by David Bellhouse
The University of Western Ontario
Reprinted with permission from the Statistical Society of Canada, Liaison,
Volume 16.2 14-18 (May 2002).
Last summer on a family holiday in Winnipeg, we had dinner with my father-in-law
at his apartment building in the downtown area. Seated at our table in the dining
room were four sisters. Since mealtime conversations at any dinner party I have
ever attended rarely turn to the topic of statistics, I was surprised by the
turn of events. For some reason that I cannot recall, one of the sisters, a
diminutive and exuberant nonagenarian, stated that she was a statistician. After
asking where she had worked and when, and where, when and with whom she had
studied, I came to the conclusion that I was talking not only to the oldest
surviving statistician in the province of Manitoba, but also to one of the first
women, if not the first, to work professionally as a statistician in Canada.
Her name is Isobel Loutit. I quickly made an appointment to interview her about
her career. The nearly two hours I subsequently spent with her were both fascinating
Of Scottish ancestry (Loutit is an Orkney Scottish name), Isobel was born in
Selkirk Manitoba in July of 1909. She studied mathematics with a minor in French
at the University of Manitoba, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1929.
This was before the time of one of Manitoba's earliest statisticians, Cyril
Goulden. Although Goulden had arrived in Manitoba in 1925 he did not teach until
about two years after Isobel's graduation. They never met; Goulden was working
at the Dominion Rust Research Laboratory, which was located with the Agricultural
College on the Fort Garry campus. At the time Isobel attended university, Arts
and Science classes were held at a downtown campus, which is now the area occupied
by Memorial Park opposite the Manitoba Legislature. Isobel's major mathematics
professors were Neil Bruce MacLean, Norman Wilson and Lloyd Warren. Originally
an astronomer and applied mathematician by training, it was Warren who developed
the actuarial science program at Manitoba. Wilson and Warren were authors of
an undergraduate text that Isobel used in her first year at university. Warren
also taught the statistics courses. When Isobel took her statistics course from
Warren, the textbook for the course was by Gavett with Yule's classic statistics
book (probably the eighth edition) given, among three others, as an additional
reference. The course syllabus contained topics in descriptive statistics, correlation,
time series and curve fitting.
Isobel took some related courses. One course was on the theory of probability
using the appropriate chapters (mainly permutations and combinations) from Hall
and Knight's classic mathematics book (probably the 25th printing of the fourth
edition), and Coolidge as an additional reference, followed by applications
to insurance using a standard life contingencies text. She also took courses
in numerical analysis (called finite differences at the time) and least squares
theory. Her classmates recognized Isobel as both a fun-loving and a very clever
individual, traits that I also noticed when I talked to her.
In Isobel's year, there were four women, including herself, who graduated in
mathematics. Upon graduation there were only three avenues of employment open
to them: teaching, nursing, and secretarial work. When I asked her if industrial
jobs were open to women she replied, "Not really. We could try, but I don't
know anybody that got one." Three of the women, including Isobel, went
into teaching; the fourth took a secretarial course after graduation and worked
as a secretary at Monarch Life in Winnipeg.
Given the restrictions on career choices, teaching was a natural route for
Isobel to follow. Her father had been a school teacher and a principal, as well
as a sales manager for Moir's School Supplies. Even within the teaching profession
there were restrictions; men were given the first preference for the subjects
they wanted to teach. Trained primarily as a mathematician, Isobel taught French,
her minor subject, instead. Occasionally, Isobel did get to teach some mathematics
classes. Once when the regular mathematics teacher was off sick for a couple
of weeks, Isobel took over his classes. When he came back to work many students
continued to come to Isobel for help in mathematics. Isobel taught in the schools
for about 10 years including a one-year stint in a country school and five years
at Winnipegosis, finally ending up at a junior high in East Kildonan.
It was the World War II that changed the direction of Isobel Loutit's career.
In a very short period she went from being a school teacher to a quality control
statistician at Northern Electric, now Northern Telecom, in Montreal. One day
she saw a war casualty list on which the names of four of her former students
appeared, and she decided to contribute directly to the war effort. At about
the same time, to ease the labor shortage in the war effort, the government
was advertising for women to take on jobs in industry that had been normally
held by men. For the most part these were factory and clerical jobs. Isobel
responded to an advertisement for women in the sciences, mathematics and physics
in particular, to help engineers who were testing equipment and material for
the war effort.
In January of 1942 Isobel joined the Inspection Board of the United Kingdom
and Canada in Peterborough, Ontario. After two months she was posted as a government
employee to Northern Electric in Montreal, which had a government contract to
manufacture parts for the Vickers Anti-Aircraft Gun Predictor, an electrically
run mechanical calculating device used to aim the artillery.
