Herbert Solomon, professor emeritus of statistics and department co-founder, dies at 85

Herbert Solomon

Herbert Solomon

Herbert Solomon, a professor emeritus who helped found the Statistics Department, died Sept. 20 at Stanford Hospital of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 85.

“Herb was instrumental in founding the Stanford Statistics Department, which is considered the leading department in the world,” said Bradley Efron, the Max H. Stein Professor of Statistics and Biostatistics. Solomon’s work had applications in engineering, behavioral and social sciences, marketing, law, education, health and defense.

“What great good fortune that I decided to attend Herb Solomon’s renowned classes on geometric probability in 1980,” former student Edward I. George, the Universal Furniture Professor of Statistics at the Wharton School, wrote in an e-mail. “I was instantly mesmerized—not just by the material but by this magnetic personality full of enthusiasm, curiosity and especially good humor. He took us all on a magical voyage through open problems, encouraging us to go at them, and nurturing us when we did.”

Solomon also was interested in applying statistics and probability to law. He studied jury decision-making as a function of both jury size and litigation type—an area he dubbed “jurimetrics.”

Born to Russian immigrants in New York City on March 13, 1919, Solomon was the oldest of three sons. Entering college at the height of the Great Depression, he went on to earn mathematics degrees—a bachelor’s from the City College of New York in 1940 and a master’s from Columbia University in 1941.

When World War II interrupted his studies, Solomon joined Columbia’s Statistical Research Group, which conducted military research, such as studies of aircraft reliability and bombing patterns. After the war, he resumed his graduate studies. In 1947, he married fellow graduate student Lottie Lautman.

In 1947, he came to Stanford with Al Bowker and other statisticians, and finished his graduate work on the Farm. In 1950, he received his doctorate and helped establish Stanford's nascent Statistics Department, which was founded in 1948 with Bowker as chair.

Between 1948 and 1952, Solomon served in the Office of Naval Research, where he was named the first head of a newly created statistics branch. His efforts focused on an innovative concept for defense agencies—supporting basic research programs in statistics and probability at universities.

From 1952 to 1959, Solomon was on the faculty at Columbia. In 1958, he came to Stanford for a sabbatical and never left. He chaired the Statistics Department from 1959 to 1964 and again from 1985 to 1988. During his career, he sponsored nearly 20 doctoral students and authored or co-authored about 75 papers and several books, notably Geometric Probability.

Solomon’s honors included being a fellow and president of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, a fellow of the American Statistical Association and a recipient of its S. S. Wilks Medal, and an awardee of the Townsend Harris Medal from City College of New York and of the Navy Department Distinguished Public Service Medal.

Colleagues recalled Solomon’s warmth, generosity and zest for life—and his legendary sense of humor.

Solomon was “a terrific raconteur,” Efron said. “He was the guy in the department who was best at telling jokes.” Efron, winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, also said he was grateful for Solomon’s support in the 1960s, when as chair of the Statistics Department, Solomon helped make sure Efron did not get kicked out of Stanford. As student editor of the campus humor magazine The Chaparral, Efron had put out an issue on sex and religion that resulted in his suspension.

“Herb was a very special person for me,” echoed former student Alan Gelfand, now a statistics professor at Duke University. “I often referred to him as my ‘second’ father, a comment on both his academic mentoring but also on my personal feelings for him. To all who knew him, he was always exceptionally generous, often in ways that would only be appreciated after the fact.”

A resident of Los Altos Hills since 1975, Solomon was devoted to family and Jewish causes and enjoyed politics and watching sports.

Survivors include his wife, Lottie, of Los Altos Hills, Calif.; sons Mark of Redwood City, Calif., and Jed of Menlo Park, Calif.; four grandchildren; and brothers Seymour of New York City and Henry of Bethesda, Md. His daughter, Naomi, perished in the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in his memory to either the Naomi L. Solomon Memorial Fund of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, 121 Steuart St., San Francisco, CA 94105, or checks made out to Stanford University for the Naomi L. Solomon Memorial Scholarship, Gift Processing, Office of Development, Frances C. Arrillaga Alumni Center, 326 Galvez St., Stanford, CA 94305-6105. A memorial service is set for Thursday, Sept. 23, at 2 p.m. at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills.