Michigan Biostatistics Celebrates Two Anniversaries
Roderick Little, University of Michigan Department of Biostatistics Chair
The University of Michigan Department of Biostatistics held a conference in Ann Arbor November 13–14, 2009, to celebrate 55+/-5 years in existence … 55+/-5? Can they count? Or is that a 95% confidence interval? Well, the department of public health statistics at Michigan was formed in August of 1949, 60 years ago, and renamed the department of biostatistics 10 years later. Hence, the University of Michigan Biostatistics 50/60 Conference.
The conference featured a student/alumni poster session, talks by distinguished past faculty and alumni, and special sessions on career choice and the MS program in clinical research design and statistical analysis. Richard Cornell, former department chair, described the early days of the department, and Mark Becker, a former faculty member, gave a talk titled “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in UM Biostatistics.”
In 1949, the department consisted of Clarence J. Velz as chair, Fay Hemphill as resident lecturer, Helen L. Johnson as instructor, Mildred E. Harter as resident lecturer, and John J. Freysinger as chief IBM operator. Its mission was teaching, research, and advisory service to other departments in the School of Public Health and related groups. The statistical method was seen as a tool in the various public health disciplines and practices, not as an end in itself. Courses in public health statistics were taught and research was conducted on the prediction of poliomyelitis in 48 states, environmental analysis, public health economics, and demography.
Velz was succeeded by Felix Moore in 1956, and in 1960, the department was renamed the department of biostatistics as part of a major school reorganization. In June of 1971, Cornell, formerly a professor at Florida State University, took over as chair. This was a difficult time; the department failed to renew a public health service grant that funded students, forcing it to find other sources of funding. The department grew steadily under Cornell’s leadership, who served as chair from 1971–1983 and interim chair from 1990–1993.
In the last 25 years, the department has been chaired by Morton Brown, Graham Kalton, Jack Kalbfleisch, and Roderick Little. It was announced at the conference that Trivellore Raghunathan will become the next chair.
The department is one of the largest statistics groups in the country, with 28 core faculty, 51 administrative and research staff, more than 150 graduate students and postdocs, and about $15 million in research funding. Major accomplishments include the following:
- Randomized designs that reduce the number of trial participants who receive an inferior treatment, initiated by Cornell’s work on the ECMO trial
- Richard D. Remington and M. Anthony Schork’s text on biostatistical methods and other seminal texts on multivariate analysis, survival analysis, and missing data
- Fundamental changes in the U.S. system for determining organ donor allocations, saving lives of many individuals with end-stage heart, kidney, liver, and lung disease
- Identification of genes for type-two diabetes (cited by Time magazine as one of the 10 most exciting medical breakthroughs of 2007), eye diseases, obesity, lipid levels, and other diseases and traits
- Influential methodological contributions in areas such as the analysis of imaging data, survival and event history analysis, statistical genetics, bioinformatics, clinical trials, Bayesian methods, statistical computing, longitudinal data analysis, methods for missing data, and survey research