History of Statistics

Many of the ASA’s leaders are or have been women. Featured on the home page are some of the ASA’s 21st-century presidents: Sallie Keller (2006), Mary Ellen Bock (2007), Sally Morton (2009), Nancy L. Geller (2011), Marie Davidian (2013), and Jessica M. Utts (2016).

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we will feature some of the ASA’s first women leaders. Stop by throughout the month to read about the lives of these women and the roles they played in shaping the ASA.

Janet Norwood

Janet Norwood, ASA President in 1989—A visionary in understanding the powerful role government plays in collecting and analyzing data, Norwood’s career consisted of more than statistical modeling, exemplified by her unique management style and ability to empower and drive colleagues to excellence.

The first female commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Norwood has often commented on the challenges women experience in the working world. “Women have to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them; it often isn’t quite as straight a career path as it is for men.” Like many women in the 1950s, Norwood experienced difficulty getting a job. It was through the help and insistence of her husband, Bernard, that she bypassed a would-be secretarial position for one in Belgium, where she was able to put her education to use.

A firm believer in objective data, Norwood gave a voice to the integrity of data and defended it before the most powerful people in the world: once before President Richard Nixon when he tried to force the BLS to change its press releases and comments about what data meant and once before President Ronald Reagan when he misspoke to the media.

Though she respected the awesome responsibility of her position at BLS, Norwood decided she could bring about more positive change if she were outside the system. In 1991, she joined the Urban Institute, where she wrote papers and testified before Congress about various political issues.

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Margaret Martin

Margaret Martin, ASA President in 1980—An economist and statistician by profession and training, one could say Martin’s contributions to the federal statistical system after the Great Depression have, to some extent, touched each of our lives.

Upon graduating from Barnard College with a degree in economics in 1933, Martin followed up with a master’s and PhD in economics from Columbia University. She entered into government work with the New York State Division of Placement and Unemployment Insurance, and then went on to become a senior economist with the War Manpower Commission, where she interviewed employers about whether they had a sufficient labor force.

In 1942, Martin took a position with what is now the Office of Management and Budget. She was involved in the early development of the Current Population Survey—one of the most well-known and widely used household surveys today—from which data are used by government policymakers and legislators as indicators of the nation’s economic situation and for planning and evaluating government programs.

After Reader’s Digest published an article criticizing the nation’s employment and unemployment statistics in 1961 and claiming the Department of Labor manipulated figures, Martin was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to serve on an outside committee to investigate the allegations. Having conducted much of the research herself, she was presented with the Director’s Exceptional Service Award.

For a woman who once considered attending secretarial school and teaching economics, her life and work—especially during such prolific times in American history—have affected many both in and outside the halls of government and across the country.

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Gertrude Cox

Gertrude Cox, ASA President in 1956—Initially, Cox prepared to become a deaconess in the Methodist Episcopal Church, but her life took a different direction when she pursued a more academic life, earning her BS in mathematics from Iowa State College in 1929.

Fate dealt Cox another hand in 1940 that took her halfway across the country. George Snedecor, then head of Iowa State’s statistics department, recommended five men to head the department of experimental statistics in the school of agriculture at North Carolina State College in Raleigh. In a tiny footnote, he added, “Of course, if you would consider a woman for this position, I would recommend Gertrude Cox of my staff.” Cox became the first female full professor and first female department head at North Carolina State College.

For her remarkable impact and efforts to expand understanding and the practice of statistics, Cox continued to earn more personal and professional accolades over the years, including becoming the first woman elected into the International Statistical Institute in 1949.

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Helen Walker

Helen Walker, ASA President in 1944—A trailblazer at a time when few women held prominent academic positions, Walker pioneered the field of statistics through education and research. Elected the first woman president of the ASA in 1944, she also served as president of the American Educational Research Association from 1949 to 1950 and was a longtime faculty member at Columbia University Teachers College.

Her career spanned nearly 50 years, including teaching stints at universities in the United States and abroad. Her impressive accomplishments landed her in a coveted spot, serving as an American educator assigned to help establish an education program at the National Institute of Education in India from 1961–1963.

Accustomed to pursing goals in the midst of obstacles, Walker earned two doctorate degrees while teaching: a doctor of law degree from Wesleyan College and another from Teachers College. Her name can be found not only in history books, but also Studies in the History of Statistical Method and Mathematics Essential for Elementary Statistics, both of which she authored. She also coauthored two college textbooks: Elementary Statistical Methods and Statistical Inference.

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AD 2: Evidence of a census completed during the Han Dynasty survives.

1500s: Girolamo Cardano calculates probabilities of different dice rolls.

1600s: Edmund Halley relates death rate to age and develops mortality tables.

1700s: Thomas Jefferson directs the first U.S. Census.

1839: The American Statistical Association is formed.

1894: The term “standard deviation” is introduced by Karl Pearson.

1935: R.A. Fisher publishes Design of Experiments.

For more history, check out this timeline of statistics.