Wilks, Samuel Stanley

Wilks, Samuel Stanley (1906-1964), the father of mathematical statistics at Princeton and a leader in the development of that discipline in the United States, was born on his father's farm near the town of Little Elm in northern Texas. He began his education in a one-room schoolhouse in Little Elm, and later attended high school in nearby Denton. He took his bachelor's degree at North Texas State Teachers College, his master's at the University of Texas, and his Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, then the center for statistical study in the United States. He came to Princeton in 1933, and in 1944 was appointed professor of mathematics and director of the newly founded Section of Mathematical Statistics, positions he held until his death twenty years later.

The twenty-one men who took their Ph.D.'s under Wilks played a leading role in the development of statistics in the United States and Canada. As graduate students, they had been inspired by his high expectations of them. Wilks was delighted when a student produced a fresh solution to a problem. ``Kind of a nice result,'' he would say in his Texas drawl, ``kind of pretty.'' Undergraduates responded equally well to his generous sharing of ideas and his challenging teaching; a number of senior theses written under him were published.

Wilks was concerned with keeping theoretical and applied mathematics in close association and in having them contribute to other disciplines. As one of his students, Frederick Mosteller, first chairman of the Harvard department of mathematical statistics, said, ``Boundaries between disciplines, organizations, and people never lasted long in his mind, for he thought in terms of bridges, entrances, and opportunities.''

Wilks sought to improve the teaching of mathematics at all levels, from kindergarten through high school as well as in college and graduate school. He organized courses on quality control inspection sampling for industry and made wartime contributions to antisubmarine warfare and the solution of convoy problems. He was chairman of the committee that analyzed the reasons public opinion polls had erroneously predicted the outcome of the 1948 Dewey-Truman presidential election. And it was at his suggestion that Princeton's football coach Charlie Caldwell used game movies, replayed many times, to grade each player on every play, in order to evaluate his effectiveness under varying conditions more accurately.

Although Wilks was responsible for a considerable body of original research, his major contribution to his profession was as committeeman and adviser. ``He was a hard-working, modest committee member,'' his Princeton colleague John Tukey recalled,``who was always there; who always knew, though he would only admit it indirectly, more about related programs than anyone else.'' Because of these qualities he was widely sought as a leader in scholarly organizations and as an adviser to the federal government. Professor Mosteller called him the ``Statesman of Statistics'' -- a title borne out by even a partial listing of the offices Wilks held: president of the American Statistical Association as well as of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, of which he was a founder; chairman of the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences, which he helped to create, and also of the Division of Mathematics of the National Research Council; director of the Social Science Research Council; member of the United States Commission for UNESCO; member of the Applied Mathematics Panel of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II; and later adviser and consultant to many agencies in the Executive Office of the President, in the Department of Defense, and in the National Science Foundation. He was editor of the Annals of Mathematical Statistics during eleven crucial years in which it became the foremost journal in its field. He was a member, and active committeeman, of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Wilks impressed his students and his colleagues as a vigorous, wise, and devoted man, sensitive to the feelings of others, and possessing a technical skill adequate to any demand. But, in the words of Professor Tukey, he is remembered by them above all for ``his Scottish canny knack for finding a way through their intellectual or organizational brambles.''


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

Go to Search A Princeton Companion