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Helen Walker (1891–1983)

1 December 2016 69 views No Comment

walker-helen-mHelen M. Walker contributed to the field of statistics through her work in education, and educational research. She was a longtime faculty member at Columbia University Teachers College and a member of numerous professional organizations. In the 1940s, a time when hardly any women held prominent academic positions, she was a unique pioneer in gaining professional visibility for women. Elected the first woman President of the American Statistical Association in 1944, she also served as President of the American Educational Research Association from 1949 to 1950.

Dr. Walker was born December 1, 1891 in Iowa. Upon graduating from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1912 she taught high school mathematics for nine years. In 1922 she received her masters degree from Teachers College of Columbia University and from there became an associate professor of the University of Kansas. She returned to Teachers College in 1925 as a lecturer in statistics, and was one of the first women to teach statistics in the United States. She taught statistics at Teachers College for many years, serving as full professor from 1940 to 1957, and was awarded the title of Professor Emerita upon her retirement.

Helen Mary Walker’s career in statistics education lasted nearly 50 years. She taught at numerous universities around the U.S. and also in Mexico, Chile, and Japan. While teaching, she received two doctorate degrees, one from Teachers College in 1929 and the other, a doctor of law degree from Wesleyan College in 1944. She was also the author of Studies in the History of Statistical Method (1929) and Mathematics Essential for Elementary Statistics (1934). Along with Joseph Levi she co-authored two college textbooks on statistics, Elementary Statistical Methods and Statistical Inference.

She was the head of the Teachers College project and one of the American educators assigned to help plan and establish the educational program at the National Institute of Education in India from 1961 to 1963.

In her 1944 presidential address at the 104th Annual Meeting of the American Statistical Association, she expressed her regard for statistical education as something of a “service to the welfare of society” She wrote, “Even as the great scientists have exercised a stimulating and generating influence upon the scientific education of the non-scientist, it is time for the leading statisticians to put serious thought upon the statistical education of the non-statistician.”

“Ways must be found to make general nature of statistical thinking better understood by the average intelligent citizen and particularly by persons in responsible positions—charged with policy formation.”… “The statistician is aware that real understanding of statistical inference comes only through years of study and is aghast at the temerity of trying to tell the layman anything about it—and so the layman goes on daily making erroneous judgements about practical affairs. Unfortunately those practical affairs are not always the private concern of the man himself. Sometimes they are your affairs and my affairs and the affairs of all citizens. The man to whom no one in college tried to teach anything about sampling may later become the chairman of an important committee in one of the state governments or in the federal government.”

After Helen Walker retired from Teachers College, far from leaving academic life, she continued writing and teaching in various capacities. In 1965 she traveled west to Claremont, California to live in a retirement community. There she was sought out by Pitzer College and by Claremont Graduate School to teach both undergraduate and graduate statistics courses. She finally ceased teaching in 1970 when she was 78, but even then she continued writing. In 1979 she left California to collaborate again in-person with Joseph Levi in revising one of their statistics texts.

She was a member of the Pi Lambda Theta National Honor Society for outstanding women in education, and in 1975 was named to the National Academy of Education. She lived her last years in Teaneck, New Jersey, passing away at the age of 91 on January 15, 1983.

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