Statistics comes to Swarthmore College

Some years ago, I studied mathematics and statistics. At that time, there was only one statistician among the mathematics department members, maybe the entire Swarthmore College faculty, Gudmund R. Iversen. He was my academic adviser. Professor Iversen was grey, tweedy and Norwegian. He always addressed me as Miss Kesselman, which helped alleviate my shyness at the time.

Professor Iversen got his PhD in statistics from Harvard University in 1969. I noticed only one other familiar name on that very short list of all Harvard Statistics PhD alumni: Columbia University political science and statistics professor Andrew Gelman PhD in 1990.

Lunch with Tufte

Professor Iversen had a group of colleagues, all statisticians from other academic institutions. They would visit Swarthmore to give lunchtime talks, or more typically, late Friday afternoon presentations to mathematical statistics students.

I recall one particular guest statistician. Edward Tufte was on the faculty of Princeton University, and had recently written his first book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. The venue was a small private room in Sharples dining hall. I was one of maybe 20 attending.

Tufte was high-strung and slightly fussy, with occasional flashes of humor. He handed out hardback copies of his book, admonishing us “not to dip them in the gravy” from lunch (there was no gravy at lunch). Tufte explained that he had to take out a third mortgage on his house to finance the production and publication of Visual Display. The book was gorgeous. The statistical graphs were unlike anything I had ever seen before. Tufte spoke at length about Charles Minard’s famous map representing Napoleon Bonaparte’s doomed Russian campaign. In the summer of 1812, Napoleon set out for Moscow with 440,000 troops. Only 10,000 returned.

Tufte spoke well. After a mild question and answer session, he retrieved copies of his book from us. I badly wanted to keep mine. For a little more Tuftese see my Chart Art post.

Statistics moves up in the world

During my time at Swarthmore College, statistics was considered a marginal field of study, at best. The current math department chairman, James England, referred to it as “cocktail party math”. Professor Iversen had tenure by the time I arrived, yet he didn’t have an office with the rest of the mathematics department. Instead, he still occupied the same room in the 1st level basement of the engineering building as he had since 1973, and a ten minute walk from the rest of the department.  It was an almost windowless room, with woven wool rugs on the floors and hung on the walls, which kept the air warm and dry. Naturally, the furniture was mostly mid-century Scandinavian modern.

Given that background, I was surprised and happy when Professor Iversen became the new department head in 1992! In 1993, the department name changed. Now it is the Swarthmore College Mathematics and Statistics Department. As far as I can tell, Professor Iversen kept his original office even while he was department chair. After twenty years, it was their turn to come to him.


I happened upon a pleasant review of Statistics in Society: The Arithmetic of Politics written by Iversen for the MAA (Mathematical Association of America) in February 2000. The book is actually a collection of 47 essays. Overall, the review is positive. Excerpt:

The book grew out of activities supported by what is known as the Radical Statistics group, a twenty-five year old group unknown to me before reading this book. Radical Statistics is “a group of statisticians and others who share a common concern about the political assumptions implicit in the process of compiling and using statistics, and an awareness of the actual and potential misuses of statistics and its techniques.”

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