May 16, 2013

Obituary: Martin B. Wilk, 1922–2013

Martin B. Wilk, OC, died in Yorba Linda, California, on February 19, 2013; he was 90.

Throughout his career, Martin demonstrated that a statistician can successfully span academia, industry and government. For over half a century, he made important contributions, and occupied senior positions, in each of these domains. While his name may be best known within the profession for the Shapiro–Wilk test for normality, his influence on statistical methods and practice has been much broader. He was, among others, Assistant Vice President and Director of Corporate Planning at AT&T and Chief Statistician of Canada. In 1999, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada (OC) for providing “insightful guidance on important matters related to our country’s national statistical system.”

Born and raised in Montréal, Martin Wilk attended McGill University, where he completed his Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering in 1945. After graduation he joined Canada’s National Research Council atomic energy project at Chalk River, Ontario, where he soon recognized the critical role of variability in data analysis. At first he developed his own techniques to handle this variability. It was only after his move in 1950 to Iowa State College as a Laboratory Research Assistant that he discovered the discipline of statistics. He was soon enrolled in statistical courses and underwent his conversion from engineer to statistician. At Iowa he completed a Master’s degree in 1953 and a PhD in 1955 in the area of experimental design under the supervision of Oscar Kempthorne.

Martin’s postdoctoral year was spent at Princeton University under John Tukey during which he was introduced to the research work of Bell Labs on a part-time basis. Attracted by the research environment of Bell Labs, he chose to continue there after his postdoctoral year. During the 1960s he took on progressively more senior positions in the statistical methods and research groups of Bell Labs. Between 1959 and 1963 he was also Professor of Statistics at Rutgers University, New Jersey, while maintaining a part-time consulting relationship with Bell Labs.

The contributions to statistical methodology for which Martin Wilk is renowned stem largely from this period at Bell Labs. With primary collaborators, Ram Gnanadesikan and Samuel Shapiro, he published a series of papers dealing with probability plotting for multivariate data, and diagnostic procedures for classical distributions, including the well-known Shapiro–Wilk test statistic for normality.

By the end of the 1960s, Martin had developed an interest in the broader managerial and organizational issues of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), the parent company of Bell Labs. Beginning with the issue of rate setting for telephone services, and as preparation for hearings by the Federal Communications Commission, he became involved in the assessment and improvement of the models being used to value various business lines. This involvement led to a recognition by AT&T’s management of the broader value of management science and Martin was to be an in-house leader in this respect. During the 1970s he directed staffs involved in corporate modeling, research and planning, becoming Assistant Vice President and Director of Corporate Planning in 1976.

In 1980, Martin was approached by the Government of Canada for the position of head of Statistics Canada. At that time, the agency had been experiencing some serious difficulties. Independent reviews of both management and of methods, commissioned by the Government, had identified a range of issues that needed to be addressed, not least of which was a loss of staff morale following a period of adverse publicity. Martin accepted this challenge and became Chief Statistician of Canada late in 1980, the first mathematical statistician to occupy this post.

Between 1981 and 1985, Martin refocused Statistics Canada by, for example, introducing a more integrated and cohesive organizational structure, strengthening the Agency’s contacts with Ministries and other important data users, putting in place a disciplined planning system, rationalizing its program of publications, and establishing a stronger analytical capacity. He gave the organization a sense of purpose again. During this period he also had to deal with a sudden Cabinet decision to cancel the 1986 census, a decision that he managed to have reversed after some persuasive lobbying and innovative funding proposals. Martin’s short tenure as Chief Statistician of Canada set the stage for Statistics Canada to flourish and become recognized as a world-class statistical agency over the following two decades.

After his retirement from Statistics Canada in 1985, Martin remained in Ottawa and undertook several important consultancies for the Canadian Government. In particular, he headed the National Task Force on Health Information that led to the creation of the Canadian Institute of Health Information. He also conducted a review for Revenue Canada of their data management and holdings with emphasis on strengthening the statistical use of these data. He served for many years on the National Statistics Council of Canada as well as on Statistics Canada’s Advisory Committee on Statistical Methods. Finally, approaching 80, he retired to the West Coast of the United States, where he was able to enjoy his later years with his second wife, Dorothy, his children and grandchildren.

Martin was a Vice President of the American Statistical Association in 1980–82, having previously served as President of his local chapter. He was also President of the Statistical Society of Canada for 1986–87, promoting the strengthening of ties between academic statisticians and statisticians in industry and government. He was made an Honorary Member of the SSC in 1988 “for seminal contributions to the fields of analysis of variance, multivariate analysis, model fitting and validation, for enormous contributions to Statistics Canada as the Chief Statistician and for insightful guidance of the Society while serving on its Board and as its President.”

Martin Wilk’s contributions to the statistical profession were recognized by many other honors throughout his career. He was, among others, a fellow of the ASA (1962), the IMS (1968), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1969). He received the Jack Youden Prize in 1972 and a Distinguished Alumni Award from Iowa State University in 1997.

Those who worked with Martin recall his formidable ability to argue a case, extemporaneously and sometimes at length, his penetrating questions often from unexpected angles, his ability to analyze complex issues quickly and focus on the crux of the matter, and his unending supply of aphorisms exactly suitable for the issue at hand. Many of his pronouncements continued to be quoted at Statistics Canada long after he retired.

The profession has lost a great statistician whose contributions to theory and practice will long be influential. For additional information about Martin Wilk’s life and career, see, among others:

D.R. Brillinger & J.F. Gentleman (1989). Martin Bradbury Wilk: a new honorary member of the Statistical Society of Canada. Liaison, 4 (1), 27–29.

C. Genest & G.J. Brackstone (2010). A conversation with Martin Bradbury Wilk. Statistical Science, 25, 258–272.

M. Lennick (2013). Martin Wilk remembered as ‘the best statistician in Canada’s history’. The Globe and Mail, Toronto, April 13.

Written by Christian Genest, McGill University, and Gordon J. Brackstone, Statistics Canada

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