June 12, 1914–February 28, 1991
BY NICHOLAS I. FISHER AND WILLEM R. VAN ZWET
WASSILY HOEFFDING WAS ONE of the founding fathers of nonparametric statistics, the science of analyzing data without making unnecessarily restrictive assumptions about their origin. His great strength was his deep understanding of statistics that told him which problems to attack, at what level of generality, and with what mathematical means. He was not interested in generality for generality’s sake, and he always kept his mathematics as simple as possible. When he had dealt with a problem he left it to others to examine the consequences of his results. It is striking how often he picked the “right” problems, the ones that much later turned out to have consequences that went far beyond his deceptively simple results, and opened up entirely new fields of research. He was the statistician’s statistician in the sense that he supplied what his colleagues needed today or would need in future.
Wassily was the most unassuming person imaginable with a mild but permanently present sense of humor. Throughout his life he suffered from diabetes and bad eyesight and hearing, but his indomitable spirit made these handicaps seem like minor inconveniences. As our colleague Ildar Ibragimov wrote1 to us from St. Petersburg, Wassily Hoeffding was a very intelligent and broadly educated person with