Irene Hess dies at 98

July 5, 2009

Survey statistician Irene Hess, who educated generations of graduate students in the conduct of scientific surveys, died July 5 in Ann Arbor, MI, of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was 98 years old. Although she officially “retired” from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR) in 1981 at the age of 70, Hess remained active professionally through her late 90s, walking to work at the ISR Survey Research Center from the campus apartment she had lived in since 1954 when she began working at the Center.

“Irene Hess was one of the pioneers at ISR,” said ISR Director James S. Jackson. “She helped to define its core essence in conducting high quality sampling and surveys. Her contributions over so many decades cannot be over-estimated in terms of research, training of new generations of scientists, and friendships. She will be sorely missed.”

Born August 27, 1910 in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, Hess received an A.B. degree in mathematics from Indiana University in 1931 and taught math at a Central City, KY, high school until 1942. Hess learned of a new field of statistics, from an article in the Reader’s Digest, and was attracted to it as a way to advance her career. Hess studied statistics during the summer at the U-M, and right after the start of World War II in December 1941, she joined the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and then, after other assignments, the U.S. Census Bureau. At Census she was one of the members of a new group of statisticians who implemented the new ideas of probability sampling into many of the basic demographic and economic surveys. In 1954, she joined the ISR Survey Research Center, as assistant director of the Sampling Section.

As Kish moved to more academic pursuits, Hess became the director of the Sampling Section. In that capacity, she was known to arrive at the office early, to eat her meals in the Section, to check the work of statistical clerks after working hours and walk back to her South Forest apartment in the mid-evening. It is likely that she spent more hours working than any other employee in the history of the Survey Research Center.

As director of the Sampling Section, she taught the tools of applications of probability theory to the design and selection of complicated scientific survey samples. She communicated the highest standards of excellence in statistical practice by her example. Her teaching affected scores of the leading sampling statisticians in the world. They practice the basic lessons that “Irene” taught. “She taught me what I know about rigorous application of scientific sampling and the highest standards of survey research,” said U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves, former director of the ISR Survey Research Center. “She served as a role model for young statisticians of how to be a professional and how to apply practical rules to implement complicated research designs.”

“Irene was responsible for teaching several generations of sampling statisticians how to translate theory into practice,” said Martin Frankel, professor of statistics and computer information systems at Baruch College, CUNY.

During her long career, Hess published numerous articles, many co-authored with ISR founder Leslie Kish. After her official retirement, she published two monographs, Sampling for Social Research Surveys 1947 – 1980 (in 1985) and Controlled Selection Continued with Steven Heeringa (in 2002). Her latest publication, The Practice of Survey Research at the Survey Research Center, was completed in the fall of 2007.

Hess was a member of the American Statistical Association, where she was elected as the first Chair of the Survey Research Methods Section; the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the International Association of Survey Statisticians. She was recently honored with a biographical article in the magazine of the American Statistical Association.

In addition to her ISR family, she is survived by numerous maternal and paternal cousins, including Maryann A. Jenkins of Killen, AL; Fred Jenkins of Garber, IA; Lenndel Jenkins of Prairie-du-Chien, WI; Frederick Getz of Vernon Hills, IL; Jerome Getz (Dagmar) of St. Paul, MN; Morman Getz of Vestal, NY; Minnie Hess Busch of Ventura, IA; Marjorie Hess Tisdall of Cerritos, CA; and Madelyn Hess Davidson of Gardena, CA; Bill Surring of Norfolk, VA; and Marsha Sewick, Marilyn Halley-Tarr, Dennis Swartz, Janet Jones, Janice Hartz, Ron Swartz, and Crystal Hartman, all of Waterloo, IA.

A memorial service is being planned in Ann Arbor.

For more information, contact ISR Development,

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Irene Hess dies at 98