Dec 15, 2011

Obituary: Paul Meier, 1924–2011

Columbia University professor emeritus Paul Meier, renowned for his work in applying statistics to medical research, died on Sunday, August 7, 2011, in New York City. He was 87. The former chairman of the Statistics department, Paul was a force in his intellectual pursuits as well as in his leadership of the department.

Paul took statistical tools and brought them to bear on some of the most important biological and medical questions that face society. Among Paul’s best-known accomplishments is his seminal work in co-developing the Kaplan-Meier estimator with Edward Kaplan, which has been most widely applied in the medical field. The estimator is a method for retrieving the survival functions from life-time data. It has been used particularly for measuring survival rates in clinical trials data where some patients have been followed until death while others survived. The journal article explaining the Kaplan-Meier estimator remains one of the most cited papers in statistics and in medical research. The effects of the Kaplan-Meier estimator have been felt by tens of thousands of researchers, clinical trial participants, and the patients and families who have benefited from the research findings.

Additionally, Paul pioneered “randomization” in clinical trials. “When I said ‘randomize’ in breast cancer trials, I was looked at with amazement by my clinical colleagues,” said Paul in an interview in 2004. “‘Randomize? We know this treatment is better than that one,’ they said. I said, ‘Not really…’”

Due to his advocacy with the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies, randomization is now the standard of evidence for clinical trials in the United States and across the globe.

Paul Meier was born in New York City on July 24, 1924. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics from Oberlin College in 1945. He then received his master’s in mathematical logic from Princeton in 1947 and his doctorate in statistics in 1951.

Paul began his academic career at Lehigh University in 1948–9, followed by Johns Hopkins University until 1952. He then joined the statistics faculty at the University of Chicago, where he taught from 1957 to 1992. During his time at Chicago, Paul led the department as chairman and acting chairman for ten years. He retired as the Ralph and Mary Otis Isham Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Statistics before returning to New York City and joining the faculty at Columbia University by heading the Department of Statistics and Division of Biostatistics in the School of Public Health.

During his lifetime, Paul founded the Society for Clinical Trials and served on numerous health-related national committees, like the NIH Diet-Heart Feasibility Study Review Committee and clinical trial Data Monitoring Boards.

Paul is survived by his wife of 63 years, Louise Goldstone Meier, three children, Diane, Karen and Joan, and five grandchildren.

Written by Professor Shaw-Hwa Lo and Professor David Madigan, Department of Statistics, Columbia University

Paul Meier


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