In Memoriam: Professor Francis John Anscombe

Francis John Anscombe, an influential statistician who taught at Cambridge, Princeton and Yale universities, died in New Haven, Connecticut, on October 17 after a long bout with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 83.

A conscientious teacher and generous colleague, Mr. Anscombe enjoyed respect within his profession. He was recruited to Yale in 1963 by Nobel laureate economist Tjalling Koopmans with the mission of developing a new department and graduate program in statistics incorporating well-established statisticians already at Yale in other departments, notably, epidemiology and public health, economics and mathematics. Mr. Anscombe chaired the department for six years.

“The department has his stamp,” Dean of the Graduate School Jerome Pollitt noted in announcing Mr. Anscombe’s retirement in 1988. “The work is a careful balance of theory and applications. And there is a good, warm relationship among staff, students and faculty.”

An English citizen, Mr. Anscombe grew up in Hove, near Brighton, adjacent to the English Channel. His father, Francis Champion Anscombe, worked for chemical companies. His mother, Honoria Constance Anscombe nŽe Fallowfield, taught high school mathematics. Their son attended Trinity College, Cambridge, England, on a merit scholarship. He graduated with first class honors in mathematics in 1939, followed by a master’s degree in 1943.

During World War II, Mr. Anscombe worked for the English Ministry of Supply on industrial production and deployment of weapons. In 1940, he contributed to a project under Duncan Sandys, Prime Minister Churchill’s son-in-law, for aiming anti-aircraft rockets at German bombers. In 1944, Mr. Anscombe contributed to a strategy of massing guns to knock down German V-1 buzz bombs, terror weapons that rained on English cities. He also developed a mathematical solution for firing rockets during D-Day, when a bad sequence could have resulted in projectiles falling on English forces.

“Of course we were never told what was the operational outcome,” recalled David Kendall, later a Cambridge professor, “but photographs recently supplied by the Imperial War Museum show these ‘Mattress’ rockets in action, and reveal that the recommended firing-sequence was indeed a success.”

After the war, Mr. Anscombe spent two years at the Rothamsted Experimental Station, applying statistics to agriculture. This helped form his appreciation for problems with social relevance. He observed that “one thing is not expected in the academic world, namely, that research be relevant to anything…The field of statistics would be in better shape if it were the usual practice for the most exciting new Ph.D.s to spend several years in a research team that had some definite mission.”

Mr. Anscombe began teaching at Cambridge University in 1948. He joined the faculty of Princeton University in 1956, moving to Yale in 1963 to found its department of statistics. Mr. Anscombe was a pioneer in the application of computers to the statistical analysis of data. He argued persuasively that residuals be examined to diagnose the applicability of a postulated model. A classic paper (1973) showed that one equation could fit four very different data sets, illustrating the care that should be exercised in interpreting data. Anscombe published 50 research articles and one book, “Computing in Statistical Science through APL” (1981). His expertise included sampling inspections for industrial quality control, the philosophical foundations of probability and statistics and analysis of variance.

In addition to his work in statistics, Mr. Anscombe had many other interests, including classical music, poetry and art. He corresponded with poet T.S. Eliot in the 1940s. During 1951, impressed by then little-known surrealist painter Francis Bacon, he purchased a Bacon work on behalf of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge. After displaying the painting for a few months, the Museum returned it as too modernist. When Bacon became renowned, Mr. Anscombe sold this work to pay for educating his children. Mr. Anscombe had a serious interest in 20th century composers Charles Ives, William Billings and Benjamin Britten, and he, himself, wrote poems and light songs. Another love was hiking, from the English South Downs to the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Mr. Anscombe is survived by his wife, Phyllis Rapp Anscombe; three sons, Francis R., Anthony and Frederick Fallowfield, and a daughter, Elizabeth Valeika; five granddaughters, Emily and Sarah Valeika and Madeline, Bridget and Caroline Triggs-Anscombe; a brother, Anthony; and caregiver Linnette Carroll.

The funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. on Thursday, October 25, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 400 Humphrey Street, New Haven. Memorial contributions may be made to St. John’s Music Fund or the Neighborhood Music School Scholarship Fund.

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