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What are the most important statisticians, and what is it that made them famous?
(Reply just one scientist per answer please.)

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Converted to community wiki. –  mbq Dec 4 '10 at 0:14
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@Mariana The idea is that pools and list-ofs are converted to a form in which they can be easily managed (due to lower rep req to edit) and voted up/down without hurting participants' reputation (votes on CW posts does not give/take reputation). –  mbq Dec 4 '10 at 16:01
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If it weren't CW it would have to be closed as subjective and argumentative! –  whuber Dec 21 '10 at 19:37

35 Answers 35

up vote 40 down vote accepted

Reverend Thomas Bayes for discovering Bayes' theorem

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That's a tough one...when did statistics become a real field? Many of the fathers of stats were not statisticians. –  Neil McGuigan Dec 20 '10 at 18:23
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I know my choice is kind of arbitrary, because many are important but this is my favourite one, and his method allowed me to do lots of things. –  mariana soffer Dec 24 '10 at 18:35
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That this was selected indicates a biased prior. –  Iterator Aug 6 '11 at 0:20
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Does one discover a theorem? Shouldn't it be postulating or theorizing? –  nico Dec 4 '11 at 13:21
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Sigh. I would have hoped that one could be an enthusiast of the Bayesian approach without actually believing that Bayes the man was the greatest statistician of all time. Shouldn't we honor someone who contributed important work to its development, like, e.g., Jaynes? –  gung Jan 7 '12 at 3:26

Ronald Fisher for his fundamental contributions to the way we analyze data, whether it be the analysis of variance framework, maximum likelihood, permutation tests, or any number of other ground-breaking discoveries.

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It's worth noting that Fisher is equally famous for his work as a biologist (evolutionary biology and agricultural science) as he is for his statistical work. –  Michael Lew Dec 4 '10 at 6:49
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Even today, I occasionally meet geneticists who ask me whether it is true that the great geneticist R. A. Fisher was also an important statistician -- Leonard Savage (Annals of Statistics, 1976 jstor.org/stable/2958221). –  onestop Dec 4 '10 at 8:06
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@Michael Lew: He certainly is. He managed to get over the supposed disconnection between Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution, among other accomplishments. digital.library.adelaide.edu.au/coll/special//fisher/9.pdf –  Christopher Aden Dec 5 '10 at 0:18
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If you want to ask a tough question, ask who the second most famous statistician is. There's no doubt that Fisher is # 1. You may not like the man or some of his ideas, but he is undoubtedly the creator of Statistics as we know it today. –  Carlos Accioly Dec 6 '10 at 22:41
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@Carlos "undoubtedly the creator" are you a member of FA (Fisher's Adorators) ? Anyway Gauss introduced least square almost a hundred year before Fisher was born, and Fisher as well as Gauss were inspired by a lot of other very inspired people... it is a long and laborious story and unfortunatly for those who like THX surround movies I don't really think it has its Guru. –  robin girard Dec 15 '10 at 7:30

Karl Pearson for his work on mathematical statistics. Pearson correlation, Chi-square test, and principal components analysis are just a few of the incredibly important ideas that stem from his works.

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John Tukey for Fast Fourier Transforms, exploratory data analysis (EDA), box plots, projection pursuit, jackknife (along with Quenouille). Coined the words "software" and "bit".

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From Wikipedia "Claude E. Shannon first used the word bit in his seminal 1948 paper. He attributed its origin to John W. Tukey" –  Neil McGuigan Apr 6 at 4:39

William Sealy Gosset for Student's t-distribution and the statistically-driven improvement of beer.

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Maybe not the most famous statistician, but when you put it like that, definitely the most important! ;o) –  Dikran Marsupial Dec 5 '10 at 0:13
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@ IanS - to be precise, he improved the quality of Guiness, which is a stout, not a beer (in case you hadn't noticed, I'm Irish). –  richiemorrisroe Sep 23 '11 at 10:34

Bradley Efron for the Bootstrap - one of the most useful techniques in computational statistics.

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Pierre-Simon Laplace for work on fundamentals of (Bayesian) probability.

