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2005 Rossi Award Winner - Charles Frederick Mosteller

Charles Frederick Mosteller, known affectionately by his colleagues and protégés as “Fred,” is the Roger I. Lee Professor of Mathematical Statistics, Emeritus, at Harvard University. Many of Mosteller’s works in both theoretical and applied statistics are considered classic texts. Mosteller helped popularize the term “Type III error” to describe instances where scientists rightly reject the null hypothesis, but for the wrong reason. One of his many important contributions to statistics is Understanding Robust and Exploratory Data Analysis. His work and influence have extended to other fields, particularly health care and school education. Appropriately, a book celebrating Mosteller’s contributions to statistics, science, and public policy is titled A Statistical Model.


Mosteller was born on December 24, 1916. He attended Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University), from which he graduated with both Bachelor (1938) and Masters (1939) of Science degrees in Mathematics. It was during these educational pursuits that Mosteller turned to statistics, rather than engineering. He then went to Princeton, where he received both a Masters (1942) and Doctorate (1946) degree in Mathematics.

During World War II, he worked with a group that provided statistical and research support to the U.S. War Department. One of his projects involved calculating the dispersion of a string of bombs. He also assisted Samuel Wilks in editing the Annals of Mathematical Statistics.

At age thirty, Mosteller accepted a lecturer and research associate post in Harvard University’s Department of Social Relations. He served in this role for five years, from 1946–1951. By 1951, he was named professor of Mathematical Statistics, and in 1953, acting chair of the Department of Social Relations.

An influential statistician

In the early 1950s, there were only nine professors of statistics at Harvard University and no more than three in the same department. Mosteller spearheaded the effort to bring the statisticians together in a “Statistics Department” at Harvard. In 1957, Mosteller was appointed chair of the new department, a position he held for fifteen years—including the first twelve years of the department’s existence.

Mosteller was one of the pioneers in bringing the teaching of statistics and probability to American schools, writing textbooks and teachers’ manuals and developing standards for teaching mathematics. In 1961, Mosteller “starred” in the first televised education course for college students on statistics, Continental Classroom, on NBC. The program was seen on 170 stations, viewed by over a million people, featured at 320 colleges and universities, and had over 75,000 students taking the course for credit.

Mosteller also wanted statistics to play a more important role in history and public policy. In the first of several classic works, he collaborated with David Wallace in applying statistical analyses to answer the controversial historical question of whether James Madison or Alexander Hamilton had authored the anonymous Federalist Papers. Using their analysis of word choices and patterns in other documents known to have been authored by Madison and Hamilton, they concluded that Madison was the likely author of the twelve anonymous papers (Mosteller and Wallace 1964). Mosteller also served as vice-chairman of the President’s Commission on Federal Statistics, an effort that eventually led to the National Research Council’s Committee on National Statistics. By 1964, he was appointed to the Board of Trustees of the prestigious National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. Many other organizations asked Mosteller to join their governing boards, including the Russell Sage Foundation (1964–1985), and the Social Science Research Council, which he chaired from 1965 to 1969.

Forays into education and health care

During the 1960s Mosteller began a friendship with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a professor of government at Harvard University, after attending a seminar Moynihan had organized on educational inequality affecting minorities in the United States. Mosteller’s collaboration with Moynihan that fully engaged him in educational research. Their meetings resulted in the landmark publication On Equality of Educational Opportunity (Mosteller and Moynihan 1972).

In 1972, Mosteller and then-dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, Howard Hiatt, instituted a series of seminars, focusing on problems in health and medicine. These were very popular, sometimes drawing over 100 faculty and clinicians. The seminar met for three years and broke into smaller groups that met regularly, conducted studies, and published results. One of the seminar’s product was the pioneering book Costs, Risks, and Benefits of Surgery (Bunker, Barnes and Mosteller 1977).

In 1977, Mosteller accepted an offer by Hiatt to become Chair of the department, a post he held until 1981. Mosteller’s leadership is credited with transforming the department into one of the “top biostatistics units in the world.” He would later (in 1997) become the first recipient of the Marvin Zelen Leadership Award from the Harvard Department of Biostatistics, and one of two endowed professorships in the department now bears Mosteller’s name.

When asked to lead the Department of Health Policy and Management in the mid-1980s, Mosteller became the first and only Harvard faculty member in history to chair four different departments. He held this post until 1987.

Emeritus years and the Center for Evaluation at Harvard

After forty-one years as an active faculty member (having also taught in Harvard’s Law School and its Kennedy School of Government), Mosteller was designated professor emeritus of mathematical statistics in 1988. Until his move from Massachusetts in 2003, he maintained an office at Harvard, an active research program, and daily office hours in the Department of Statistics.

During this era, Mosteller collaborated with Thomas Chalmers in the Health Care Technology Assessment Group, where they and others contributed to the development of methodology for systematic reviews and meta-analyses and its application in practice.

In 1990, Howard Hiatt began an Initiative for Children program at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The project sought to initiate programs to help children and bring research to bear on issues affecting young people. Hiatt and other Academy Fellows leading the Initiative for Children insisted that all the programs they undertook would be evaluated rigorously. Hiatt writes that:

we were unanimous in insisting that whatever programs we undertook would be subjected to rigorous statistical evaluation. And that, in turn, meant that we should do all we could to persuade Fred Mosteller . . . to join us.

Mosteller received funding from the Mellon Foundation to support a Center for Evaluation, where he served as director and used the funding to collaborate with a number of researchers on issues affecting children. One outcome of the center’s work was to encourage the use of randomized controlled trials to evaluate educational innovations. Mosteller was praised for “demonstrating that clinical trials can extend beyond medicine to bring new understanding to educational practices and innovations.”

Mosteller also worked with Hiatt and others to organize conferences in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Washington, DC on the need for fair tests of school innovations. The conference proceedings were published in Evidence Matters: Randomized Field Trials in Education, co-edited by Mosteller with Robert Boruch. These efforts have been credited with helping to influence decisions by the U.S. Department of Education to support experimental research. When the Initiative for Children program ended in 2002, both Hiatt and Mosteller were honored for their work.


The honors received by Mosteller cannot all be listed here, but they include a Guggenheim Fellowship (1969–1970); honorary doctorates in science from the University of Chicago (1973), Carnegie-Mellon University (1974), Yale University (1981), and Wesleyan University (1983), and an honorary doctorate in law (1991) from Harvard University. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and an honorary member of the Royal Statistical Society. He has been president of the Psychometric Society (1957–1958), the American Statistical Association (1967), the Institute of Mathematical Statistics (1974–1975), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1980). Mosteller received the American Evaluation Association’s Myrdal Science Award (1973); the Council for Applied Social Research’s Paul Lazarsfeld Prize for Applied Social Research (1979); the Samuel S. Wilks Award from the American Statistical Association (1986); the R.A. Fisher Award and Lectureship from the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies (1987); the Surgeon General’s Medallion from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for contributions to the nation’s health (1988); and Statistician of the Year Award of the Boston Chapter of the American Statistical Association (1990), an award that was recently renamed to honor him.

Mosteller has authored or co-authored over 360 papers, including one with each of his children. He has also published fifty-seven books, thirty-six reports, and twenty-five reviews.

A slightly longer version of this biographical note has been published by the James Lind Library, which documents the evolution of fair tests of medical treatments.

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