John W. Tukey

June 16, 1915– July 25, 2000 

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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.


   John Tukey

     New York Times
     Saturday, July 29, 2000
     COPY from San Francisco Chronicle


    John Wilder Tukey, one of the most influential statisticians of the past
    50 years and a wide-ranging thinker credited with inventing the words
    ``software'' and ``bit,'' died July 26 in New Brunswick, N.J. He was 85.

     The cause was a heart attack after a short illness, said Phyllis
     Anscombe, his sister-in-law.

     Professor Tukey developed important theories about how to analyze
     data and compute series of numbers quickly. He spent decades as both
     a professor at Princeton University and a researcher at AT&T's Bell
     Laboratories, and his ideas continue to be a part of both doctoral
     statistics courses and high school mathematics classes. In 1973,
     President Richard M. Nixon awarded him the National Medal of
     But Professor Tukey frequently ventured outside of the academy as
     well, working as a consultant to the government and corporations and
     taking part in social debates.
     In the 1950s, he criticized Alfred C. Kinsey's research on sexual
     behavior as being seriously flawed because it relied on a sample of
     people who knew each other. Professor Tukey said a random selection
     of three people would have been better than a group of 300 chosen by
     In the 1970s, Professor Tukey was chairman of a research committee
     that warned that aerosol spray cans damaged the ozone layer. More
     recently, he recommended that the 1990 Census be adjusted by using
     statistical formulas in order to count poor urban residents whom he
     believed it had missed.
     ``The best thing about being a statistician,'' he once told a
     colleague, ``is that you get to play in everyone's backyard.''
     An intense man who liked to argue and was fond of helping other
     researchers, Professor Tukey was also an amateur linguist who made
     significant contributions to the language of modern times. In a 1958
     article in American Mathematical Monthly, he became the first person
     to define the programs on which electronic calculators ran, said
     Fred R. Shapiro, a librarian at Yale Law School who is editing a
     book on the origin of terms. Three decades before the founding of
     Microsoft, Professor Tukey saw that ``software,'' as he called it,
     was gaining prominence. ``Today,'' he wrote at the time, it is ``at
     least as important'' as the `` `hardware' of tubes, transistors,
     wires, tapes and the like.''
     Twelve years earlier, while working at Bell Laboratories, he had
     coined the term ``bit,'' an abbreviation of ``binary digit'' that
     described the 1's and 0's that are the basis of computer programs.
     Both words caught on, to the chagrin of some computer scientists who
     saw Professor Tukey as an outsider. ``Not everyone was happy that he
     was naming things in their field,'' said Steven M. Schultz, a
     spokesman for Princeton.

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September 13, 2000


In Memoriam

John W. Tukey *39

John W. Tukey *39, professor, emeritus, of statistics, died July 25 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, of a heart attack. He was 85. He was born in Bedford, Massachusetts, and earned a B.A. and an M.A. in chemistry from Brown and a Ph.D. in mathematics at Princeton in 1939. He became a full professor in 1950.

Tukey is considered one of the most important contributors to modern statistics, especially of concepts that were central to the creation of telecommunications technology. Along with his research achievements, he is credited with coining the terms "bit" (binary digit) and "software." He was a staff researcher for Bell Labs, served as a consultant to several companies, and contributed to such varied areas as military operations during World War II, U.S. census-taking strategies, and projecting election-day results for presidential contests for national television.

Tukey chaired the statistics department, which split from the math department in 1966, until 1970. The department later became the Committee for Statistical Studies.

It is said that Tukey used his extraordinary calculating abilities to work out the seemingly intractable complexities of arranging times for classes and exams.

Tukey received the National Medal of Science in 1973 and an honorary doctorate from Princeton in 1998.

A memorial service will be held in Princeton later this month.

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