John W. Tukey

Princeton University

June 16, 1915 - July 26, 2000

Scientific Discipline: Applied Mathematical Sciences
Membership Type:
Member (elected 1961)

John W. Tukey was one of the most, if not the most, influential mathematical and theoretical statisticians of the 20th Century.  During World War II, he worked on antiaircraft, armored vehicle and aircraft fire control problems, and aerodynamic feasibility, all of which led eventually to the development of the Nike Ajax missile in the late 1940s.  He was credited with coining two terms used in the computer industry: the first was “software,” or the programs used to run a computer, and the second was “bit,” a contraction for binary digit.  Alongside J. W. Cooley, Tukey published “Mathematics in Computation,” which introduced the Fast Fourier Transform algorithm, a widely applicable mathematical method that simplified computations for Fourier series and integrals.  He also developed techniques for robust analysis, which allowed statisticians to attain credible conclusions from partially flawed data.  Tukey’s other statistical contributions include the creation of the Box-and-Whisker Plot, the Stem-and-Leaf Diagram, and Tukey’s Paired Comparisons, all of which have become standard techniques for approaching data analysis using graphs and plots.  He served as a consultant for the Educational Testing Service, the Xerox Corporation, and Merck & Co. and he helped design the polls used by NBC to predict and analyze the outcome of elections. 

Tukey attended Brown University where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry in 1936 and 1937, respectively.  He then enrolled at Princeton University and earned his M.A. in 1938 and his Ph.D. in 1939, both in mathematics.  The same year he got his doctorate, he accepted a position as instructor in mathematics at Princeton, achieving the rank of full professor in 1950.  In 1956, Tukey directed the university’s newly-founded Statistical Techniques Research Group.  Princeton selected him to be the first chairman of the Department of Statistics, a position he held from the department’s founding in 1965 until 1970.  He became Princeton’s Donner Professor of Science, Emeritus in 1976.  Along with his career at Princeton, Tukey worked part time on the technical staff of Bell Telephone Laboratories from 1945 until 1985 when he retired as the associate executive director of research of the Information Science Division.  He was awarded a long list of commendations that included the Samuel S. Wilks Award of the American Statistical Association in 1965 (he was the first recipient), the National Medal of Science in 1973, the Shewhart Medal of the American Society for Quality Control (ASQC) in 1977, the Medal of Honor of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers in 1982, and the Deming Medal of the ASQC in 1983.

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