Renowned statistician George Box dies at 93

April 10, 2013

by Jill Sakai

George E. P. Box, professor emeritus of statistics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, passed away March 28 at his home in Madison at the age of 93.

Photo: George E. P. Box

George E. P. Box

Photo: DavidMCEddy

Box founded the UW–Madison Department of Statistics in 1960 and served as chair until 1969. “He shaped the department for the first 30 to 40 years,” says current department chair Brian Yandell.

“There were various statisticians of sorts scattered around the university but there was no statistics department,” recalls Norman Draper, professor emeritus of statistics and a longtime colleague of Box. “And all these separate statisticians – there were two or three in agriculture, for example – were glad to have this department started because it suddenly made statistics focused and available to all.”

Famous for saying, “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” Box emphasized the use of statistics to improve experimental processes. He was world-renowned for his work on optimizing experimental design with statistics and pushed his students and colleagues to consider the practical applications of statistical methods.

Best known on campus were the Monday night beer and statistics sessions Box hosted at his home for students and other researchers. The gatherings sparked lively discussions about how statistics could help solve research problems posed by speakers from a wide range of disciplines.

“Sometimes it would just be a good time, but other times it generated new research directions,” says Yandell. Former students have credited the sessions with teaching them as much or more than their classes.

Box described himself as “an accidental statistician,” which is also the title of his autobiography, publishing later this month. He first tackled statistics while in the British army during World War II, wanting to improve his experiments on the chemistry of poison gases.

After stints at North Carolina State University, Imperial Chemical Industries in London, and Princeton University, Box joined the Mathematics Research Center at UW–Madison in 1959 and founded the Department of Statistics in 1960.

Box authored multiple textbooks and developed several statistical tools, some of which bear his name: Box-Jenkins model, Box-Cox transformations, and Box-Behnken designs. He received numerous awards and honors, including a Vilas Professorship at UW–Madison and being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He served as president of the American Statistical Association in 1978 and the Institute of Mathematical Statistics in 1980.

Box mentored generations of students who have extended his influence far and wide and was known for his sense of humor, genial nature and compelling storytelling abilities.

With the late Bill Hunter, he co-founded the Center for Quality and Productivity Improvement in 1985 in the College of Engineering. Though he retired in 1992, Box continued to act as a consultant for members of the statistics and quality improvement communities.

Box mentored generations of students who have extended his influence far and wide and was known for his sense of humor, genial nature and compelling storytelling abilities.

“He was wonderful to be around,” Draper says. “He was a man who was full of ideas and very enthusiastic.”

Box’s life will be celebrated at a memorial service on May 5 at 2 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society Meeting House, 900 University Bay Dr., Madison. Additional details are in his full obituary.

On May 6, the statistics department will hold a Monday night session modeled after the ones Box used to host in his home. It will open at 4 p.m. in 1313 Sterling Hall with a few remembrances of Box, followed by a seminar by entomology student Jesse Pfammatter. There will be food and discussion in 133 SMI beginning around 5:30 p.m. after the talk. If you wish to attend the discussion session, please RSVP by April 26 to Denise Runyan.