Statistics comes to Swarthmore College

Some years ago, I studied mathematics and statistics. At that time, there was only one statistician among the mathematics department members, maybe the entire Swarthmore College faculty, Gudmund R. Iversen. He was my academic adviser. Professor Iversen was grey, tweedy and Norwegian. He always addressed me as Miss Kesselman, which helped alleviate my shyness at the time.

Professor Iversen got his PhD in statistics from Harvard University in 1969. I noticed only one other familiar name on that very short list of all Harvard Statistics PhD alumni: Columbia University political science and statistics professor Andrew Gelman PhD in 1990.

Lunch with Tufte

Professor Iversen had a group of colleagues, all statisticians from other academic institutions. They would visit Swarthmore to give lunchtime talks, or more typically, late Friday afternoon presentations to mathematical statistics students.

Diagram of Napoleon's Russian campaign by Minard

Napoleon’s March to Moscow. Charles J. Minard, 1869

I recall one particular guest statistician. Edward Tufte was on the faculty of Princeton University, and had recently written his first book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. The venue was a small private room in Sharples dining hall. I was one of maybe 20 attending.

Tufte was high-strung and slightly fussy, with occasional flashes of humor. He handed out hardback copies of his book, admonishing us “not to dip them in the gravy” from lunch (there was no gravy at lunch). Tufte explained that he had to take out a third mortgage on his house to finance the production and publication of Visual Display. The book was gorgeous. The statistical graphs were unlike anything I had ever seen before. Tufte spoke at length about Charles Minard’s famous map representing Napoleon Bonaparte’s doomed Russian campaign. In the summer of 1812, Napoleon set out for Moscow with 440,000 troops. Only 10,000 returned.

Tufte spoke well. After a mild question and answer session, he retrieved copies of his book from us. I badly wanted to keep mine. For a little more Tuftese see my Chart Art post.

Statistics moves up in the world

During my time at Swarthmore College, statistics was considered a marginal field of study, at best. The current math department chairman, James England, referred to it as “cocktail party math”. Professor Iversen had tenure by the time I arrived, yet he didn’t have an office with the rest of the mathematics department. Instead, he still occupied the same room in the 1st level basement of the engineering building as he had since 1973, and a ten minute walk from the rest of the department.  It was an almost windowless room, with woven wool rugs on the floors and hung on the walls, which kept the air warm and dry. Naturally, the furniture was mostly mid-century Scandinavian modern.

Given that background, I was surprised and happy when Professor Iversen became the new department head in 1992! In 1993, the department name changed. Now it is the Swarthmore College Mathematics and Statistics Department. As far as I can tell, Professor Iversen kept his original office even while he was department chair. After twenty years, it was their turn to come to him.


I happened upon a pleasant review of Statistics in Society: The Arithmetic of Politics written by Iversen for the MAA (Mathematical Association of America) in February 2000. The book is actually a collection of 47 essays. Overall, the review is positive. Excerpt:

The book grew out of activities supported by what is known as the Radical Statistics group, a twenty-five year old group unknown to me before reading this book. Radical Statistics is “a group of statisticians and others who share a common concern about the political assumptions implicit in the process of compiling and using statistics, and an awareness of the actual and potential misuses of statistics and its techniques.”


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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. It’s a wonder that Napoleon was allowed to live after the Russian campaign, but that same experiment was repeated in 1941, and in dozens of countries and times since 1812. A “collage” of leadership failures ala Minard might raise some questions about how our next great adventure should end, if not so, and why not, and even more so for the civilian populations in their path.

    • Hello Mr. Goetze. Napoleon’s Russian campaign was worse than I realized. The fatalities documented by Minard were for the march to and from Poland to Moscow. I do not think the final portion from Krakow to Paris, or thereabouts, was included. The death toll would be even greater.

      Yes, it is a wonder that Napoleon had any future after leading so many men into death. Minard designed and published the map in the final year of his life, 1869. I am merely speculating, but have wondered if fear of reprisal or incitement of public protest motivated Minard to wait 55 years to create such an eloquent testament to human folly.

      Sometimes, armed conflict, no, more honest to call it what it is, war, is unavoidable. Sacrificing lives as Napoleon and his lieutenants did, through poor planning, vanity, and worse, should be a vivid reminder of a worst-case scenario, even now. Thank you for visiting, and for your thought-provoking comment.

  2. Thanks for writing the article – I just spoke with Prof. Iversen’s wife, who now teaches in the school of School of Social Policy and Practice at Penn. I’ve known the Iversens, I think, since my sophomore year at Swarthmore (1978) – they even entrusted me with the care of their children one summer. The Math Forum – – began as the Geometry Forum at Swarthmore (in the Math Dept.) in 1993. I met Tufte the first time at a day-long seminar he gave to the ACM chapter in central NJ in the mid-90s. Tufte opened and maintained an art gallery space for a number of years at the west end of 20th street in Chelsea. Fascinating guy – I like the comment about NOT dipping the books in the gravy (Sharples! Gravy??!!) – Jim England was my first math professor at Swarthmore

    • David Weksler,
      Thank you so much for your comment! I read a Swarthmore Alumni Magazine article with a brief reference to, and photograph of, Professor Iversen in 2010. Could you forward this to him please? The photo showed him looking very serious, whereas I recall him teaching our mathematical statistics honors seminar with a friendly demeanor.

      David Rosen was my first math professor at Swarthmore, for linear algebra. I liked his complex analysis classes, I and II, in my junior year a lot!

      Professor Iversen served as an expert (statistical) witness in a legal case, where Swarthmore College was the defendant. This was in the 1970’s long before my time. I found the court records recently. I’ll try to find the URL and post it here, as you might be interested. The jury ruled in favor of Swarthmore College 😉

  3. […] Professor Banchoff’s art work has even graced some book covers, including this one, written by my favorite statistician. […]

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