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Biostatistics Turns 50
by Rebecca Betensky
The gala 50th anniversary celebration was held March 24, 1997 at the historic Peabody Hotel in Memphis, coinciding with the ENAR meeting of the International Biometric Society. In attendance were 137 individuals: 24 faculty members, 2 research associates, 12 postdoctoral fellows, 21 students, and 78 alumni and friends. Following a reception, the formal program began with words of welcome by Professor and Chair Nan Laird. Nan expressed her gratitude to the attendees, speakers, and organizing committee. She spoke of the honor that it was for her to chair the department during this milestone anniversary. A delicious dinner followed, which included main course options of chicken, fish, vegetarian, and kosher with corresponding salads and desserts.
Following dinner, Professor Marcello Pagano traced the beginnings of the department to Lemuel Shattuck who founded Harvard School of Public Health (then called the School of Hygiene) in 1922 and in it, Departments of Demography and Vital Statistics. The Department of Vital Statistics became the Department of Biostatistics in 1947. Thus, in a sense this occasion marked the 75th anniversary celebration as well as the 50th.
Marcello then introduced the audience to the distinguished succession of professors who chaired the department. The continuity of their leadership was emphasized by Marcello's "morphing" of their photographic images. The first chair of the department was Professor E.B. Wilson. He founded the Department of Vital Statistics in 1922 and remained chair through 1946. He was followed by Professor Hugo Muench who was chair until 1961. Professor Robert Reed was chair through 1971, and he was followed by Professor Jane Worcester. She has the distinctions of being the first student of the department and one of the first female full professors at Harvard. She was followed by Professor Fred Mosteller, who among several great distinctions, can take credit for bringing Professor Marvin Zelen to the department in 1977. Marvin brought 10 faculty members with him from Buffalo to significantly build the department. Marvin not only built the department, but also is well known for having "launched" several individuals' careers. Professor Nan Laird, who took over in 1990 and is the current chair, is widely regarded as a tremendous role model.
Close to his own heart, computing at Harvard was Marcello's next topic. He displayed some state-of-the-art graphics that our computers are currently producing. Marcello concluded his presentation by listing the doctoral students from the department and speaking of our pride in our 130 students. That said, the program then turned to representatives of these students to reflect on their Harvard experiences. Dr. Manning Feinleib (DPH, 1966), Professor at Georgetown University, Department of Medicine, reminisced on the "good old days" at Harvard during which the burning statistical issues were p-values versus confidence intervals, one-sided versus two-sided tests, and step-down or step-up modelling procedures. Dr. Judy Goldberg (Sc.D., 1972), Vice-President of Statistics and Data Management at Bristol-Myers Squibb, spoke of the good friends and colleagues from her days at Harvard with whom she has maintained relationships throughout her career. Dr. Stuart Baker (Sc.D., 1984), Mathematical Statistician at the National Cancer Institute, humorously portrayed the special camaraderie that exists in the department and enables students to enjoy the process of learning. Dr. Rebecca Dersimonian (Sc.D., 1983), Mathematical Statistician at the National Institute of Child Health and Development, described the helpful mentoring that she received from her advisor, Nan Laird, as well as from then department chair, Marvin Zelen. Lastly, Dr. Ralph Buncher (DPH, 1967) shared his memories and good feelings about the department.
As an appropriate closing to the evening's glimpses at history, Professor Marvin Zelen looked to the future of the field of statistical science. He spoke of the general state of the field and how he sees it emerging from its golden period and heading into a "platinum" period. In this new era he sees it facing new important challenges. One such challenge is the need to maintain an emphasis on practice, which is so essential to the health of our field.
The evening concluded with none other than an Elvis (and his band) singing lyrics written by Professor Becky Gelman to music written by his namesake. One song was titled "We can't help proving some theorems too" and another was "Biostat Rock." As we bid "Ciao! this vast, drab artist" we were reminded once again of biostatistics at Harvard and how we wish it a strong and productive next 50 (and 75) years.
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Last Update: 9 October 1997