John W. Tukey, a chemist, mathematician, educator, consultant, researcher, data analyst, and statistician, was born in New Bedford, MA in 1915, the only child of Adah M. Tasker and Ralph H. Tukey. It was evident from an early age that Tukey had great potential. His parents discovered that he had learned to read at age three after he informed them about a bridge closure that he had read about in the newspaper. Tukey’s parents were both trained as high school teachers, and his mother educated him at home until college, when he attended Brown University and received both his bachelors and masters degrees in chemistry in 1936 and 1937, respectively. Tukey then entered Princeton University with the intention of studying chemistry, but instead earned his Ph.D. in mathematics in just two years. His thesis entitled “On Denumerability in Topology” was submitted in 1939 under the supervision of the distinguished mathematician Solomon Lefschetz. After receiving his doctorate, Tukey became an instructor of mathematics at Princeton. Shortly thereafter, however, the second World War began and changed the trajectory of Tukey’s career.
Tukey served as a consultant then as the assistant director of the Fire Control Research Office (FCRO), one of the departments Princeton organized to help support the goals of the National Defense Research Committee during U.S. involvement in WWII. The FCRO studied the mechanics of artillery weapons in order to improve their precision and efficacy. Here, Tukey worked closely with physicists and engineers as well as mathematicians, including an engineer with a Ph.D. in physiology who focused on statistics named Charles Winsor. Tukey later explained that, “It was Charlie and the experience of working on the analysis of real data that converted me to statistics.” By the end of the war, Tukey described himself as a statistician, a field that he viewed not as an offshoot of mathematics but as a scientific discipline equivalent to chemistry, biology, or physics. Tukey maintained his faculty position at Princeton, helping to establish and direct its first statistics department. Following the war, he also began work at Bell Telephone Laboratories as a member of the technical staff, where he contributed to research in numerous diverse areas over the course of his career, eventually serving as the Associate Executive Director of Research Information Sciences.
Harvard professor Frederick Mosteller is credited with saying that Tukey “probably made more original contributions to statistics than anyone else since World War II,” an assertion that seems credible when looking at a list of Tukey’s accomplishments. To the field of statistics, Tukey contributed a method of determining confidence intervals used in ANOVAs, the fast fourier transform, and a series of methods of data depiction that includes the stem-and-leaf diagram and box-and-whisker plots, among many other works. He also contributed substantially to paradigms of statistical analysis, promoting the utilization of and distinction between “exploratory data analysis” and statistical hypothesis-driven “confirmatory data analysis,” and he was a vocal advocate for statistical rigor in experimental design.
John Tukey’s accomplishments were recognized with numerous accolades including the National Medal of Science awarded by President Nixon in 1973 and the IEEE Medal of Honor in 1982 for his research in the development of the fast Fourier transform (FFT) algorithm. Aside from his work in academia and at Bell Laboratories, he made an impact in many other areas, for, as Tukey put it, “The best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone’s backyard.” The NY Times’ obituary of Tukey credits him with coining the term “bit” in reference to computer data and the word “software” in 1958. He also served in a number of public capacities, including chairing a committee investigating ozone depletion in the 70s, serving as a U.S. delegate to nuclear discontinuance conferences, and serving on the President’s Science Advisory Committee.
John Tukey retired in 1985 at the age of 70, and he passed away in 2000. He aspired to be a scientific generalist, and he achieved this, leaving a broad legacy of advancement in science and technology.
Another good reference:
Brillinger, D.R. (2002). John W. Tukey: His life and professional contributions. The Annals of Statistics. 30(6): 1535-1575.