion," said David Hoaglin, a statistician at the social research firm Abt Associates who co-authored books and papers with Tukey. "It's hard to find an area that he did not work in or have a significant impact on."

Among Tukey's most far-reaching contributions was his development of techniques for "robust analysis," an approach to statistics that guards against wrong answers in situations where a randomly chosen sample of data happens to poorly represent the rest of the data set. Tukey also pioneered approaches to exploratory data analysis, developing graphing and plotting methods that are fixtures of introductory statistics texts, and authored many publications on time series analysis and other aspects of digital signal processing that have become central to modern engineering and science.

In 1965, with James Cooley, he introduced an analytical tool known as fast Fourier transform, which remains a ubiquitous technique for understanding waveforms in fields from astrophysics to electrical engineering.

In addition to his research achievements, Tukey was known for his passions for folk dancing and collecting murder mystery and science fiction books.

"John was a very lively presence on campus," said Princeton Professor of Mathematics Robert Gunning, former chairman of the mathematics department and dean of the faculty.

In one commonly told anecdote, Tukey put his extraordinary calculating abilities to work as chairman of the Faculty Committee on Schedule, working out the seemingly intractable complexities of arranging times for classes and exams.

"He would lie flat on his back on a table and people would list the scheduling difficulties and he would reel off solutions," Gunning said. "He did it quickly and quietly in his head."

Tukey also was instrumental in creating a citation index for statistical literature and was known for carrying publication lists with him and working out the complexities of cross-references in his spare time.

"He did an amazing number of things," Gunning said. "And he was a good and energetic teacher."

"If you have money in the bank you always have a sense of assurance," said Wheeler. "John Tukey was a special kind of money in the bank because you could take up a difficult question with him and get a new point of view and sound advice. The country will be poorer for his loss."

Tukey was born in New Bedford, MA on June 16, 1915. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry from Brown University in 1936 and 1937 before coming to Princeton for graduate work in mathematics. He earned his Ph.D. in just two years. After spending wartime years in the government's Fire Control Research Office in Princeton, Tukey rose to the rank of full professor by 1950 at age 35.

Building on a foundation laid by statistician Samuel S. Wilks, Tukey helped found a department of statistics, which split from the mathematics department in 1966, and chaired the department until 1970. The department later became today's Committee for Statistical Studies.

Among many awards and honors, Tukey received the National Medal of Science in 1973 and an honorary doctorate from Princeton in 1998, and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of England.

Tukey's survivors include: first cousins Clayton Tasker of Jekyll Island, GA, Wilder A. Tasker of New Bern, NC; nephews Francis Anscombe, Anthony Anscombe, and Frederick Anscombe, and niece Elizabeth Anscombe Valeika; his brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Professor and Mrs. Francis Anscombe of New Haven, CT; four great nieces and a number of second cousins from the Tukey branch of the family. His wife of 48 years, Elizabeth Rapp Tukey, died in January of 1998.

The funeral service will be held on Monday, July 31 at 1 p.m. at Trinity Church on Mercer Street in Princeton and will be open to the public. A memorial service will be held in the fall.