George Box

I would most likely not exist if it were not for George Box. My father took a course from George while my father was a student at Princeton. George agreed to start the Statistics Department at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and my father followed him to Madison, to be the first PhD student. Dad graduated, and the next year was a professor there, where he and George remained for the rest of their careers.

George died today, he was born in 1919. He recently completed An Accidental Statistician: The Life and Memories of George E. P. Box which is an excellent book that captures his great ability to tell stories. It is a wonderful read for anyone interested in statistics and management improvement or just great stories of an interesting life.

photo of George EP Box

George Box by Brent Nicastro.

George Box was a fantastic statistician. I am not the person to judge, but from what I have read one of the handful of most important applied statisticians of the last 100 years. His contributions are enormous. Several well know statistical methods are known by his name, including:

George was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1974 and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1979. He also served as president of the American Statistics Association in 1978. George is also an honorary member of ASQ.

George was a very kind, caring and fun person. He was a gifted storyteller and writer. He had the ability to present ideas so they were easy to comprehend and appreciate. While his writing was great, seeing him in person added so much more. Growing up I was able to enjoy his stories often, at our house or his. The last time I was in Madison, my brother and I visited with him and again listened to his marvelous stories about Carl Pearson, Ronald Fisher and so much more. He was one those special people that made you very happy whenever you were near him.

George Box, Stuart Hunter and Bill Hunter (my father) wrote what has become a classic text for experimenters in scientific and business circles, Statistics for Experimenters. I am biased but I think this is acknowledged as one of (if not the) most important books on design of experiments.

George also wrote other classic books: Time series analysis: Forecasting and control (1979, with Gwilym Jenkins) and Bayesian inference in statistical analysis. (1973, with George C. Tiao).

George Box and Bill Hunter co-founded the Center for Quality and Productivity Improvement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1984. The Center develops, advances and communicates quality improvement methods and ideas.

The Box Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Industrial Statistics recognizes development and the application of statistical methods in European business and industry in his honor.

All models are wrong but some are useful” is likely his most famous quote. More quotes By George Box

A few selected articles and reports by George Box

Related: Peter ScholtesSoren BisgaardIt is not about proving a theorem it is about being curious about thingsBox on Quality

Related: Bradley Jones posted his thoughts on Georgeremembrance by Professor Bovas AbrahamEn Memoria de George E. P. Box, Doctor Honoris Causa por la UC3M by Daniel Peña – George Box, (1919-2013): a wit, a kind man and a statistician by Julian Champkin, Significance Magazine – UK Royal Statistical SocietyStatistics for the Rest of Us

If you want to honor the memory of George, contributions can be made to UW Foundation-George Box Endowment Fund (for the support of statistics graduate students) or Agrace HospiceCare.

And a last message from George, “Experiment! Make it your motto day and night. Experiment, And it will lead you to the light …Be Curious, …Get Furious… Experiment, And you’ll see!” Experiment by Cole Porter

Full obituary

George E. P. “Pel” Box, age 93, died on Thursday, March 28, 2013, at home.

He was much loved and will be missed by many. A celebration of his life will be held at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 5, 2013, at First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive, Madison.

Pel was born in Gravesend, Kent, England in 1919. Born into modest means, both he and his brother, Jack earned scholarships in order to attend the more elite public school in Kent. Pel began his scientific life as a chemist, publishing his first paper at the age of 19 on the activated sludge process to produce clean effluent. Understanding the dangers of fascism, he abandoned his education and enlisted in the army on the very first day he was eligible. During his six years in the army he eventually was sent to Porton Down Experimental Station to study the potential impact of poison gases. George realized that only a statistician could get reliable results from experiments so he taught himself statistics and a career was born.

After the war, George worked at Imperial Chemical Industries for eight years, spending 1953, however, at North Carolina State where he met some of the pre-eminent statisticians of the day. After working again in England for a few years, he left ICI and went to Princeton University in 1956 to direct a statistical research group. George came to Madison in 1959 establish the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Statistics in 1960 and retired as an emeritus professor in 1992, though he continued to contribute research papers and write books until his death. George co-founded the UW Center for Quality and Productivity Improvement with William “Bill” Hunter in 1985. He wrote and co-authored major statistical books on evolutionary operation, times-series, Bayesian analysis, the design of experiments, statistical control, and quality improvement. George loved his students and was proud all their contributions. His last book, a memoir called, An Accidental Statistician: The Life and Memories of G.E.P. Box, is soon to be published by Wiley.

George received many honors, including being elected Vilas Research Professor of Statistics at the UW Madison in 1980, and a Fellow of the Royal Society, in 1985. George is remembered for his long-running Monday Night Beer and Statistics sessions, held at his house and open to all campus researchers and students. He provided analysis and suggestions, and many students later said that they learned more from these sessions than from any classroom or textbook. Pel had encyclopedic knowledge of song lyrics and almost every poem or verse he had every heard. His favorite book, however, was Alice in Wonderland. We also remember his skits and songs such as “There’s No Theorem Like Bayes’ Theorem.” We treasure him for his wit, modesty, kindness and warmth; his love of family and friends.