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and the central limit theorem. –  Memming Oct 17 '13 at 22:06

Andrey Nikolayevich Kolmogorov, for putting probability theory on a rigorous mathematical footing. While he was a mathematician, not a statistician, undoubtedly his work is important in many branches of statistics.

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+1 for Kolmogorov. Without him, a rigorous treatment of most fundamental statistical concepts would not be possible and therefore statistics not as reliable as they are now. –  Thilo Dec 4 '11 at 13:42
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Amen. His Probability Axioms combined with Measure Theory (Émile Borel, Henri Lebesgue, Johann Radon and Maurice Fréchet) could be considered the most powerful analytical technique in applied mathematics, in my opinion. –  AsymLabs Oct 19 '13 at 5:46

George Box for his work on time series, designed experiments and elucidating the iterative nature of scientific discovery (proposing and testing models).

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While looking for other names in Wikipedia, I stumbled on the fact that Box was a son-in-law of Fisher's. –  Wayne Dec 13 '10 at 22:05
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Don't forget the Box plot. –  Hans Engler Jan 7 '12 at 4:32
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I presume @Hans Engler is joking, but either way Box did not invent the box plot. Tukey named the box plot, and re-invented a practice common in various fields. –  Nick Cox Aug 17 '13 at 13:31

Jerzy Neyman and Egon Pearson for work on experimental design, hypothesis testing, confidence intervals, and the Neyman-Pearson lemma.

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Kudos to Jerzy for "proving" storks bring babies illustrating the concomitant variable problem. –  IrishStat May 22 '11 at 21:31

Francis Galton for discovering statistical correlation and promoting regression.

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+1 for Francis Galton played a very important role in giving importance to the concept of correlation. However, I found a bit strong the formulation "creating correlation". I would quote Galton itself: << "Co-relation or correlation of structure" is a phrase much used in biology, and not least in that branch of it which refers to heridity, and the idea is even more frequently present than the phrase; but I am not aware of any attempt to define it clearly >> In : "Co-relation and their Measurment" (see here galton.org/galton/index.html) –  robin girard Dec 15 '10 at 9:19
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-1 In1884,Galton wrote:"Jews are specialized for a parasitical existence upon other nations,and that there is need of evidence that theyare capable of fulfilling thevaried duties ofa civilized nation by themselves."Karl Pearson,Galton's disciple and biographer,echoed this opinion 40years later during his attempt to prove the undesirability of Jewish immigration into Britain:"for such men as religion,social habits,or language keep asa caste apart,there should be no place.they will not be absorbed by,and at the same time strengthenthe existing population;they will develop into a parasitic race" –  IrishStat May 22 '11 at 16:21
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@IrishStat. Yup, a lot of the early statisticians were eugenists, including Pearson and Fisher. But, they were still great statisticians. –  Neil McGuigan May 22 '11 at 17:26
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@IrishStat: Fisher was the first president of the Cambridge University Eugenics Society, wrote for Eugenics Review and Annals of Eugenics from 1914 to 1947, and was appointed professor of eugenics at University College London in 1933. –  Henry Sep 23 '11 at 0:27

Leo Breiman for CART, bagging, and random forests.

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And probability. Shannon-Macmillan-Breiman. –  Iterator Aug 6 '11 at 0:24

Andrey Markov for stochastic processes and markov chains.

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he was a mathematician that was very important to statistics. Half of the men on here lived before statistics was an "official" field of study . –  Neil McGuigan Dec 15 '10 at 8:48

Florence Nightingale for being "a true pioneer in the graphical representation of statistics" and developing the polar area diagram. Yes, that Florence Nightingale!

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Nightingale did excellent work, but her originality is often exaggerated. Polar diagrams were used by several people before her, earlier in the 19th century. –  Nick Cox May 27 '13 at 10:30
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This is what I explain to nursing students, to demonstrate to them that they should be interested in statistics. Doesn't work. –  Jeremy Miles Oct 18 '13 at 20:54

Harold Jeffreys for revival of Bayesian interpretation of probability.

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Edwin Thompson Jaynes for work on objective Bayesian methods, particularly MaxEnt and transformation groups.

