Steven Fienberg, illustrious statistician who set a standard for scholarship, passes away

Steven Fienberg, illustrious statistician who set a standard for scholarship, passes away

Steven Fienberg, a statistician whose fascination with figures and other data enabled him to travel the world keynoting conferences and collaborating with other scholars, died in his sleep Wednesday, Dec. 14 in Pittsburgh. He was 74.

Born in Toronto, Ontario, on Nov. 27, 1942 to the late Ida and William Fienberg, Fienberg’s academic career started at the University of Toronto, where in 1964 he earned a B.Sc. in Mathematics and Statistics. Venturing east, Fienberg moved on to Harvard University, where in 1965 he received an M.A. in Statistics and then a Ph.D. in Statistics in 1968. From there, Fienberg went west to the University of Chicago, and then four years later to the University of Minnesota. In 1980, Fienberg joined Carnegie Mellon University, eventually holding multiple positions.

“Steve was the consummate academic who did it all,” said Richard Scheines, dean of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon and a professor of philosophy, in a statement released to Dietrich faculty, staff and students. “He was head of the Statistics Department from 1981 to 1984 and dean of the then-College of Humanities and Social Sciences from 1987 to 1991. He had additional appointments in the Machine Learning Department, which he helped to found, CyLab and Heinz College.”

Throughout his six-decade career, Fienberg authored or edited nearly 20 books and 500 papers and related publications. Fienberg also oversaw the dissertations of 43 doctoral students.

“Steve had a gift for seeing something in people and for finding a way to offer you the right support and put you on a right path, whatever the right path meant for you,” Aleksandra Slavkovic, a former student of Fienberg’s and now professor of statistics at Penn State University, told Carnegie Mellon University News.

Adorning Fienberg’s career were numerous accolades, including induction into the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Royal Society of Canada.

But the honor bestowed on such acclaim was misdirected, Fienberg said in an interview published in Statistical Science in 2013.

“I am reminded about something that Fred [Mosteller, a professor at Harvard], taught me. He said that awards and honors are really not for the people who get them, but they are for the field. Of course the person getting the honor benefits, but the field benefits more,” Fienberg told the publication.

While Fienberg’s academic contributions earned him praise from specialized statisticians, his contributions to a more general audience should be similarly relished, said his son, Howard Fienberg.

In the late 1980s, Fienberg and Bill Eddy, a CMU colleague, founded Chance, a magazine for those outside of the statistics community.

“One of the things that started in there was my Uncle Lorne, he gave a restaurant review under the nom de plume of Belizaire,” said Howard Fienberg. “My father took this tradition and started doing a review of these different restaurants with a sense of humor and a little style.”

In 1988, Belizaire penned an essay in Chance titled, “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.” Then in 1990 came “The Statistical Pleasures of California Cabernets” and in 1997, “Anaheim Appetite and Turkish Delight.”

“Chance magazine was very special because it was at least partially spoken in English,” remarked the son.

It also allowed Fienberg, who his son described as a “gourmand,” to explore diverse cuisines. “He would seek out the best restaurants between his contacts and research and he would find places a little out of the ordinary.”

Although celiac disease presented Fienberg challenges in his later years, “he was still able to drink lots of wine and fancy scotches,” said Howard Fienberg. In later years thoroughly enjoyed traveling to Singapore where he co-directed the Living Analytics Research Centre with Singapore Management University.

Though it was difficult to separate Fienberg from his work, the statistician found time for other involvements.

He was a “staunch supporter of Israel” and served on the boards of Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, The Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, said his family. “Steve was a great contributor and supporter of the Jewish Federation and of our Jewish community. Personally, I remember his strong commitment to and giving of his deep knowledge to our 2002 Jewish community study. His impact will be felt on our community for a very long time,” said Jeffrey Finkelstein, Federation’s president and CEO.

He was a lifelong hockey lover, who played in Mt. Lebanon’s Senior League until his 70th birthday, according to friend Ralph Roskies. Fienberg also constantly added new members to an ever-growing collegial team. Many of those colleagues are “simply friends of the family,” said Fienberg’s son.

When asked about his legacy in Statistical Science, Fienberg remarked, “I guess I’d like to be remembered as somebody who produced really good students and who helped change the image of statistics in the sense that lots of people now work on serious applied problems and help solve them. … I would just like for people to think of me in their kind of company, in some way or another.”

Steven Feinberg is survived by his wife Joyce (Libman) Fienberg, sons Anthony (Magali) Fienberg of Paris and Howard (Marnie) Fienberg of Vienna, Va., brother Lorne (Nona) Fienberg of Santa Barbara, Calif., and brother-in-law Bob (Esther) Libman of Toronto. Fienberg was grandfather of Tiffany, Selena, Victoria, Juliana, Adam and Sophie. He was uncle of Daniel Fienberg, Ori (Emily) Fienberg, Chana (Nachum) Shore, Avi (Atara) Libman, Devorah (Michael) Kurin and Miriam (Ephriam) Leiderman, and many great-nieces and great-nephews. Contributions may be made to University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, UPMC Cancer Pavillion, Suite 1B, 5150 Centre Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15232.

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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