W. Edwards Deming
by Nancy R. Mann
William Edwards Deming was born in Sioux City, Iowa, on
the 14th of October, 1900. Although he has been honored throughout the
world as a "quality-management guru," he insisted upon being
known as a "Consultant in Statistical Studies." His path to
the eminence that he attained as a statistician was circuitous and full
After Ed Deming's graduation from the University of Wyoming
in 1921 as an engineer, he remained there another year to study mathematics.
It was during that time that, as he once told me, he received a letter
from the Colorado School of Mines. The letter informed him that he was
known to be a good flute player and that the professor of physics wanted
to have a band and therefore would like him to come to teach. He accepted
the invitation and, after a year, decided to get a master's degree in
mathematics and physics from the University of Colorado. Just before he
completed his degree, one of his professors who had studied at Yale with
Willard Gibbs, a famous mathematician and physicist, recommended him to
his alma mater. Yale subsequently offered him free tuition and a job as
a part-time instructor, both of which were eagerly accepted.
Upon finishing the requirements for his Ph.D. at Yale in
1928, Ed Deming began his career in government as a mathematical physicist
at the Fixed Nitrogen Research Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA), and he remained in that position until 1939. His 38 publications
during the period had to do principally with the physical properties of
matter, but there were several that reflected his interest in statistical
methodology. I once asked him why he, a mathematical physicist, became
His answer was quite involved: "Courses in engineering
and surveying led me to the theory of errors, and in studying physics
and mathematics, I learned a lot of probability. Kinetic theory of gases
is a theory of probability. So are thermodynamics and astronomy. And so
is geodesy, involving measurement of the earth's surface for the purpose
of figuring the curvature or other characteristics of the earth. It makes
use of least squares. And I had very good teachers in least squares.
"When people had problems with experimental data,
I just worked on them and found myself able to make a contribution, of
thought anyway. And I suppose that's the way I eased into it."
Analysis of results of experimental work in bacteriology
and chemistry gave him a chance to learn about the statistical adjustment
of data. There were three papers on "The Application of Least Squares,"
published in the Philosophical Magazine. In his book, Statistical Adjustment
of Data, published in 1943, he brought together, in readily usable form,
the substance of these papers and of the earlier literature and his own
studies on the subject. This text is still frequently consulted for guidance
on the application of the method of least squares in various situations.
From 1930 through 1946, Ed Deming was a special lecturer
on mathematics and statistics in the Graduate School of the National Bureau
of Standards. His courses later inspired many lectures and articles by
his students. These paved the way for the establishment in 1947 of the
Statistical Engineering Laboratory within the Bureau of Standards. During
an overlapping period that extended from 1933 through 1953, he was head
of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics of the Graduate School
of the USDA and made major contributions to the mathematical and statistical
education of a whole generation. In 1936, he went to London to study the
theory of statistics with Ronald Fisher at University College, the University
While at University College, Ed Deming met and attended
lectures by Jerzy Neyman, who had been Head of the Biometrics Laboratory
of the Neeki Institute in Warsaw, Poland. Neyman read, at a meeting of
the Royal Statistical Society, a revolutionary paper: "On the Two
Different Aspects of the Representative Method: The Method of Stratified
Sampling and the Method of Purposive Selection." As a result of the
lectures and particularly this paper, which marked the beginning of a
new era in sampling, arrangements were made for Neyman to visit the USDA
Graduate School in 1937 and lecture there.
Ed Deming took pains to ensure that Neyman's lectures in
Washington were well attended by U.S. Government statisticians, and he
worked an entire year to produce the book Lectures and Conferences on
Mathematical Statistics. The lectures and the book together had a tremendous
impact on sampling theory.
The staff of the Bureau of the Census was already planning
in the late 1930s for the 1940 Population Census. Users of census data
have always wanted more information than can possibly be provided with
a normal budget. Many of them were willing to accept sample results but
some of the old timers at the Bureau were opposed to the idea of sampling.
"Sampling was abhorred," Ed Deming told me, "because the
census had always been complete. It couldn't be anything other than complete.
But sampling was in the air."
The final decision rested with Secretary of Commerce Harry
Hopkins. After listening to the arguments pro and con, Hopkins decided
that sampling procedure would be used in the 1940 population census. "Well,"
Ed told me, "one day in 1939 the telephone rang, and it was Dr. Philip
Hauser, the Assistant Director of the Census Bureau, wanting to talk with
me about a job. I said 'Right away!' and joined the Bureau of the Census
as Head Mathematician and Advisor in Sampling."
After leaving the Census Bureau in 1946, Ed Deming began
his practice as a Consultant in Statistical Studies from an office in
the basement of his home in Washington, DC. For the remainder of his life,
he conducted his consulting from this office, aided for many years before
her death in 1986 by his wife Lola, a distinguished mathematician in her
own right. For almost 40 years he was also assisted by his extraordinary
secretary, consultant, and confidant Cecelia Kilian, known to hundreds
of people throughout the world as "Ceil."
At the same time that he began his consulting practice,
Ed Deming joined the Graduate School of Business Administration at New
York University as a full professor. Before he "retired" from
NYU in 1975 to become Professor Emeritus, he regularly taught two courses
in survey sampling and one in quality control; and he served as advisor
to about 100 students who earned their master's and doctoral degrees.
The fact is that until a few months before his death, Ed Deming continued
to teach at NYU every Monday during the academic year and to direct the
studies of graduate students. I asked him on one occasion if NYU didn't
have some sort of policy concerning retirement of academic and other personnel
at age 65 or 70. His response was, "Well, if they did have, they
didn't tell me about it." He also taught Monday mornings during the
last few years of his life as a "Distinguished Lecturer" at
Columbia University, where a Deming Center has been established.
Ed Deming's entrance into the world of quality improvement
was inspired by the 1931 book Economic Control of Quality of Manufactured
Product, written by his friend and mentor Walter Shewhart, the father
of statistical process control. In 1938, he arranged for Shewhart to deliver
a series of four lectures entitled "Statistical Method from the Viewpoint
of Quality Control" at the USDA Graduate School. These lectures were
published by the Graduate School in 1939 "with the editorial assistance
of W. Edwards Deming."
The crusade that Ed Deming subsequently undertook for the
improvement of quality resulted, as we know, in the economic renaissance
of Japan and eventually in his own worldwide prominence as a "prophet
of quality" and philosopher of management.
Ed Deming's extensive contributions to statistical thinking
are too voluminous to suit the present purpose. It suffices to say that,
throughout his life, he championed the belief that statistical theory
shows how mathematics, judgment, and substantive knowledge work together
to the best advantage. Thus he himself was a master as logician and architect
of statistical studies.
Ed Deming died quietly in his sleep on December 20, 1993,
surrounded by family