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For me, he is the best statistical thinker ever. And also one of the most interesting and distinctive writing styles I've seen. Never seen anyone use the word "common sense" like he does! –  probabilityislogic Mar 12 '11 at 14:29

How has Sir David Roxbee Cox not been mentioned yet?

Some feats: Cox proportional hazards models, experimental design, he did a lot of work on stochastic processes and binary data. He also advised many students who went on to do great work (Hinkley, McCullagh, Little, Atkinson, etc.)

And the man was knighted!

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Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat for creating the theory of probability and inventing the idea of expected value (1654) in order to solve a problem grounded in statistical observations (from gambling).

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W. Edwards Deming for promoting statistical process control

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Roderick Little and Donald Rubin for the contributions in Missing Data Analysis.

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Don Rubin also had a hand in the EM algorithm and the development of causal inference. –  guy Aug 2 '12 at 15:11

George Dantzig for the Simplex Method, and for being the student who mistook two open statistics problems that Neyman had written on the board for homework problems, and in his "ignorance" solving them. I'd vote for him just for the story.

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This story is identical to one told about John Milnor. In Milnor's case there's at least one paper (co-authored with his professor when Milnor was still an undergraduate) to give the story credence. Have you ever found a reference to the paper(s) Dantzig wrote giving his solutions? –  whuber Dec 13 '10 at 23:17
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Thanks. It is interesting how such a story can recur and how it might actually be true in both cases! –  whuber Dec 15 '10 at 17:39
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@whuber Yes, it is! My skept-o-meter says that the details of multiple stories may not be quite right, though. Perhaps both of them solved open problems, but maybe one of them knew the problem was open and the other mistook it for a homework problem. The stories would match in terms of "naive young student solves open problem, not having realized how hard it really was", but when the story became legend and someone told it as "some student ...", someone else chimed in, "oh, that was Dantzig", or "oh, that sounds like Milnor" and the stories converged. –  Wayne Dec 16 '10 at 15:44

C.R. Rao for the Rao–Blackwell theorem and the Cramer-Rao bound.

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Samuel S. Wilks was a leader in the development of mathematical statistics. He developed the theorem on the distribution of the likelihood ratio, a fundamental result that is used in a wide variety of situations.

He also helped found the Princeton statistics department, where he was Fred Mosteller's advisor, among others, and has a prestigious ASA award named after him.

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Emanuel Parzen for kernel density estimation and reproducing kernel Hilbert space theory for stochastic processes.

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I think Rosenblatt invented kde several years before Parzen. –  Rob Hyndman Aug 10 '11 at 2:33

Leland Wilkinson for his contribution to statistical graphics.

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Should we add Hadley Wickham for making GoG possible in R? –  chl Dec 15 '10 at 20:41

David Donoho development of multiscale ideas in statistics, and a lot of theoretically justified while practically very efficient ideas in very high dimensional statistics, CHA: computational harmonic analysis,...

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Adolphe Quetelet for his work on the "average man", and for pioneering the use of statistics in the social sciences. Before him, statistics were largely confined to the physical sciences (astronomy, in particular).

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It's very difficult to add to the constellation of stars that are already listed, but for interest purposes I will throw in the improbable polymath John Maynard Keynes who many would not realize published A Treatise on Probability (1921) that can be downloaded here; and whose work was quoted frequently by Harold Jeffreys (1939).

Keynes by all accounts helped to bring forward Bayesian statistics and in his treatise considered the most important principle to be the Principle of Indifference.

According to Wikipedia, The "Principle of insufficient reason" was renamed the "Principle of Indifference" by the economist John Maynard Keynes (1921), who was careful to note that it applies only when there is no knowledge indicating unequal probabilities.

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Teuvo Kohonen for invention of the Self-Organizing-Map (SOM).

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@downvoter: Why ? –  steffen Dec 7 '10 at 10:02
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and maybe also Bishop, Svensen and Williams for putting SOM on a clean probabilistic footing via the Generative Topographic Mapping. (And I didn't down vote anything either...) –  conjugateprior Dec 23 '10 at 23:13

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