Isobel's government job was to make sure that the calculating machines that
were manufactured were actually carrying out the calculations correctly. As
part of her training she was required to take the machines apart and reassemble
them in working order. Because of Isobel's mathematics and subsequent technical
expertise, V.O. Marquez, then a Northern Electric manager and subsequently CEO,
requested that the government release Isobel so that she could take a permanent
position at Northern. It was not a straightforward transition. Government war
workers normally were not allowed to change jobs. Further, the arrangements
that were made for her were all verbal-nothing was in writing and she was required
to be unemployed for one day before taking up her new job. She joined Northern
Electric in January of 1943 and remained there until her retirement in 1972.
On arriving at Northern Electric there was an immediate problem. Isobel had
come in on a government pay scale and there were two pay scales at Northern,
one for men and another for women. Marquez could not give Isobel a raise since
she was already at the highest salary level for women. Since her work was engineering-related,
Marquez's solution was to appoint her as an engineer, although she had no training
or qualifications in that field. Northern Electric did not have a differential
pay scale for engineers. She remained an "engineer" throughout her
career at Northern Electric until she took on managerial responsibilities.
When the work with the Vickers Predictor ended, Isobel moved to the telephone
division of the company. In 1947 she moved to the wire and cable division where
she took charge of the statistical methods and quality control group in the
division. She was in charge of data analysis and supervised a number of people,
including the engineers, technicians and clerks who kept records related to
product quality and who carried out regular quality control studies.
Her earliest computing environment was a Comptometer calculating machine. The
statistical work was slow. The necessary calculations with the correct formulae
took all day to get the required answer. Isobel kept abreast of new developments
in equipment (for example, the move to computers with punch cards) and sampling
inspection methodology. In 1966, although her job description and pay remained
the same, she was formally given the title of Department Chief and a management
job description. She was the first female in management at Northern Electric
and, in Isobel's words, it was a giant step for the company to take. Isobel
was required to undergo a medical examination since the company was concerned
about potential heart attacks among their managers. The medical examination
turned out to be relatively useless since the only comparison group that her
medical examiners had were male managers.
To remain current with new developments in her field Isobel took several professional
development courses. In 1954 she took a two-week course on the design of experiments
related to quality control. Held that summer at Queen's University, the course
was taught by Daniel DeLury of the University of Toronto. Later, she took a
course from Western Electric in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and in 1961 she took
a quality control management course run by General Electric at West Point in
New York. The latter course was run in a case study and seminar format so that
enrollment in this course was restricted to only 30 participants; Isobel was
the only Canadian to attend and one of only two women in the course. The gender
ratio in the course was probably an improvement over Isobel's previous experiences.
In 1955 she had attended a national quality control conference in New York.
There were several hundred men in attendance and only a dozen women.
In the course of professional upgrading and conferences, Isobel met some of
the giants of quality control, including in her early years in quality control
W. Edwards Deming. She also met Walter Shewhart of Bell Labs and control chart
fame. Her comment on Shewhart was, "He was a quiet guy-he lived in his
There was no incentive to publish scientific papers or articles. Consequently,
Isobel never published any statistical or quality control work under her own
name. She did, however, write a number of in-house technical reports on how
to carry out statistical procedures so that employees could do their jobs better.
Isobel became very active in the American Society for Quality Control (ASQC)
and the Montreal Section in particular, which was formed in 1950. Her most visible
contributions to the ASQC were made in the 1960s. In 1961 Isobel was the program
chair for the Quality Control All-Day Forum run by the Montreal Section. The
forum had been held annually since 1957 as a one-day conference in quality control.
Isobel invited her former boss V.O. Marquez, now promoted to vice president
of Northern Electric, to give the address at lunch. At the forum Isobel launched
a first for the Montreal Section and the ASQC. Her remarks at lunch as chair
of the forum were given in French, the first official use of French by this
professional society. There had been some squabbling in the section over the
use of French at meetings and so Isobel took it upon herself, without any advance
notice to others, to break the ice on the language barrier at the section.
The next year Isobel gave a talk on operator charting at one of the monthly
meetings of the Montreal Section. She described the use of statistical quality
control methods as it related to wire and cable production, and noted some of
the difficulties that were encountered including homogeneity of lots, randomness
of the samples and precision of measurements. Four years later in 1966 all the
Canadian sections of the ASQC (Hamilton, Kitchener, London, Montreal, and Toronto)
came together for the first Canadian Regional Conference of the ASQC. It was
held in Toronto and Isobel was the program chair for the conference.
In 1969 she became chair of the Montreal Section of the ASQC, the first woman
to hold this position. At the end of her term as Montreal Section chair she
was invited to be the convener at a dinner for presidents of various societies
held at McGill's Faculty Club. She began her remarks with "Ladies and gentlemen
" When laughter immediately followed, she looked around and noticed
she was the only woman at the dinner. Ironically, when in 2000 she was invited
to attend the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Montreal Section of the ASQC
and to provide some short remarks, her letter of invitation was addressed to
M. (or Mr.) I. Loutit with a salutation of "Dear Sir."
Isobel Loutit was a highly successful career statistician in an environment
that was then almost exclusively a man's world. It was a great pleasure to meet
her and an enormous learning experience for me.