John Tukey

John Tukey

John Wilder Tukey (June 16, 1915July 26, 2000) was an American statistician.


Tukey was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1915, and obtained a B.A. in 1936 and M.Sc. in 1937, in chemistry, from Brown University, before moving to Princeton University where he received a Ph.D. in mathematics.

During World War II, Tukey worked at the Fire Control Research Office and collaborated with Samuel Wilks and William Cochran. After the war, he returned to Princeton, dividing his time between the university and AT&T Bell Laboratories.

Among many contributions to civil society, Tukey served on a committee of the American Statistical Association that produced a report challenging the conclusions of the Kinsey Report, Statistical Problems of the Kinsey Report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.

He was awarded the IEEE Medal of Honor in 1982 "For his contributions to the spectral analysis of random processes and the fast Fourier transform (FFT) algorithm."

Tukey retired in 1985. He died in New Brunswick, New Jersey on July 26, 2000.

Scientific contributions

His statistical interests were many and varied. He is particularly remembered for his development with James Cooley of the Cooley-Tukey FFT algorithm. In 1970, he contributed significantly to what is today known as the jackknife estimation—also termed Quenouille-Tukey jackknife. He introduced the box plot in his 1977 book, Exploratory Data Analysis.

Tukey's test, the Tukey lambda distribution, and the Tukey-Kramer method all bear his name. He is also the creator of several little-known methods such as the trimean and median-median line, an easier alternative to linear regression.

Statistical terms

Tukey coined many statistical terms that have become part of common usage, but the two most famous coinages attributed to him were related to computer science.

While working with John von Neumann on early computer designs, Tukey introduced the word "bit" as a contraction of binary digit. The term bit was first used in an article by Claude Shannon in 1948.

Tukey used the term "software" in a computing context in a 1958 article for American Mathematical Monthly, the first published use of the term.

Tukey's statistical techniques played an influential role in the development of Dorian Shainin’s simple confirmation “Six Pack Test.” Six Pack Tests were known for being much simpler than t-tests, being non-parametric and having a basic rule set.

Statistical practice

He also contributed to statistical practice and articulated the important distinction between exploratory data analysis and confirmatory data analysis, believing that much statistical methodology placed too great an emphasis on the latter.

Though he believed in the utility of separating the two types of analysis, he pointed out that sometimes, especially in natural science, this was problematic and termed such situations uncomfortable science.


  • A D Gordon offered the following summary of Tukey's principles for statistical practice:

... the usefulness and limitation of mathematical statistics; the importance of having methods of statistical analysis that are robust to violations of the assumptions underlying their use; the need to amass experience of the behaviour of specific methods of analysis in order to provide guidance on their use; the importance of allowing the possibility of data's influencing the choice of method by which they are analysed; the need for statisticians to reject the role of 'guardian of proven truth', and to resist attempts to provide once-for-all solutions and tidy over-unifications of the subject; the iterative nature of data analysis; implications of the increasing power, availability and cheapness of computing facilities; the training of statisticians.

  • "Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise." J. W. Tukey (1962, page 13), "The future of data analysis". Annals of Mathematical Statistics 33(1), pp. 1–67.
  • "The combination of some data and an aching desire for an answer does not ensure that a reasonable answer can be extracted from a given body of data." J. W. Tukey (1986), "Sunset salvo". The American Statistician 40(1). Online at


  • (1972). Robust estimates of location: survey and advances. Princeton University Press.
  • (1998). Graphical analysis of multiresponse data. Chapman & Hall/CRC.
  • (1959). The measurement of power spectra from the point of view of communications engineering. Dover Publications.
  • (1954). Statistical problems of the Kinsey report on sexual behavior in the human male. American Statistical Association.
  • (1983). Understanding Robust and Exploratory Data Analysis. Wiley.
  • (1985). Exploring Data Tables, Trends and Shapes. Wiley.
  • (1991). Fundamentals of exploratory analysis of variance. Wiley.
  • (1991). Configural polysampling: a route to practical robustness. Wiley.
  • (1977). Data analysis and regression : a second course in statistics. Addison-Wesley.
  • Tukey, John W (1940). Convergence and Uniformity in Topology. Princeton University Press.
  • Tukey, John W (1977). Exploratory Data Analysis. Addison-Wesley.
  • (1973–). Index to statistics and probability. R & D Press. The collected works of John W Tukey, edited by William S Cleveland
  • Brillinger, David R (ed) (1984). Volume I: Time series, 1949–1964. Wadsworth.
  • Brillinger, David R (ed) (1985). Volume II: Time series, 1965–1984. Wadsworth.
  • Jones, Lyle V (ed) (1985). Volume III: Philosophy and principles of data analysis, 1949–1964. Wadsworth & Brooks/Cole.
  • Jones, Lyle V (ed) (1986). Volume IV: Philosophy and principles of data analysis, 1965–1986. Wadsworth & Brooks/Cole.
  • Cleveland, William S (ed) (1988). Volume V: Graphics, 1965–1985. Wadsworth & Brooks/Cole.
  • Mallows, Colin L (ed) (1990). Volume VI: More mathematical, 1938–1984. Wadsworth & Brooks/Cole.
  • Cox, David R (ed) (1992). Volume VII: Factorial and ANOVA, 1949–1962. Wadsworth & Brooks/Cole.
  • Braun, Henry I (ed) (1994). Volume VIII: Multiple comparisons, 1949–1983. Chapman & Hall/CRC. About John Tukey
  • Interview of John Tukey about his experience at Princeton


External links

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