Celebrating Women Statisticians Throughout History

In celebration of International Women’s Week and National Women’s History Month, Navitas Data Sciences salutes the exceptional work of women statisticians throughout history. Wikipedia lists 430 women who have made noteworthy contributions to the science of statistics in the last century, and we highlight some of our favorites here, in order of their birth.

Historically, Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) is credited for being the first of her gender to make a significant contribution to the field of statistics. Alarmed by the death rate of wounded soldiers, she observed as a nurse during the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale began to record data on patients to find patterns in their care. She was one of the first to use picture graphs and statistical analysis reports to present data, and her findings sparked worldwide healthcare reform.

British eugenics researcher Ethel Mary Elderton (1878–1954) was the first to argue that an inherited predisposition to alcoholism was largely to blame for the condition. Her historic writings include A First Study of the Influence of Parental Alcoholism on the Physique and Ability of the Offspring, University of London and Primer of Statistics. London: A&C Black Ltd.

Enid Charles (1894-1972) was a pioneer in population statistics and demography. Her studies of fertility rates and nuptiality projected a drastic population decline in the United Kingdom if the principles of eugenics continued to dominate social behavior. She became an important Population Statistics Consultant for the World Health Organization in Singapore and New Deli.

American statistician Gertrude Mary Cox (1900-1978) became one of the most influential statisticians of her time. Her book, Experimental Designs, published in 1950, became a major reference guide for the design of statistical experiments. She broke many gender barriers by becoming the first woman to be elected into the International Statistical Institute and the first woman to serve as President of the American Statistical Association.

Australian Frances Elizabeth ("Betty") Allan (1905–1952) was the first statistician at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and founded the CSIRO Division of Mathematics and Statistics. Her main interest was in biometrics, and she worked with John Henry Mitchell on solitary waves on liquid-liquid interfaces, and with Ronald Fisher and John Wishart on agricultural statistics.

Named after Florence Nightingale, a friend of her parents, English Florence Nightingale David, is also known as F. N. David (1909-1993). In her book Games, Gods and Gambling: The Origins and History of Probability, she presented her theories on the origins of probability and statistical ideas based on her investigations. She opened many doors to women in statistics and received numerous academic honors for her contributions to combinatorics and statistical methods. 

Known mostly for her expertise in survey methodology for scientific surveys, Ida Irene Hess (1910-2009), is best remembered for her wartime service for the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of Standards. Post-war, she applied her methodology to the US Census Bureau.

Mollie Orshansky (1915-2006) was an American economist and statistician. Through her work as a social science research analyst in the Office of Research and Statistics at the Social Security Administration, she defined poverty levels and established calculations for the cost of living for American families. The official measurement of poverty that she developed in 1958 is still the standard today.

American mathematician, statistician and astronomer Elizabeth Leonard Scott (1917-1988) wrote over 60 papers on astronomy and weather modification using research analysis that expanded the use of statistical analysis in those fields. Her proposed correction formula that adjusted for a bias that she noticed in the observation of galaxy clusters was accepted and named the “Scott Effect” in her honor.

Stella Vivian Cunliffe (1917-2012), a British statistician, was the first woman to be named President of the Royal Statistical Society. One of the first volunteers to visit the Belsen Concentration Camp, she oversaw the delousing of the prisoners. She developed an interest in prison reform and advanced the use of statistics in the criminal justice system. She used international data comparisons to conclude that capital punishment did not affect murder rates.

New Jersey native Janet Lippe Norwood (1923-2015) served under President Jimmy Carter and President Ronald Reagan as the first female Commissioner of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and under President George Bush and then-President Bill Clinton as the Chair of the Advisory Council on Unemployment Compensation. She was honored by being awarded Presidential Rank as Distinguished Executive in the US Senior Executive Service.

British-born American statistician Kathryn Mary Chaloner (1954-2014) is well-known for developing methods in Bayesian experimental design, which provides a general probability-theoretical framework from which other theories on experimental design can be deduced through the interpretation of data collected during an experiment. She is also remembered for her work on infectious diseases, HIV, AIDS and women’s health. She was a huge promoter of diversity and inclusion in the doctoral-level studies in statistics and biostatistics.

Many of the women we highlighted in this article fought valiantly to overcome the oppression of gender bias that existed in traditionally male-dominated fields in their eras. We salute them for their work and thank them for giving today’s female statisticians such strong shoulders to stand on.

Six years ago, the Washington Post published a great article by Brigid Schulte: Women Flocking to Statistics, the Newly Hot, High-tech Field of Data Science. She wrote that Big Data will require an estimated 2 million new computer scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and statisticians to process and make sense of the onslaught of data, and reported that in this field, women are becoming the driving force. “More than 40 percent of degrees in statistics go to women, and they make up 40 percent of the statistics department faculty poised to move into tenured positions,” Schulte wrote. “Several prominent female statisticians run the departments of major universities and lead major data analytics labs for industry and government,” she continued.

The American Statistical Association is so supportive of encouraging women to enter the data sciences that it began hosting an annual national Women in Statistics conference in 2014 and rolled out a “This is Statistics” campaign to cultivate an interest in middle school and high school girls and minorities in the Big Data professions.

The 2020 Women in Statistics and Data Science Conference will be held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 1st-3rd. Conference organizers are planning to highlight the achievements and career interests of women in statistics and data science by having speakers present their experiences and perspectives on the role of women in the data sciences today. They aim to share knowledge of cutting-edge research, build a community through supportive mentorships and collaborations, and to provide advice for developing and supporting leadership skills. 

How proud Gertrude Cox would be to know that 40 years after her death, she has become an icon to hundreds of young women who were made to feel unwelcome in mathematics and computer sciences in their early youth and are now in great demand in the data sciences. Since Cox became the first woman president of the American Statistical Association in the 1940s, 5 of the past 10 presidents have been women! 

Happy International Women’s Week and National Women’s History Month from Navitas Data Sciences!

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