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Vol.26, No. 16 Mar. 4, 2001

Herbert E. Robbins, Mathematics and Statistics Pioneer, Dies at 86

Herbert E. Robbins, professor of mathematics and statistics at Columbia, the University of North Carolina and Rutgers, died on Feb. 12 in Princeton, N.J., where he had lived since 1990. He was 86.

He was held in awe by colleagues around the world for his creativity, perhaps related to an irreverent sense of humor that led to acerbic questioning of both cultural and scientific dogma. He is credited by Jerzy Neyman, a founding figure in modern statistical theory, with two major breakthroughs in the field of mathematical statistics: empirical bayes methods and stochastic approximation.

Robbins’ best-known work is What is Mathematics?, co-authored with Richard Courant and published in 1941 and in 1996. The book was translated into scores of languages and praised by Albert Einstein as “a lucid representation of the fundamental concepts and methods of the whole field of mathematics...easily understandable.”

He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was past president of the Institute for Mathematical Statistics. He received his undergraduate degree from Harvard in 1935 and a Ph.D. in mathematics there three years later.

He is survived by his wife, Carol; a sister, Francie Shumsky of Atlantic City; two daughters from his first marriage, Susannah Robbins of Cambridge, Mass., and Marcia Robbins of Seattle; three children from his second marriage, Mark and Emily Robbins, both of New York City, and David Robbins of Philadelphia.