Herbert Robbins

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick

January 12, 1915 - February 12, 2001

Election Year: 1974
Scientific Discipline: Mathematics
Membership Type: Member

Herbert Robbins, a leader in mathematical statistics, initiated several innovative areas of research.  He was best known for co-authoring What is Mathematics?, a book designed to communicate advanced mathematical concepts in an understandable way to the general public.  He developed techniques for the use of Bayesian Statistics that made it possible to produce estimations with fewer a priori hypotheses.  Robbins demonstrated the overall frequency of errors in testing unrelated hypotheses wasn’t subject to minimization, leading to several future studies on methods of minimizing the overall frequency of errors.  He also made contributions to sequential experimentation.  He developed tests of hypotheses with discontinuous power functions, and he created a design to reduce the frequency of using inferior treatments.  Robbins made strides in stochastic approximation as well, refining Newton’s technique for finding solutions to an equation by making it possible to calculate solutions even when data was skewed by random errors.

Robbins went to Harvard University where he earned his A.B. degree in 1935 and his Ph.D. in mathematics in 1938.  After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he became an associate professor for the University of North Carolina, achieving a professorship in 1950.  Robbins left in 1953 to become a professor at Columbia University.  He was appointed the Higgins Professor of Mathematical Statistics in 1974, and he held the position until he was selected as Rutgers University’s Professor of Mathematical Statistics in 1986.  He was president of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics in 1966 and was a member of the International Statistics Institute.  In 1987, Robbins received the Mayor’s Award for Science and Technology from New York City.

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