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ASA: The First 160 Years

By Robert L. Mason

On November 27, 1839, five men held a meeting in the rooms of the American Education Society at No. 15 Cornhill in Boston, Massachusetts, to organize a statistical society. Its purpose, as stated in the society's first constitution, was to "collect, preserve, and diffuse statistical information in the different departments of human knowledge." Originally called the American Statistical Society, the organization's name was changed to the American Statistical Association (ASA) at its first annual meeting, held in Boston on February 5, 1840.

Today, the ASA, one of the oldest professional associations in the United States, is preparing to celebrate its 160th anniversary. The association's membership, consisting of professional statisticians and data analysts, continues to work at meeting the founders' goals. As stated in its current constitution, the association's objectives are the following:

[T]o foster statistics and its applications, to promote unity and effectiveness of effort among all concerned with statistical problems, and to increase the contribution of statistics to human welfare. The [ASA] is a nonprofit organization and achieves these objectives by conducting meetings, producing publications devoted to statistical methodology and its applications, and making available information concerning the science of statistics and its contributions. It also cooperates with other organizations in the advancement of statistics, stimulates research, promotes high professional standards and integrity in the application of statistics, fosters education in statistics, and, in general, makes statistics of service to society.

How has ASA evolved over the past 160 years? Who were its key leaders?

The Early Years

The five men present at that formative meeting in 1839 were William Cogswell, Richard Fletcher, John Dix Fisher, Oliver Peabody, and Lemuel Shattuck. They were graduates of Brown, Dartmouth, and Harvard universities and trained in law, medicine, theology, literature, and education. Although Fletcher was elected as the first president (1839-1845), he appears to have been little more than a figurehead. Lemuel Shattuck, the first secretary, was the true leader in founding the association. Shattuck was an eminent statistician-genealogist and stands out as one of the most influential American statisticians of his time. He used the ASA to improve statistical activities throughout Boston and the United States. He was particularly instrumental in improving public health and encouraging advances in preventive medicine.

Membership in the ASA numbered around 100 during its first 50 years of existence, and it was mainly a local Boston society. Annual dues were only $2, but membership was considered a serious activity. Members, called Fellows, were elected to the association and agreed to follow the constitution and bylaws and "prepare at least one article a year on some statistical subject which shall be at the disposal of the publishing committee." Today, the title of Fellow is reserved for those ASA members who have an established reputation in some aspect of statistical work and are elected by a select committee.

Honorary members during this period included President Martin Van Buren, Surgeon-General Thomas Lawson, and Minister to France Lewis Cass. The first foreign member was the famous statistician Adolphe Quetelet. Membership was extended to Florence Nightingale, who donated two of her statistical reports on sanitation in India to the association's library.

The first five ASA presidents served multiple-year terms. After Fletcher came George C. Shattuck (1846-1851), who was noted for his strong devotion to the association. Another notable figure during this first half-century was Edward Jarvis, who served as president for 31 years, from 1852-1882. His chief interest was vital statistics, and he rendered valuable service to the U.S. Census Office. Jarvis and a few other Boston gentlemen ran the ASA as what some have called the Boston Statistical Association. He promoted an ASA library, which eventually found permanent residence in the Boston Public Library. On his retirement in 1882, he was made president emeritus in appreciation of his years of service.

Francis A. Walker, the next president of the ASA (1883-1897), began the process of turning the association into a national organization. Walker, a former Yale University professor, was president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), head of the American Economic Association, and census director in 1870 and 1880. His influence attracted many university teachers to the ASA. Aiding recruitment was the decision to drop the exclusive by-invitation-only membership requirement. Chief among Walker's accomplishments was the founding of a new publication, Publications of the American Statistical Association, which began in 1888. This resulted in increased national interest in the ASA and led to growth in the membership from 160 in 1889 to more than 500 in 1898. The publication series introduced by Walker later became the well-known Journal of the American Statistical Association (JASA), which today is one of the most important periodicals of statistical science. The first article was "Statistics of Water Power Employed in Manufacturing in the United States," by G. F. Swain of MIT.

Walker was succeeded by Carroll D. Wright (1897-1909), a former head and organizer of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He was the last of the presidents who served multiple-year terms. Wright encouraged the trend toward a national ASA membership, and, in 1908, he approved holding the annual meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the first time it was held outside Boston since the founding of the association. He also established the tradition of an annual presidential address at these meetings.

Diversity and Specialization

From its inception, the association has had a close affiliation with the statistical work of the U.S. government, particularly the U.S. Census Bureau. As early as 1844, the ASA recommended to Congress that the Sixth Census "be revised and a new and accurate copy be published." Lemuel Shattuck and Jarvis helped plan the Seventh Census of 1850, and Jarvis wrote the section on vital statistics for the Eighth Census of 1860. Jarvis continued to provide valuable assistance for the Ninth Census in 1870. In these early years, the heads of the census were generally association members or officers. John B. D. DeBow, superintendent of the Seventh Census, was an ASA member. Walker directed the Ninth Census and initiated the Tenth Census. Wright worked on finishing the Eleventh Census. The first director of the permanent census office was S. N. D. North, the sixth president of the ASA and the first to serve a one-year term (1910).

