Nov 17, 2015

Obituary: Esther Seiden, 1908–2014

Practically all of the biographical information contained herein comes from Ester Samuel-Cahn’s “A Conversation with Esther Seiden.” Statistical Science, 1992, 7, pp. 339–357.


On March 3, 1908, Esther Seiden was born in a small town in West Galicia, Poland—at that time ruled by the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. In her long life she took on many challenges with a determination and strength that amazed those who knew her. That life ended in Jerusalem on June 3, 2014 under the loving care of her colleague and friend Ester Samuel-Cahn and her caregiver Margie Lentija.

Early on, Esther showed an interest in and aptitude for mathematics. Her father did not favor mathematics as a subject or career for girls. Yet the family valued education, and with self-study and yearly trips to a city, she sat and passed examinations for advancement in school. Her father sent her to a Zionist Organization-sponsored gymnasium in Krakow for her last year; Esther matriculated in 1927.

Esther went to Stefan Batory University in what is now Vilnius to major in mathematics and minor in physics. She supported herself by tutoring in mathematics and Hebrew before her talent was recognized and a fellowship was awarded for her last year of study. Esther earned a Magister of Philosophy and was thinking that as a young woman she was limited to teaching in high school. However, a professor knew of her interest in mathematical logic and arranged a fellowship that allowed Esther to study one year under Alfred Tarski and Stanislaw Lesniewski at the University of Warsaw.

After that year, Esther sought a position teaching in the Warsaw school system. The only position available was teaching first grade. Esther taught a class of 65 first grade students! She also taught mathematics at higher levels.

In 1935, Esther immigrated to Palestine and for five years taught high school mathematics. She attended the Hebrew University, but lost interest in mathematics and became actively involved in the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary defense organization. Tiring of high school teaching, Esther supported herself during World War II by working as a secretary for the Red Cross.

By chance, Esther met a woman who worked at the British Government Bureau of Statistics; this led to an interview and a position working on the Census of Industry, her first exposure to statistics. Esther thought about returning to graduate studies in statistics and began attending lectures by Aryeh Dvoretzky and reading papers by R. A. Fisher.

Professor Tarski, now at Berkeley, recommended Esther to Jerzy Neyman. Esther came to Berkeley in Spring 1947 and was awarded a much needed research assistantship in 1948. Visiting Professor R. C. Bose gave two courses in summer 1947. There, Esther was introduced to finite projective geometry, orthogonal Latin squares and Euler’s conjecture. She was fascinated with the ease with which open problems could be stated: one was that of determining the number of points in a projective space satisfying a certain constraint. Her solution was accepted for publication in the Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society and it, together with some results in hypothesis testing, prompted Neyman to say it was her time to get out. Her PhD in Statistics was awarded in September 1949.

Her subsequent academic career included appointments at the University of Buffalo, the University of Chicago, Howard University, and the American University in Washington DC. She was on the faculty at Northwestern University for five years, with the fourth year on leave to the Indian Statistical Institute. Esther accepted a position in the Department of Statistics at Michigan State University in 1960 and remained there until 1978. That “retirement” was followed by years of appointments at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.


Esther Seiden teaching at the Indian Statistical Institute in 1958

The contact with Bose in 1947 led to Esther’s quest to disprove Euler’s conjecture, a conjecture that was finally disposed of by Bose, Shrikhande and Parker (see Bose, R. C., Shrikhande, S. S. and Parker, E. T. “Further Results on the Construction of Mutually Orthogonal Latin Squares and the Falsity of Euler’s Conjecture.” Canad. J. Math., 12, 189, 1960). In the 1970s, Esther and collaborators Walter Federer and A. S. Hedayat developed F-squares and a method of sum composition of orthogonal Latin Squares. It must have been particularly satisfying for Esther that the method gave a simple way to produce orthogonal Latin Squares of order ten.

Esther was a problem solver. Professor James Stapleton recalls a problem he presented to Esther that was suggested by a local physician. A knee has n = 7 muscles. The physician wanted cadaver knees to test after cutting subsets of muscles. Since the same knee can be used for more than one subset, the question was: What is the minimum number of cadaver knees needed to test for all possible subsets? Jim noted that the number is at least C7,3 = 35 and told Esther about the problem. A week or so later he was called about 10 pm with the answer 35. Subsequently, she tackled the general n question and with Professor Patrick Laycock published the solution (and more) in Laycock, P. J. and Seiden E., “On a Problem of Repeated Measurement Design with Treatment Additivity.” Ann. Statist., 1980, 8, 1284–1292.

Esther Seiden never tired—or retired, for that matter. Esther was tenacious and strong-willed. The day after major surgery, at 70 years of age, she walked over three miles to her home rather than call for help. Years later her fondness for long walks manifested itself while staying with a colleague in rural England. On such a walk she compared living in England to living inside a cabbage, it was all so green!

Esther’s work in the design of experiments, and her example of strength of character, continue to live on.

Written by Dennis Gilliland, Professor of Statistics and Probability, Michigan State University


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