Stephen Fienberg, Dead at 74, Leaves Statistics Legacy

Stephen E. Fienberg, university professor of statistics and social science at Carnegie Mellon University, died December 14. He was 74.

Fienberg took different roles throughout his decades-long statistics career: professor, researcher, writer, editor. His focus was on developing methodologies for statisticians to use in other fields of study.

Born and raised in Toronto, Fienberg attended the University of Toronto from 1960 to 1964. He was originally enrolled in honors mathematics, physics, and chemistry, but became hooked on statistics in his third year, when he took his first statistics course.

That first statistics course was taught by Don Fraser, who later became Fienberg’s longtime friend and mentor. Fienberg earned his undergraduate degree in mathematics and statistics in 1964 and went on to Harvard University, where he earned both his master’s degree in statistics in 1965 and his PhD in statistics in 1968.

Stephen E. Fienberg

During his time at Harvard, Fienberg grew close to assistant professor Paul Holland, fellow graduate student Yvonne Bishop, and founding chair of Harvard’s statistics department Fred Mosteller. Not only was Mosteller Fienberg’s thesis adviser, he became a mentor and friend.

While Fienberg was a graduate student, Mosteller was involved in research in the National Halothane Study. Halothane was used as an anesthetic, and there were several case studies published in medical journals about people who died after having operations in which halothane was used. The cause of death was usually unrelated to anything the patients had suffered at the time of their operations. Mosteller and a group of statisticians, including Bishop, were involved in data collection and analysis from more than 25 hospitals across the country, comparing death rates from different anesthetics. That work, Fienberg told Amstat News in 2012, led to what is known as modern literature on nonlinear emergent models for categorical data.

Fienberg authored more than 20 books, including Mosteller’s autobiography, The Pleasures of Statistics: The Autobiography of Frederick Mosteller, which was released in 2010. He co-edited the book with longtime friend and fellow statistician Judith Tanur.

Fienberg served as dean of the Carnegie Mellon University College of Humanities and Social Sciences and vice president for academic affairs at York University, as well as on the faculties of the University of Minnesota and University of Chicago. He was elected fellow of several societies, including the Royal Society of Canada, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Statistical Association, and American Academy of Political and Social Science. He also won numerous awards. He was honored with the COPSS Presidents’ Award for outstanding statistician under 40 in 1982, the prestigious ASA Founder award in 2009, and the NISS Jerome Sacks Award for Cross-Disciplinary Research in 2015.

The ASA is saddened to hear about Fienberg’s passing. To read a complete obituary, visit Carnegie Mellon’s website.

To read more about Fienberg’s life, visit Amstat News.