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Kempthorne, Oscar

Published onJul 30, 2021
Kempthorne, Oscar

(January 31, 1919 - November 15, 2000)

Quick Facts

Kempthorne became the principal person directing graduate work in the Department of Statistics, bringing national prominence to the department.

Source: “Remembering Oscar Kempthorne (1919-2000)” by Klaus Hinkelmann. Statistical Science. Vol. 16, No. 2 (May, 2001), pp. 169-183. Published by: Institute of Mathematical Statistics

Oscar Kempthorne was born on January 31, 1919 in St. Tudy, Cornwall, England and grew up on a family farm. Although he hated the chores he had to do on the family farm, growing up in rural England on a family farm would later influence his work as a statistician. After receiving multiple scholarships, Kempthorne received a BA (1940) with honors, and an MA (1943) in mathematics from Cambridge University. Later, in 1960, Cambridge University would award him an honorary Doctor of Science degree in recognition of his research contributions. At Cambridge, he had at first studied mathematics and mathematical physics, but after taking his first course in statistics from John Wishart he continued his studies of statistics in subsequent coursework. His studies in statistics exposed him to the English statistician Ronald Fisher. Fisher encouraged the concept that mathematics should be applied to practical matters, and could be useful in agricultural research. These ideas would stay with Kempthorne and would influence his work as a statistician.

After working for a few months at the British Ministry of Supply in 1941, he began work at the Rothamsted Experiment Station (which possibly was the first agricultural experiment station) in 1941. There he met the influential statisticians Ronald Fisher and Frank Yates, who had both done groundbreaking work in experimental design. His work at Rothhamsted very likely influenced the areas of statistics he would focus on during his career: experimental design, genetic statistics, and statistical inference. At Rothamsted he would do advising, consulting with staff, analysis of a national farm survey, and assess bomb damage on the railroads of Germany and Italy.

Kempthorne left the Rothamsted Experiment Station to observe and evaluate the post-war Greek elections in 1946, after the country's civil war, as part of a technical statistical group. The leader of the group was Iowa State professor Raymond Jessen, who was a survey sampling expert. After his work in Greece, Kempthorne joined the Iowa State faculty in January of 1947 as an Associate Professor of Statistics in the Department of Mathematics and the Statistical Laboratory. When he started at Iowa State, statistics was in the Department of Mathematics, but the Department of Statistics was formed that same year and he became a part of the fledgling department. Filling a vacancy left by Professor William G. Cochran and with the departure of two more professors in 1948, Kempthorne soon became the principal person directing graduate work in the department. Through his work in the Statistical Laboratory and the Department of Statistics, Kempthorne would play an important role in expanding the prominence of statistics at Iowa State through his teaching, research, writing, and consulting work. Promoted to Professor in 1951 and Distinguished Professor in Sciences and Humanities in 1964, he would work at Iowa State until his retirement in 1989.

In his research and publications, Kempthorne contributed to three major statistical areas: experimental design, genetic statistics, and the philosophy and foundations of statistics. All of these areas showed his interest in ensuring the accurate interpretation and gathering of scientific data. His first major book, The Design and Analysis of Experiments, was published in 1952. The book was to become a classic in its field, and helped jump-start the reputation of the new Department of Statistics at Iowa State. The first comprehensive treatment of experimental design at a "theoretical" level intended for graduate studies and research in this field, the book was influenced by two statisticians who had also worked at Rothamsted Experiment Station, Frank Yates and Ronald Fisher. The book was concerned with why an experiment was designed, and gave broad descriptions of experiments in a way so that the book could be understood by people with little training in mathematics.

Five years later Kempthorne published another pioneering book, Introduction to Genetic Statistics which was influenced by his work with plant and animal breeders, such as Jay L. Lush, an Iowa State professor who was one of the premier animal breeders of the time. His publications also included Statistics and Mathematics Biology, Biometrical Genetics, and Probability, Statistics and Data Analysis, in addition to over one hundred papers of which he was either the sole or joint author.

Kempthorne received many honors and awards in recognition of his work. He was a Fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the American Statistical Association, the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, and the International Statistical Institute. In his final year at Iowa State in 1989, Kempthorne was honored by his colleagues with the conference "From Observance to Inference - A Conference in Honor of Oscar Kempthorne." In 1993 he received the first honorary degree offered by the twenty-five year old University of Ionnina in Greece, an honorary Doctor of Philosophy.

Kempthorne married Valda Scales in 1949 and together they had three children: Jill, Joan, and Peter. Kempthorne died November 15, 2000 in Annapolis, Maryland.

Selected Sources

Oscar Kempthorne Papers, RS 13/24/52, Box 1, Folder 1, Biographical Materials, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

Hinkelmann, Klaus. “Remembering Oscar Kempthorne (1919-2000)”, Statistical Science. Vol. 16, No. 2 (May, 2001), pp. 169-183. Published by Institute of Mathematical Statistics.

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