Nov 16, 2017

James (Jim) Hannan, 1922–2010

Some information on the life of James Hannan, whose widow’s legacy has created the Hannan Graduate Student Travel Awards (see cover article).

James F. Hannan, Fellow of the IMS and professor emeritus in the Department of Statistics and Probability at Michigan State University, died on January 26, 2010, at the age of 87. His widow, Bettie Creighton Hannan, passed away this year, leaving the IMS a legacy to create the Hannan Graduate Student Travel Awards.

Jim Hannan lived an interesting life, one whose fundamental research in repeated games was not fully appreciated until late in his career. During his service as a meteorologist in the Army in World War II, Jim made weather forecasts and found time to play in many poker games. His later research led to strategies for the repeated play of a game that apply to selecting the best forecaster.

Jim was born in Holyoke, Mass., on September 14, 1922. He enlisted in the US Army Air Force, serving as a meteorologist. This took him to army airbases in China by the close of the war. Following discharge from the army, Jim studied mathematics at Harvard and graduated with an MS in 1947. To prepare for doctoral work in statistics at the University of North Carolina that fall, Jim went to the University of Michigan in summer 1947, though a routine physical revealed the possibility of tuberculosis, and he was hospitalized for several months. He started his study at UNC–Chapel Hill that fall, researching compound decision theory under Herbert Robbins. Having taken time out from his research to work as an instructor at Catholic University in Washington DC, his UNC thesis was awarded in 1953; it contains results in compound decision theory, a density central limit theorem for the generalized binomial, and exact and asymptotic distributions associated with a Kolmogorov statistic. Jim started as assistant professor at Michigan State University in fall 1953, remaining there until his retirement in 2002, after a career that included major contributions to compound and empirical Bayes decision theory and other areas.

He published his work on repeated games in Contributions to the Theory of Games (1957). The significance of the work was only rediscovered in the 1990s and the term Hannan consistency was coined. The belated recognition of the results in the 1957 paper may be due to the cryptic writing style and notations of the author. After seeing a Hannan proof, Wassily Hoeffding is said to have remarked “What is this, a telegram?”

Jim served as the Book Review editor for the Annals of Mathematical Statistics from 1967–1972. He and his colleague Vaclav Fabian co-authored Introduction to Probability and Mathematical Statistics, Wiley, 1985.

Jim was ever generous in giving help to graduate students. Usually found in his office, he interacted with many colleagues on matters of mathematics and proofs. He enjoyed improving results and was very reluctant to submit research results until much effort was made to improve them and/or to shorten their proofs. Jim directed or co-directed the doctoral research of 20 students.

This information is condensed from Dennis Gilliland’s obituary of Jim Hannan, which appeared in the April 2010 issue of the IMS Bulletin. “A Conversation with James Hannan,” conducted in spring 2008, appeared in Statistical Science: freely available here.

Apply for a Hannan Graduate Student Travel Award: see


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