Ingram Olkin, influential Stanford professor of statistics and education, dies at 91

Ingram Olkin applied new and innovative statistical models to uncover new insights in behavioral, medical and social sciences, and is best known for developing statistical analyses for evaluating education policies. He was also an ardent supporter of improving the stature of women in the field of statistics.

Ingram Olkin, professor emeritus of statistics and education at Stanford, died at home in Palo Alto on April 28 at the age of 91. An eminent scholar, teacher and stalwart contributor to many civil rights causes, Olkin died of complications from colon cancer after a lengthy battle with the disease, through most of which he was remarkably energetic and mentally alert, especially for a person of his age.

Ingram Olkin

Ingram Olkin (Image credit: Ed Souza)

He is best known for developing statistical analyses for evaluating policies, particularly in education. Throughout his career, Olkin conducted highly significant research concerning new and innovative statistical models and methods for the behavioral medical, and social sciences, often simultaneously. Particularly outstanding is his research into combining, statistically, the scientific results from independent studies.

“He was a man of remarkable intelligence and affability. His nearly boundless energy was generously used for the welfare of others,” said Richard Cottle, a professor emeritus of management science and engineering and a close friend of Olkin. “It is hard to capture in words the goodness that Ingram showed in his everyday life.”

Born in Waterbury, Conn., on July 23, 1924, he was the only child of Julius and Karola (nee Bander) Olkin, both immigrants from Eastern Europe. At the age of 10, Ingram and his parents moved to New York City, and he later attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx from which he graduated in 1941. He enrolled at City College of New York (CCNY), but his studies were interrupted in 1943 when he volunteered and served in the U.S. Army Air Force as a meteorologist until 1946.

Returning to CCNY, he completed his degree in mathematics and went on to obtain a master’s degree in mathematical statistics at Columbia University followed by a PhD in mathematical statistics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, conferred in 1951.

Entry into academia

For his first academic position, Ingram joined the Mathematics Department faculty at Michigan State University as an assistant professor and rose through the ranks to become a full professor. During the nine years he spent at Michigan State, he enjoyed productive sabbatical leaves at the University of Chicago (1955) and Stanford (1958). In 1960 he joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota to chair the formation of a new Statistics Department. One year later, he moved permanently to Stanford University, where he held a joint appointment with the Department of Statistics and the Graduate School of Education.

Olkin’s research, teaching and other professional activities have had far-reaching influence in mathematical and educational statistics and their applications.

His scientific legacies lie in several fields, most notably multivariate statistical analysis, inequalities (especially majorization), linear algebra, and a subject called meta-analysis in which he was particularly active in his later years.

The latter subject enables researchers to combine separate studies in a manner that makes them more meaningful. Among the many books Ingram Olkin has co-authored and co-edited are Inequalities: Theory of Majorization and its Applications (with Albert Marshall) and Statistical Methods for Meta-Analysis (with Larry V. Hedges).

Ingram’s dedication to his profession was outstanding. He belonged to the editorial boards of numerous journals on statistics and other fields. While serving as its editor, Ingram successfully advocated splitting the prestigious journal Annals of Mathematical Statistics into two journals: Annals of Statistics and Annals of Probability. He was instrumental in the formation of the Journal of Educational Statistics (now called the Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics). He served as chair of the Statistics Department at Stanford (1973 –1976). He was president of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics and chair, co-chair, or member of countless committees and panels at the national level.

Olkin’s outstanding record of accomplishment and service brought him international recognition and a long list of honors and awards. Among them are the Wilks Medal and Founders Award from the American Statistical Association, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an honorary doctor of science from De Montfort University, election to the National Academy of Education, and the Melvin Zelen Leadership Award from the Department of Biostatistics at Harvard University’s School of Public Health.

A proponent of women’s rights

Olkin also devoted considerable time and energy to increasing the number and status of women in graduate studies and in tenure-line academic positions at the university level. He was instrumental in convincing the National Science Foundation to support a successful program that brought untenured female professors of statistics to Stanford for the summer, where they could interact with some of the leading figures in the field. To the end, Ingram continued to be an advocate for giving women and minorities opportunities and fair treatment in all respects. In recognition of his support for women in statistics, he became the first (and only) male recipient of the Elizabeth L. Scott Award from the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies.

“Ingram Olkin was a gentleman in the best sense of the word,” said Myra H. Strober, a professor emerita at the Graduate School of Business and at the Graduate School of Education. “He always supported talented women, students as well as faculty, and listened carefully to our difficulties and strategized with us on how to overcome them. He was brilliant, but he was gentle, never belittling others and always open to hearing new ideas. We will miss him greatly.”

Ingram was a member of the Stanford Emeriti Council, a group that plans quarterly talks by distinguished retirees for emeritus faculty and staff and their spouses. He was also a member of a group that planned a series of presentations on successful aging for such an audience.

Ingram was an active participant in monthly faculty lunches at Stanford’s Hillel.

He loved theater, art, classical music and especially opera, much of which he attended in San Francisco or elsewhere in his worldwide travels.

Ingram is survived by his wife Anita, with whom he was about to celebrate their 71st wedding anniversary; his daughter Vivian, her husband Sim Sitkin, their children Leah and Jared; his daughter Rhoda and children Noah and Sophia; and his daughter Julia and children Rachel and Jeremy.

Ingram made arrangements to donate his body to Stanford Hospital for science research; his wish was carried out. No memorial service has yet been announced.

Donations in memory of Ingram Olkin can be made to Stanford Hillel or to West Bay Opera.

Media Contacts

Bjorn Carey, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-1944; bccarey@stanford.edu