He is survived by his wife, Claire Quist Box; his former wife, Joan Gunhild Box; their daughter, Helen Elizabeth Box (Tom Murtha) and children, Isaac and Andy of Oak Park, IL; son, Harry Christopher Box (Stacey) and children, Henry and Eliza of Cummington, Mass.; son, Simon (Wendy) and children, Mark, Emma, and great-granddaughter, Olivia. He is also survived by the loving family of his late brother, Jack; Michael (Angela) and children, Sarah and Timothy; Roger (Jean); Margaret (Kevin) and son, James; and Dana (John) and children, Katie and Charlie.

A special thanks to Agrace HospiceCare in Madison for their steadfast and kind support. Heartfelt thanks for the loving care provided by Kolleen Bakkum and 3 year old Lincoln and deep gratitude to Gary (Frankie) Johnson for his many years of friendship and support. George was buried on April 2, 2013, at the Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability in the Natural Path Sanctuary.

If you want to honor the memory of George, contributions could be made to UW Foundation-George Box Endowment Fund (for the support of graduate students) US Bank Lock Box 78807, Milwaukee, WI 53278; Agrace HospiceCare, 5395 E. Cheryl Parkway Madison, WI 53711.

And a last message from George, “Experiment! Make it your motto day and night. Experiment, And it will lead you to the light …Be Curious, …Get Furious… Experiment, And you’ll see!” Cole Porter

14 thoughts on “George Box

  1. Svante Wold

    Hi John:
    This was a very nice presentation on the late George Box. I spent 1973-74 in Madison at the stat department on George’s and Your father’s invitation. Your father and I became good friends, and I still am shocked by his death some years later. And now George has passed away, leaving us all very sad.

    I am happy to see that you continue your father’s work on quality and statistics. Greatly needed !

    All the best // Svante

  2. Govind Mudholka

    I met George Box at personal level only once when he was at the University of Rochester for a commencement and, obviously, an honorary doctorate. Allen Wallis, then the President of the university admired George and had attempted to recruit him for chairing the Statistics Department here. The only other statistician so honored by the U of R was Youden. I was given the task of writing the citation honoring Box and accompanying him to the Eastman Theater and around the campus. It was a very pleasant, but very short time spent with him. It may be worth noting that Box was the son in law of R.A. Fisher, the father of modern statistics.
    On the last day of May this year I will be completing 50 years at the University of Rochester, but well remember his two visits to our campus.

    Govind Mudholkar

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  4. jorge alberto achcar

    I had the opportunity to attend lectures of George Box in Madison in 1979 and be guided in my PhD degree by his first doctoral student in Madison (Bill Hunter).I am very sad.
    I owe a lot to my teachers.

    Jorge Alberto Achcar (University of São Paulo,Brazil)

  5. Dr Henry R Neave

    George was both a wonderful statistician and a wonderful man. I would like to record with unbounded gratitude two ways in which he helped me. First, even before I began my appointment at Nottingham University as Assistant Lecturer in Statistics, he invited me to spend the whole of 1967–68 at his fantastic Statistics Department at Madison as Visiting Assistant Professor. What a start to my career! Then, 20 years later, in the early days of my involvement with Dr Deming, he helped me introduce Deming’s work to British statisticians. How? I asked him if, next time he was back in his home country, he would allow me to share the stage with him in a one-day seminar. The main aim of his involvement would of course be to draw in the crowds! Mine would be to tell what I then understood of Deming’s unique wisdom. George thought it a great idea! The seminar took place in the 250-seater Portland Lecture Hall at Nottingham University. Long before it began, there was standing room only.
    Bless you, George: you were one of a kind.

  6. Steve Quigley

    George’s “friends” at Wiley will miss him dearly. His wit, steadfastness, notoriety, understanding, and calming demeanor were one-of-a-kind, especially in light of the iconic stature of the man. In the preface to his autobiography, it is written: “His presence is our present.” How true. And, the good news is that, even upon his death, the “presence” of his written words will endure for a long time to come.

  7. Judith Allen

    I first met George when he was 90. I remember that he was sitting by a window reading The New Yorker. I knew nothing about statistics, but I read the New Yorker every week–aha, I thought, something we have in common. Maybe I’ll be able to have a conversation with this guy. When George was 91, he decided to write down some of the many stories of his life, and I was lucky to work with him on this for the next two and a half years. During that time, I learned that we had more in common than the New Yorker magazine; I made a true and wonderful friend. George would probably not want this said of him, but few have earned their final rest with more grace.

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  9. thomas hoskyns leonard

    George was a good friend of my father Captain Cecil Leonard and they discussed war stories together when my father visited me in Madison.

    Other reminiscences about George are included in Chapter 6 of my academic life story ‘The Life of a Bayesian Boy’ which is published on my website

    George and his closest colleagues were very adept at academic politics and George introduced an element of comedy into this too.

    They was an element of give and take in all of George’s academic relationships, with e.g. colleagues and students alike,but it was usually a positive sum game.

    As with all successful scientists, George Box’s potential greatness will be decided by public scrutiny of the quality and originality of his contributions in relation to the literature. For example, his one time mentor Florence Nightingale David has long since joined the icons of our discipline. George always came up with a neat practical interpretation, and his clever nuances frequently confounded the mathematical statisticians.

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