Statistical work in government and business stimulated much expansion after World War I, including the founding of the first local chapters of the association. Between 1920 and 1943, 22 chapters were formed across the country. Generally, these chapters were located in large cities, such as Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. In addition, groups were formed in state capitals such as Albany, New York, and Austin, Texas, and at universities, such as the University of Illinois. Today, the association has 78 chapters, serving members all across the country. They vary in composition and size, ranging from groups of fewer than 50 members to one with more than 1,000.

At the same time that chapters were first being formed, statistics groups were being established throughout the United States. The first biostatistics program was initiated at Johns Hopkins University in 1918, marking the first time statistics was used in a departmental title. In 1927, George Snedecor and A. E. Brandt established the statistics lab at Iowa State University, reflecting the need for statistical experimentation in agriculture. While all this was going on, interest in the ASA was increasing and a strong emphasis was being placed on the academic aspects of the organization.

To further encourage the application of statistics in specialized fields, the association initiated the development of sections. The first section, the Biometrics Section, was established in 1938 and focused on the application of statistics to the biological sciences. This was followed in 1944 by the Section on Statistical Education, which sought to improve statistical education by providing information and stimulation to statistics teachers. Both sections paralleled the growth of academic departments in statistics and biostatistics.

At the 85th annual meetings in 1924, the ASA issued a resolution declaring its support for scientific meetings open to scientists from all countries. This continued the association's trend of cooperation with international statisticians. The first foreign member joined the association in the 1840s. Today, more than 10% of the members live outside the United States.

A Postwar Boom for Statistics

In 1939, just before World War II, the ASA celebrated its 100th birthday. Celebration events were held in Boston and Philadelphia. Membership reached an all-time high of more than 3,000. Some declines occurred, however, during the war years, and the ASA's activities slowed, resulting in the cancellation of the 1942 and 1943 annual meetings.

Following the war, the activities and membership of the association expanded rapidly in response to the many advances in science. The Business and Economic Statistics Section was established in 1950, followed by the Social Sciences Section and the Section on Physical and Engineering Sciences in 1954.

The membership grew as statistics was applied to more fields of study. Twenty-two chapters and more than 5,000 members were added between 1947 and 1964. The leadership was strong, with such famous statisticians as Walter Shewhart (1945), George W. Snedecor (1948), Nobel prize winner in economics Simon Kuznets (1949), Samuel S. Wilks (1950), William G. Cochran (1953), and Gertrude M. Cox (1956) serving terms as president.

The ASA's publishing efforts also increased during this expansion period. Through the Biometrics Section, the association began publishing the Biometrics Bulletin in 1945 to promote the use of statistical methods in the biological sciences. The American Statistician was introduced in 1947 as a journal to present general and technical articles of immediate interest. This was followed by Technometrics in 1959, cosponsored by the American Society for Quality and publishing articles on statistics applications in the physical, chemical, and engineering sciences.

Recent History

With more than 17,000 members, the ASA is the largest professional statistical association in the world. There are now 23 sections that reflect the growing interests of the association and illustrate the areas of development in statistical techniques.

Additional periodical publications further enhance the services provided to the membership. Amstat News was established in 1974 as a newsletter for members. In 1976, the Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics was created in cooperation with the American Educational Research Association. This was followed by the inaugural issue of the Journal of Business & Economic Statistics in 1983 and LINK, the newsletter for chapter officers, in 1985. CHANCE began in 1988, STATS in 1989, the Journal of Computational and Graphical Statistics in 1992, the Journal of Agricultural, Biological, and Environmental Statistics in 1996, and the Journal of Statistical Education in 1999. To simplify locating articles on statistics, an annual Current Index for Statistics was begun in 1975.

Today, the ASA continues to promote and encourage awareness of the statistical profession. It serves as a clearinghouse for current statistical developments, methodology, and practices; provides opportunities for professional development; and sponsors professional awards to recognize outstanding statisticians. The association cosponsors research conferences, participates in contracts and grants, publishes proceedings of its annual meetings, promotes statistical awareness through various activities, and engages in cooperative ventures with other professional and scientific organizations.

Over the past 160 years, the American Statistical Association has grown and expanded its activities. From a small group of five men to an association of more than 17,000 members and 78 affiliated chapters, the association is strong and continues to develop its professional image. Its leadership looks forward to meeting these challenges and providing another 160 years of service to the statistics profession.

Further Reading

Dewey, D. R. (1940), "The Halfway Point," Journal of the American Statistical Association, 35, 236-240.

Koren, J. (1918), "The American Statistical Association, 1839-1914," in The History of Statistics: Their Development and Progress in Many Countries, ed. J. Koren, 3-14.

Willcox, W. F. (1940), "Lemuel Shattuck, Statistician, Founder of the American Statistical Association," Journal of the American Statistical Association, 35, 224-235.