Prof. Marvin Zelen remembered as ‘magnificent human being’

Marvin Zelen

May 27, 2015 Several hundred colleagues, family, and friends from as far away as Israel and Japan gathered together on a beautiful spring day (May 22, 2015) at the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area to attend a memorial service and award presentation celebrating the life of esteemed Professor Marvin Zelen and the lasting impact he made at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the field of statistical science, and the world of public health.

Zelen, a driving force behind both the Harvard Chan Department of Biostatistics and the Department of Biostatistics and Computational Biology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI), died on November 15, 2014, at age 87 after battling cancer. Known as a giant in the field of biostatistics, Zelen was a man of vision, generosity, and warmth who served as a mentor to two generations of researchers. He was Lemuel Shattuck Research Professor of Statistical Science at the School, and a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (Emeritus) at Harvard University. He chaired the School’s Department of Biostatistics from 1981-1990. He helped create (and chaired through 1999) DFCI’s Department of Biostatistics and Computational Biology.

Xihong Lin
Xihong Lin

“Marvin is called the ‘father of biostatistics’ by many leaders in the field and by the younger generation in the field of biostatistics,” said Xihong Lin, Henry Pickering Walcott Professor of Biostatistics and Chair, Department of Biostatistics at the Harvard Chan School, addressing the large crowd at the memorial service. Lin described how Zelen, who came to the School in 1977, helped the biostatistics department at the School grow it into what she called the leading department in the nation. “In addition to being a brilliant leader, Marvin was also a magnificent human being,” she said. “His leadership was not about himself—he always was thinking about how to help others.”

The memorial service followed the presentation of the 2015 Marvin Zelen Leadership Award in Statistical Science to Nan Laird, Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of Public Health, and professor of biostatistics at Harvard Chan School, for her outstanding leadership and inspiring role in impacting the theory and practice of statistical science; and for her contribution to the creation of an environment in which statistical science and its applications have flourished. She presented a lecture entitled, “Repurposing DerSimonian and Laird for Big Data Meta-Analysis.”

“Marvin was a transformative leader, a wonderful teacher and mentor, and a fabulous colleague,” said Ed Benz, president of Dana Farber Cancer Institute, which co-hosted the service along with Harvard Chan School and Frontier Science, a nonprofit established by Zelen in the 1970s to advance the use of statistical science.

Thelma Zelen
Thelma Zelen

Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society and longtime friend of Zelen, cited Zelen’s contributions to designing cancer clinical trials as well as gathering and interpreting data. “Some of his work will be cited for decades, or perhaps centuries, to come,” he said in a pre-recorded video message.

Family members who spoke included Thelma Zelen, Marvin’s wife; Herbert Zelen, Marvin’s brother; Deborah and Sandra Zelen, Marvin’s daughters; and Matt Mues and Toby Mues, Marvin’s grandsons.

Related links

In memoriam: Prof. Marvin Zelen, a ‘tremendous force’ in biostatistics

Overview of the memorial events

View the memorial service program

Past recipients of the Marvin Zelen Leadership Award in Statistical Science

Marge Dwyer

Event photos: David Fox