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.
I enjoyed the presentation from your group! I also think the title was aptly named. After hearing about the wide range of fields and applications Tukey was involved in, I realized I tend to think of mathematicians and statisticians as the people who work with the boring, theoretical stuff while the biological scientists are the ones discovering life changing phenomena. I, of course, realize that these fields are essentially linked, but it was great to hear about some of the very practical applications that came from Tukey's work. As an aside, I learned in my statistics course in undergrad that Tukey developed an alternate method for drawing talley marks used in counting. Rather than marking and crossing lines as with traditional tally marks, Tukey talley counts are easily distnguishable by forming a box shape (see here... http://www.mathsisfun.com/data/tukey-tallying.html).

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