“I would like to think of myself as a scientist, who happens largely to specialise in the use of statistics”– An interview with Sir David Cox
- Author: Statistics Views
- Date: 24 Jan 2014
- Copyright: Image appears courtesy of Sir David Cox
Sir David Cox is arguably one of the world’s leading living statisticians. He has made pioneering and important contributions to numerous areas of statistics and applied probability over the years, of which perhaps the best known is the proportional hazards model, which is widely used in the analysis of survival data. The Cox point process was named after him.
Sir David studied mathematics at St John’s College, Cambridge and obtained his PhD from the University of Leeds in 1949. He was employed from 1944 to 1946 at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, from 1946 to 1950 at the Wool Industries Research Association in Leeds, and from 1950 to 1955 worked at the Statistical Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. From 1956 to 1966 he was Reader and then Professor of Statistics at Birkbeck College, London. In 1966, he took up the Chair position in Statistics at Imperial College Londonwhere he later became Head of the Department of Mathematics for a period. In 1988 he became Warden of Nuffield College and was a member of the Department of Statistics at Oxford University. He formally retired from these positions in 1994 but continues to work in Oxford.
Sir David has received numerous awards and honours over the years. He has been awarded the Guy Medals in Silver (1961) and Gold (1973) by the Royal Statistical Society. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1973, was knighted in 1985 and became an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy in 2000. He is a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences and a foreign member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters. In 1990 he won the Kettering Prize and Gold Medal for Cancer Research for “the development of the Proportional Hazard Regression Model” and 2010 he was awarded the Copley Medal by the Royal Society.
He has supervised and collaborated with many students over the years, many of whom are now successful in statistics in their own right such as David Hinkley and Past President of the Royal Statistical Society, Valerie Isham. Sir David has served as President of theBernoulli Society, Royal Statistical Society, and the International Statistical Institute.
This year, Sir David is to turn 90*. Here Statistics Views talks to Sir David about his prestigious career in statistics, working with the late Professor Lindley, his thoughts on Jeffreys and Fisher, being President of the Royal Statistical Society during the Thatcher Years, Big Data and the best time of day to think of statistical methods.
1. With an educational background in mathematics at St Johns College, Cambridge and the University of Leeds, when and how did you first become aware of statistics as a discipline?
I was studying at Cambridge during the Second World War and after two years, one was sent either into the Forces or into some kind of military research establishment. There were very few statisticians then, although it was realised there was a need for statisticians. It was assumed that anybody who was doing reasonably well at mathematics could pick up statistics in a week or so! So, aged 20, I went to the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, which is enormous and still there to this day if in a different form, and I worked in the Department of Structural and Mechanical Engineering, doing statistical work. So statistics was forced upon me, so to speak, as was the case for many mathematicians at the time because, aside from UCL, there had been very little teaching of statistics in British universities before the Second World War. Afterwards, it all started to expand.
2. From 1944 to 1946 you worked at the Royal Aircraft Establishment and then from 1946 to 1950 at the Wool Industries Research Association in Leeds. Did statistics have any role to play in your first roles out of university?
Totally. In Leeds, it was largely statistics but also to some extent, applied mathematics because there were all sorts of problems connected with the wool and textile industry in terms of the physics, chemistry and biology of the wool and some of these problems were mathematical but the great majority had a statistical component to them. That experience was not totally uncommon at the time and many who became academic statisticians had, in fact, spent several years working in a research institute first.
3. From 1950 to 1955, you worked at the Statistical Laboratory at Cambridge and would have been there at the same time as Fisher and Jeffreys. The late Professor Dennis Lindley, who was also there at that time, told me that the best people working on statistics were not in the statistics department at that time. What are your memories when you look back on that time and what do you feel were your main achievements?
Lindley was exactly right about Jeffreys and Fisher. They were two great scientists outside statistics – Jeffreys founded modern geophysics and Fisher was a major figure in genetics. Dennis was a contemporary and very impressive and effective. We were colleagues for five years and our children even played together.
The first lectures on statistics I attended as a student consisted of a short course by Harold Jeffreys who had at the time a massive reputation as virtually the inventor of modern geophysics. His Theory of Probability, published first as a monograph in physics was and remains of great importance but, amongst other things, his nervousness limited the appeal of his lectures, to put it gently. I met him personally a couple of times – he was friendly but uncommunicative. When I was later at the Statistical Laboratory in Cambridge, relations between the Director, Dr Wishart and R.A. Fisher had been at a very low ebb for 20 years and contact between the Lab and Fisher was minimal. I hear him speak on three of four occasions, interesting if often rambunctious occasions. To some, Fisher showed great generosity but not to the Statistics Lab, which was sad in view of the towering importance of his work.