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Z. W. Birnbaum (1903-2000)

Submitted by Rose Choi on January 25, 2023 - 1:13pm
Z. W. Birnbaum
Written by Albert W. Marshall, Ronald Pyke, and Samuel C. Saunders

Z. W. (Bill) Birnbaum, Professor Emeritus of mathematics and statistics at the University of Washington, passed away at his home in Seattle on December 15, 2000 at the age of 97. He is survived by his wife, Hilde, their children, Ann and Richard, and their grandson, Eli.

Zygmund William Birnbaum was born in Lwów, Austria-Hungary on October 18, 1903 to parents Isaac and Lina Birnbaum. He attended grade and high schools (gymnasium) in Lwów and Vienna, and then, in filial deference to his family's unanimous opinion that he pursue a 'practical' degree, he obtained a Master of Law degree from the University of Lwów in 1925. He practiced law for a year, but during that time he resumed his studies in mathematics. In 1926, he received a Teaching Certificate in mathematics and taught at a gymnasium in Lwów from 1925-29 while continuing his graduate studies in mathematics under Steinhaus and Banach among others. He received his Ph.D. in 1929, with Hugo Steinhaus as his major professor.

Following his Ph. D., he went directly to Goettingen, Germany to continue his studies. Goettingen was central to world mathematics at that time, with such luminaries as D. Hilbert, E. Landau, R. Courant, E. Noether and F. Bernstein among others, and attracting many famous visitors including Kolmogorov, Alexandrov and von Mises during 1929-31 when Bill was there. It was during this time that political events began to indicate an uncertain future for Germany generally and for academic opportunities for Bill in particular. Thus it was that Bill, in addition to his mathematical pursuits and following advice from Landau, completed a program leading to an actuarial certificate from the University's Institute of Insurance Mathematics, then headed by the mathematician-cum-biometrician, Felix Bernstein. This permitted Bill in 1931 to obtain a position as a life insurance actuary for the Phoenix Life Insurance Co. in Vienna and a year later to return to Lwów as chief actuary at the company's Polish subsidiary.

After the Phoenix company went bankrupt in 1936, due in great part to the worsening economic and political conditions in Germany, Bill decided to try to emigrate to the U. S. With quotas full for years to come, he was able to secure employment as a foreign correspondent for a major Polish newspaper, thereby enabling him to go to New York in June 1937 on a visitor's visa. Shortly after his arrival he met his former Goettingen professor, Bernstein, and accepted from him a research assistantship in biometrics at New York University. His statistical interests and knowledge, that had been kindled during his actuarial studies, grew rapidly under the influence of the leading statisticians at New York and Columbia Universities. In early 1939, Harold Hotelling of Columbia University, a Seattle native with a Master's degree in mathematics from the University of Washington, brought to Bill's attention a position there in the Department of Mathematics. Bill applied, and supported by letters of recommendation from Courant, Landau and Albert Einstein, his application was accepted. Thus began his long and distinguished career of over 60 years in the Seattle area, extending well beyond his university retirement in 1974.

Shortly after his arrival in Seattle, Bill met Hilde Merzbach while both of them were involved in assisting Jewish refugees arriving from Europe. Their marriage on December 20, 1940 was the start of a lifetime of involvement together in numerous academic, health, social and political activities at local, national and international levels.

During his long association with the University of Washington, Professor Birnbaum's exceptional academic contributions included teaching and service as well as his research in the theory and applications of mathematics and statistics. Upon his arrival in Seattle, upon discovering that there was exactly one statistics course being offeredand that on descriptive statistics—he began to design the theoretical courses that formed the basis for one of the first comprehensive undergraduate programs in mathematical statistics in the United States. By 1948 he had founded the Laboratory of Statistical Research which, through its long association with the Office of Naval Research, served to strengthen and expand the graduate and faculty components of these programs. He directed the Laboratory until his retirement.

Bill's research contributions were exceptionally broad, not surprising in view of the breadth of his early training. His bibliography includes major advances in several areas of mathematics, statistics and computation, as well as pioneering studies in reliability and life testing, with important applications in metal fatigue and health statistics. He made significant contributions to complex and functional analysis (including Birnbaum-Orlicz spaces), probabilistic inequalities (e.g. multi-dimensional Chebychev and maximal inequalities), non-parametric and distribution-free statistics (exact, asymptotic and tabulated distributions), survey non-responses, reliability of complex systems, cumulative damage models, competing risks, survival distributions and mortality rates. Bill had a special talent for getting quickly to the nub of a problem, especially in his consulting, and was adept at formulating appropriate theoretical models to capture the essential aspects of applied problems. He was a stimulating and accommodating collaborator with colleagues and students alike.

Bill was an inspiring and dedicated teacher. His lectures were clear and their contents always challenging. He enjoyed lecturing and especially mentoring and collaborating with students at all levels, to whom he was generous to a fault. He is greatly admired by all those fortunate enough to have come under his tutelage.

Service to his university and professional colleagues, as well as to society at large, was always an important duty for Bill. His service to IMS in particular began early. He was chairman of the IMS Advisory Committee on Computation in 1954, and of the IMS Committee for Physical Facilities at Meetings during 1955. In the latter capacity he was responsible for carrying out the 1953 Kingston resolution that all IMS "meetings shall be held on a completely nonsegregated basis". Bill presented the resolution for permanency of this policy at the 1956 Annual IMS meeting held in Seattle.

In recognition of his many contributions, Bill was made a Fellow of the IMS (since 1949) and of the American Statistical Association and an elected member of the International Statistical Institute. He was an editor since 1966 of the Academic Press monograph series in probability and statistics, was elected president of the IMS in 1964 and was editor of the Annals of Mathematical Statistics during 1967-70. He received both Fullbright and Guggenheim awards with visiting positions held in Stanford, Rome, Jerusalem and Paris. In 1984 he received the prestigious S. S. Wilks Medal of the ASA for "his theoretical research, wide applications, leadership, inspiration and teaching."

Professor Birnbaum's contributions to the University of Washington also extended well beyond his teaching and research: In 1946 he used his legal and actuarial backgrounds to prepare the legislation that became the statutory basis for the University's retirement system; In 1955 he organized the referendum that resulted in the inclusion of faculty in the social security system; as a plaintiff during 1962-63 in the loyalty oath suit, he was the only witness whose testimony was cited in the U. S. Supreme Court's decision. He has also served during his career as a member of the University's Faculty Council and Faculty Senate.

Bill was a kind and gentle man, a brilliant scholar, a dedicated and generous humanitarian, a devoted husband and father and a dependable friend. He is deeply missed and will be long remembered.

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