Dec 15, 2011

Obituary: Charles B. Bell, 1928–2010

Charles Bernard Bell, Jr. was born in New Orleans on August 20, 1928. To the statistical community he was affectionately called “Chuck.” He graduated from Xavier University at an early age, and then attended Notre Dame University where he earned a masters degree in mathematics and statistics in 1948, and a doctorate in 1953. His graduation was coupled with his marriage to Mary Drye of Los Angeles, California. Chuck was the first African-American to receive both masters and doctorate degrees from Notre Dame.

He worked as a research engineer at the Douglas Aircraft Company, but was more interested in an academic position and joined the faculty at Xavier University for two years before visiting Stanford University for a year. From 1958 to 1966 Chuck was on the faculty of San Diego State University and again from 1981 to 1992, at which time he retired. During the period from 1966 to 1981 he was at Case Western University (1966–1968), the University of Michigan (1968–1971), Tulane University (1971–1977), and the University of Washington (1977–1981).

Chuck loved languages, and conquered many. He could speak, read, and write in Spanish, German, Russian, Dutch, French, Italian, and Swahili. I remember on one of his visits to Stanford that he would talk to someone in one language, and turn around to someone else and speak in another language. In fact, he sought out international visitors in order to practice his multi-lingual conversational skills. As an example of this linguistic prowess, he co-authored four papers in Spanish, one in German, a monograph in French and one in Dutch.

Chuck and his family traveled extensively: to the Mathematical Institute in Amsterdam (1964); to the University of Madrid (1964–1965); to the University of Vienna (1965); to the Institute of Statistics in the University of Paris (1965–1966); to the University of Erlangen (1966); to the University of Göttingen (1972); and to the University of Costa Rica (1986). He was a welcome visitor at Stanford, and visited during the summers of 1965, 1987, and 1991.

Throughout his life Chuck was interested and active in African-American affairs. He was Chair of the Minority Statisticians Committee of the American Statistical Association, and in 1968 worked with African mathematicians in Mombasa, Kenya. In 1969 he helped develop courses in mathematics for teachers in Nigeria, and in 1975, at Tulane, gave a workshop for black undergraduates.

In 1974 the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate of the National Science Foundation created a program in applied mathematics and statistics, and Chuck served as its second Program Director for statistics during 1975–76.

Chuck had a distinguished research career. His thesis was on “structures of (probability) measure spaces.” His early statistical work was on various nonparametric problems, and this remained an intermittent focus of his work.

Distribution-free tests occupied his attention in several papers:

(i) structure of distribution-free statistics,

(ii) characterization of multi-sample distribution-free statistics,

(iii) “optimal” one-sample distribution-free tests,

(iv) distribution-free tests of independence,

(v) distribution-free tests of randomness.

A second general area of research was stochastic processes, e.g., uniform renewal processes, Weibull-type Poisson processes, and Pareto renewal processes. During his career he published 39 papers. Chuck enjoyed collaborations, and wrote papers with 25 colleagues, one being David Blackwell. Honors include election as a Fellow of the American Statistical Association, the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, and Fulbright Fellow.

It was noted in an obituary written for the Mathematical Association of America that the Bell and Thomas families (Thomas was his mother’s maiden name) had relations who were teachers going back 125 years, contributing a total of 400 years of service to that profession. Both Chuck and Mary, who teaches French, continued this tradition.

Chuck died on October 26, 2010, in Los Angeles. He was predeceased by his daughter, Elaine E. Bell, and is survived by his wife of more than 56 years, Mary Drye Bell, his children Karen Bell Shirley and her husband Jensen H. Shirley, Roslyn A. Bell, C.B. Bell, III, and his granddaughters Jessica A. Shirley and Ebony K. Shirley.

All who knew him will remember his infectious laugh, his love of gumbo, his upbeat attitude, and his friendship.


Written by Ingram Olkin, Stanford University

Charles B Bell Jr ("Chuck")
Photo courtesy of C. B. Bell III:


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