The Department of Biostatistics: A Timeline


New Beginnings and Vital Changes


WilsonEdwin B. Wilson, Chair of the Department of Vital Statistics

The Harvard School of Public Health is founded as an independent entity in 1922, with MIT physicist E.B. Wilson serving as chair of the Department of Vital Statistics, one of its core departments. The School’s antecedents lay in the Harvard-Technology School of Public Health, founded in 1913 and jointly managed by MIT and Harvard.

Wilson previously served as chair of the physics department at MIT, and joined the newly independent school with an interest in applying the fundamentals of mathematics to problems in public health. During his tenure at HSPH, Wilson becomes President of the American Statistical Association (1929) and the first managing editor of the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences, a post he holds for 50 years.

Women in the Department

From the start, women play an integral role in the Department.

Worcester001Jane Worcester is recruited by E.B. Wilson in 1931, and co-authors more than 2 dozen theory and methods papers with him during their 15-year collaboration. She receives her degree from HSPH, joins the faculty, and becomes Chair in 1973. Margaret (Marge) Drolette joins the Department in 1946 after graduating from Radcliffe College. She receives a PhD in Statistics from Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and becomes Professor of Biostatistics.



Muench_v2Hugo Muench, Chair of the Department of Biostatistics

Muench, a physician, trains in biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University before succeeding Wilson as the chair of the newly renamed HSPH Department of Biostatistics. During his tenure, Jane Worcester and Robert Reed join the faculty and Margaret (Marge) Drolette joins the Department as an associate.


Reed003Robert Reed, Chair of the Department of Biostatistics

Reed, the son of pioneering biostatistician Lowell J. Reed, holds degrees in Applied Statistics and Sociology. During his tenure as chair, the Department consists of three full professors (Reed, Worcester, and Jacob Feldman), two emeritus professors (Wilson and Muench), several assistant and associate professors (Drolette, Yvonne Bishop, Todd Frazier, Olli Miettinen, and James Warram), a handful of graduate students, and a small number of research associates.

Harvard and Public Health

0000861_pres-1_2Under the leadership of Derek Bok and Howard Hiatt, public health and biostatistics enjoy renewed attention at Harvard.

Derek Bok becomes Harvard’s youngest president in 1970. After an initial focus on undergraduate educational reform, he turns his attention to the Harvard Medical Area and appoints Howard Hiatt Dean of HSPH in 1972. Recognizing the critical role of statistics in medical decision-making, Hiatt promotes the field of Biostatistics in the Longwood Medical Area.



Worcester_2Jane Worcester, Chair of the Department of Biostatistics

Recruited by E.B. Wilson to “be his computer,” Worcester is a graduate of Smith College with a major in mathematics. She becomes the first woman at HSPH to earn the Dr.PH degree in Biostatistics and Epidemiology. During Worcester’s tenure, the faculty expands to include Joel Kleinman and Nan Laird.


Outstanding teaching is the priority during the Drolette-Reed-Worcester era.

Worcester006_v2At this time, the Department gains a reputation for excellence in teaching, with a major focus on MPH students. Faculty members — especially Marge Drolette — repeatedly receive teaching awards. The Department also has its own robust SM program, and jointly offers the ScD and DPH with the FAS Department of Statistics.



Innovation, Growth, and Leadership


Mosteller003Frederick Mosteller, Chair of the Department of Biostatistics

Mosteller, a pioneering statistician with wide-ranging interests, serves as chair to an unmatched four Harvard departments during his career. Before coming to HSPH, he chairs the FAS Department of Social Relations, and serves as the first chair of the Department of Statistics in 1957. Dedicated to improving the study of statistical science and health, Mosteller is well known in the national and international statistical community, and serves as the President of the American Association for theAdvancement of Science. Upon arriving at HSPH, Mosteller immediately sets out to create an academic home for biostatisticians working throughout the Harvard Medical Area, and begins recruiting new faculty to the Department.

One of his first recruits is Marvin Zelen, who had established the Statistical Laboratory at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Between 1977-1978, Zelen brings several of his colleagues from the SUNYB group to the Department, including Colin Begg, Richard Gelber, David Schoenfeld, Kenneth Stanley, Marcello Pagano and Stephen Lagakos. James Ware, Christine Waternaux, John Orav, and Thomas Louis also joins the Department during Mosteller’s tenure. By the time Zelen becomes chair in 1980, the Department has more than tripled in size, including 28 primary faculty and 27 graduate students. Mosteller goes on to chair the HSPH Department of Health Policy and Management in the 1980s.

The Harvard Six Cities Study

Mosteller005The Department contributes to one of the most innovative and influential studies on the health effects of indoor and outdoor air pollution ever conducted.

Under the leadership of James Ware, the Department plays a major role in the Harvard Six Cities Study. Initiated in the 1970’s as a collaboration between Yvonne Bishop and the HSPH Department of Environmental Health, its findings play a pivotal role in the determination of standards for air pollutants by the Environmental Protection Agency, especially the standards for particulate air pollution. Many of the Department’s faculty participate in the project, including Nan Laird, Thomas Louis, Victor De Gruttola and Andrea Rotnitzky. This collaboration stimulates research that results in the development of innovative methods for the statistical analysis of longitudinal data.



Zelen002Marvin Zelen
, Chair of the Department of Biostatistics

Under Zelen’s leadership, the Department continues to grow quickly. In addition to leading the HSPH Department of Biostatistics, Zelen founds the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the Sydney Farber Cancer Institute (later renamed the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute). New faculty at DFCI include James Anderson, Dianne Finkelstein, Rebecca Gelman, Robert Gray, David Harrington, Myrto Lefkopoulou, Louise Ryan, and Anastasios Tsiatis. New faculty at HSPH include Victor De Gruttola and Andrea Rotnitzky.

The DFCI department becomes an internationally-recognized center for the design and analysis of multi-center cancer clinical trials, and hosts the coordinating centers for several cooperative groups: the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group (ECOG), the Cancer and Acute Leukemia Group (CALGB), and the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group (RTOG).

In addition to the Department at DFCI, smaller statistical groups are seeded throughout the Harvard-affiliated hospitals, including the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Boston Children’s Hospital. Finkelstein and Schoenfeld start a new biostatistical group at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Christine Waternaux heads the biostatistical group at McLean Hospital.

The Woburn Study

Zelen003The Woburn Study, led by Marvin Zelen and Stephen Lagakos with data manager Barbara Wessen, is another important environmental study spearheaded by the Department.  Lagakos and Zelen’s analysis of a childhood leukemia cluster observed in Woburn, Massachusetts near an industrial contamination site achieves national attention, leading to both a book and motion picture entitled, A Civil Action.  This study’s research methodology provides a new research paradigm: “citizen epidemiology.”