Jul 16, 2013

Obituary: George E. P. Box, 1919–2013


George Box. Photo: Brent Nicastro

 “Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise.” 
  Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

GEORGE EDWARD PELHAM BOX, professor emeritus of Statistics and of Industrial & Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, died on Thursday, March 28, 2013, at the age of 93. George founded the Department of Statistics in 1960 and co-founded the Center for Quality and Productivity Improvement, both at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. George made profound contributions in many areas, particularly experimental design, time series analysis, process control and quality improvement. He mentored generations of grateful students and influenced researchers far and wide. He was known for his humor, genial nature and compelling storytelling abilities. His most famous quote is, “All models are wrong but some are useful.”

George was born in Gravesend, Kent, England in 1919. Born into a family of modest means, both he and his brother Jack earned scholarships at an elite public school in Kent. George began as a chemist, publishing his first paper at 19. Understanding the dangers of fascism, he abandoned his education and enlisted in the army on the very first day he was eligible. While in the army, he studied the impact of poison gases at Porton Down Experimental Station. George realized that only a statistician could get reliable conclusions from experiments so he taught himself statistics and a career was born.

After the war, George obtained a BSc in mathematical statistics from University College London in 1947. He interrupted a master’s program to begin working in the Dyestuffs Division of Imperial Chemical Industries for eight years. While at ICI, he completed a PhD at University College in 1952, under Egon Pearson and H. O. Hartley. He spent the academic year 1953–54 at the North Carolina State College (now University) in Raleigh, where he met some of the preeminent statisticians of the day. In 1957, he left ICI and became Director of the Statistical Techniques Research Group at Princeton University.

Milton Friedman suggested in 1940 that the University of Wisconsin–Madison establish a statistics department. The second try came when UW–Madison invited George Box in 1959 to establish the Department of Statistics, which he created in 1960. George became the Ronald Aylmer Fisher Professor of Statistics in 1971. He co-founded the UW Center for Quality and Productivity Improvement with William “Bill” Hunter in 1985. He retired as an emeritus professor in 1992, though he continued to contribute research papers and write books until his death.

George wrote or co-authored over 200 scientific papers and nine major statistical books on evolutionary operation, times series, Bayesian analysis, the design of experiments, statistical control, and quality improvement. Box, Hunter and Hunter’s Statistics for Experimenters remains a classic today. George loved his students and was proud of all their contributions. His last book, a memoir called An Accidental Statistician: The Life and Memories of G.E.P. Box, was published in 2013 by Wiley.

George received many honors, which are listed at www.stat.wisc.edu/people/george_box, although his favorite was being presented to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Several well-known statistical concepts bear his name: Box–Jenkins model, Box–Cox transformations, Box–Behnken designs, Box–Muller transform, Ljung–Box test and Box–Pierce test. The Box Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Industrial Statistics honors the development and the application of statistical methods in European business and industry.

George served as president of both the American Statistical Association (1978) and the Institute of Mathematical Statistics (1979). He was a visiting professor at Harvard Business School (1965–66) and University of Essex (1970–71), and Fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (1990–91); he received honorary degrees from University of Rochester, New York (1985), Carnegie Mellon University (1989), Universidad de Don Carlos III, Madrid (1995), and the University of Waterloo, Canada (1999).

George is especially remembered for his long-running Monday Night Beer and Statistics sessions, held at his home and open to all. He gave uniquely penetrating insights for practical problems, and many students claimed they learned more from these sessions than from any classroom or textbook. George also reached out to the local community and was instrumental in spreading the word about quality improvement in the city of Madison.

George had an encyclopedic knowledge of song lyrics and remembered almost every poem or verse he ever heard. His favorite book was Alice in Wonderland. We also recall his contributions to holiday party skits and song lyrics such as “There’s no theorem like Bayes’ Theorem” sung to the tune of “There’s no business like show business” from Annie Get Your Gun. We treasure his wit, modesty, kindness and warmth.

Written by Brian Yandell, Norman Draper, Bovas Abraham, and Conrad Fung.
A version of this document appeared in the memorial resolution at UW–Madison for 6 May 2013

EDIT @ August 28, 2013: George Box’s obituary inspired Terry Speed’s column in the September 2013 issue, which you can read here.

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  • Impressed by his books on statistics

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