Harvard Public Health Review Winter 2007
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In Memoriam: Frederick Mosteller, pioneering statistician Frederick MostellerFrederick Mosteller, a pioneering statistician whose broad influence reached disciplines from public health to education, passed away on July 23, 2006, at age 89. Mosteller was influential in the founding of Harvard’s Statistics Department and served as its first chair. He went on to chair three other Harvard departments—Biostatistics, and Health Policy and Management at HSPH, as well as Social Relations in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—a feat that remains unmatched.

While chairing the Department of Health Policy and Management, Mosteller encouraged research and original scholarship among the faculty and students. He is credited by many with transforming the School’s Department of Biostatistics into the competitive and world-renowned force it is today.

Most notably, Mosteller is recognized for introducing meta-analysis—the review and synthesis of multiple studies—to the spectrum of statistical methodology, which allows for risk factors and more precise results to be gleaned from multiple data sets. In one well-known study, Mosteller and collaborators compared the results of cumulative meta-analyses of randomized clinical trials of treatment for myocardial infarction with what was presented in medical textbooks. The study revealed that valid advice on some lifesaving treatments had been delayed from entering the classroom for more than a decade, while other forms of care were continuing to be promoted at schools long after having been proven harmful.

As a major advocate of randomized clinical trials, in the late 1940s, Mosteller and a team of researchers at Harvard published one of the first large-scale investigations of the placebo effect in medicine. He also helped orchestrate, in 1948, the National Halothane Study—noted for its early use of biostatistics and for being one of the first collaborations between statisticians and physicians—to examine the effects of halothane in humans, an anesthetic suspected in the deaths of several patients.

Mosteller is survived by his son, William, his daughter, Gale Mosteller, and his grandson, Hobart Reynolds.

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