Frederick Mosteller

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Fred Mosteller
Born(1916-12-24)December 24, 1916
DiedJuly 23, 2006(2006-07-23) (aged 89)
Alma materCarnegie Institute of Technology
Princeton University
Known forStatistics education
Scientific career
InstitutionsHarvard University
Doctoral advisorSamuel S. Wilks and John Tukey
Doctoral studentsPersi Diaconis

Stephen Fienberg

Stanley Wasserman

Charles Frederick Mosteller (December 24, 1916 – July 23, 2006), usually known as Frederick Mosteller, was one of the most eminent statisticians of the 20th century. He was the founding chairman of Harvard's statistics department, from 1957 to 1971, and served as the president of several professional bodies including the Psychometric Society, the American Statistical Association, the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the International Statistical Institute.[1]

Biographical details[edit]

Frederick Mosteller was born in Clarksburg, West Virginia, on December 24, 1916 to Helen Kelley Mosteller and William Roy Mosteller. His father was a highway builder. He was raised near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and attended Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). He completed his ScM degree at Carnegie Tech in 1939, and enrolled at Princeton University in 1939 to work on a PhD with statistician Samuel S. Wilks.[1]

In 1941 he married Virginia Gilroy, whom he met during college. They had two children: Bill (b. 1947) and Gale (b. 1953). They lived in Belmont, Mass. and spent summers in West Falmouth, Mass. on Cape Cod.

Mosteller worked in Samuel Wilks's Statistical Research Group in New York city during World War II on statistical questions about airborne bombing. He received his Ph.D. in Mathematics from Princeton University in 1946.

He was hired by Harvard University's Department of Social Relations in 1946, where he received tenure in 1951 and served as acting chair from 1953–1954. He founded the Department of Statistics and served as its first chairman from 1957–1969, 1973, 1975-1977. He chaired the Department of Biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health in 1977-1981 and later the Department of Health Policy and Management in the 1980s. His four chairmanships have not been matched.[1] He also taught courses at Harvard Law School and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

He worked with his mathematical assistant Cleo Youtz from the 1950s until his departure from Harvard in 2003, and had an administrative assistant. He was well known for being a good writer, insisting on doing up to fifteen drafts of a paper or book chapter before showing it to his colleagues and several additional drafts before submitting the paper to a journal.[1]

Mosteller retired from classroom teaching in 1987, but continued working and publishing at Harvard through 2003. On January 3, 2004, he moved to Arlington, Virginia, to be closer to his children.[1]

Contributions to statistics[edit]

Mosteller wrote over 50 books and over 350 papers, with over 200 coauthors.

Some of his work involved research evaluation and synthesis, especially in medicine and public health.[1]

Mosteller and David Wallace[2][3] studied the historical problem of who wrote each of the disputed Federalist papers, James Madison or Alexander Hamilton. The Federalist Papers study was conducted in order to demonstrate the power of Bayesian inference and required a great deal of computational power for that time. It was featured in Time Magazine in the September 21st, 1962 edition.[1]

He was an avid fan of the Boston Red Sox and attended the games in the run up to the World Series. He conducted perhaps the first academic investigation of baseball after his favorite team, the Boston Red Sox, lost the 1946 World Series.[1]

Contributions to statistics education[edit]

Mosteller cared enormously about the teaching of statistics. An important figure in statistics education, he was a mentor to many, and his positive attitudes toward teaching influenced his many students.

He used several methods of teaching.

Mosteller's friend Robert E.K. Rourke, once taught him an important idea for presenting new material in lectures.[4] Rourke called it PGP Particular General Particular), which meant that a lecture should always be "specific, general, specific", giving this advice: Begin with a particular example which piques student interest, continue with a general point, and end with a particular example illustrating the general point.[4]

Prompted by a seminar by Derek Bok, in the last two or three minutes of the class, he would ask the students to write down what was the muddiest point in the lecture and what they'd like to know more about.[5]

He practiced every lecture that he gave at least once, in the real circumstance, so that he could be aware of the timing of the lecture, and so he would not be tempted to speak quickly in order to fit in more material. Instead, he would cut out large chunks of the lecture.[4]

Mosteller taught a class in probability and statistics as part of the educational television program, Continental Classroom - Mathematics, in 1960-61, supported by the Ford Foundation and broadcast on NBC: 75,000 students took this class for credit at 320 colleges and universities around the country, and 1.2 million watched the lectures on television on 170 stations.[6] The show received its impressively large audience despite being broadcast at 6:30 am. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday covered the statistical material, and Tuesday and Thursday were problem sessions.[citation needed]

Graduate students[edit]

Mosteller's graduate students included Janellen Huttenlocher, Persi Diaconis, Stephen Fienberg, Stanley Wasserman, Ralph D'Agostino, Sanford Weisberg[7] and Ward Edwards.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "Founder of Harvard's Statistics Department, Frederick Mosteller, dies". Harvard Gazette. 25 July 2006. Retrieved 12 January 2013.
  2. ^ Mosteller, F. & Wallace, D.L. (1964) Inference and disputed authorship The Federalist, Addison-Wesley, Reading, Mass.
  3. ^ Frederick Mosteller; David L. Wallace (2007). Inference and Disputed Authorship The Federalist. Center for the Study of Language & Information. ISBN 978-1-57586-552-2. OL 17891964M. Wikidata Q102306435.
  4. ^ a b c Mosteller, Frederick, Classroom and Platform Performance, The American Statistician, 34, pp. 11–17, 1980. pdf
  5. ^ Bruce Brooks, E. (2001) Tales of Statisticians: Frederick Mosteller
  6. ^ Rick Wicklin, "The first MOOC in statistics", blog, SAS Institute, October 2, 2013.
  7. ^ Mathematics Genealogy Project: Frederick Mosteller. North Dakota State University

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]