The University Record, October 16, 2000


Leslie Kish

Statistician Leslie Kish, who developed many sampling techniques used in political polls, surveys and censuses, died Oct. 7 in Ann Arbor at age 90.

A member of the small group of social scientists who, in 1947, founded the Institute for Social Research (ISR), the world’s largest academic survey and research organization, Kish was widely recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on scientific population sampling. His 1965 book, Survey Sampling, is still used around the world.

The superiority of the sampling techniques that Kish developed was first established in the 1948 U.S. presidential election. A small national probability sample of less than 1,000 U.S. households drawn by Kish and his Michigan colleagues showed Dewey and Truman running very close together, with Truman in a slight lead, while commercial polls and the press predicted a Dewey landslide.

Kish’s many contributions to the field ranged from the simple idea that it is necessary to count non-response to have a true probability sample, to the complex mathematical calculation of a design effect, a measure he invented to assess the reliability of survey findings. This measure is commonly expressed as a survey’s margin of error.

Kish also was one of the first proponents of an annual rolling sample, such as the American Community Survey, scheduled to replace the long form of the U.S. decennial census by 2010. In addition to his pioneering work in the theory and practice of survey sampling, Kish initiated a summer training program for foreign statisticians that now has two generations of alumni in more than 100 countries.

“More than any of his contemporaries, Leslie Kish improved the rigor and quality of census taking throughout the world,” said ISR Director David L. Featherman. “An innovative statistician, his advice was sought from China to South Africa to Washington. His students populate the top echelons of statistical offices worldwide.”

Kish was born in 1910 in Poprad, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now in Slovakia. He emigrated to the United States with his family in 1925, settling in the Bronx, and within a year, his father died unexpectedly. His mother opened a pastry shop in Manhattan that was patronized by Eleanor Roosevelt, Gypsy Rose Lee, Eugene Ormandy and the violinst Fritz Kreisler. Kish worked during the day to help support his family, attending Bay Ridge Evening High School. In 1937, concerned about the threat of a fascist sweep through Europe, Kish volunteered with the International Brigade to fight for the Spanish Loyalists. Originally assigned to a medical unit, Kish quickly found his way to the front with a Hungarian battalion. “I met some Hungarians in a bar who told me, ‘You don’t have to go through basic training,’” he recalled. “ ‘You go right to the front, we train you with the rifles, and you start shooting. And also, we have the best cooks.’” He was wounded in the battle for Huesca.

He returned home in 1939 and, after attending night classes, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the City College of New York with a degree in mathematics. He then moved to Washington, D.C., where he was employed first at the U.S. Census Bureau, then at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he joined a group of social scientists, including psychologist Rensis Likert, who were creating a survey research unit within that department. Again, his career was interrupted by war. In 1942–45, he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a meteorologist.

In 1947, Kish moved to the U-M with Likert and others, to found the Institute for Social Research. During his early years at Michigan, Kish combined full-time statistical work with the completion of an M.A. in mathematical statistics in 1948 and a Ph.D. in sociology in 1952.

“Leslie had a tremendous appetite for life,” said Robert Kahn, professor emeritus of psychology and co-author with John Rowe of Successful Aging. “It was a marvelous youthful quality, and it did not diminish as he aged. Appetite suggests food—and it is true that Leslie’s motto as he traveled the world was, ‘Anything a human being can eat, I can eat.’ But his appetite for ideas and his capacity for friendship were even more remarkable. I treasure our 52 years of work and play together. I celebrate his long and productive life and only wish that it could have been longer.”

Kish received many honors and awards during his career. He was named a Russel Lecturer and elected president of the American Statistical Association. He also was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Royal Statistical Society of England.

Kish’s scholarly writing and innovative research continued after his formal retirement in 1981. He traveled extensively, consulting on sampling and multinational survey design with colleagues in the U.S. and around the world. He was elected an honorary member of the International Statistical Institute and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Bologna, Italy, on the occasion of its 900th anniversary.

Kish is survived by his wife of 53 years, Rhea; daughters Carla Kish of St. Paul, Minn., and Andrea Kish; son-in-law Jon Stephens; granddaughter Nora Leslie Kish Stephens of Silver Springs, Md.; and sister Magda Bondy of White Plains, N.Y.

A memorial service to celebrate his life will be held in the next few months on the U-M campus. Contributions in his honor may be made to the U-M with designation for the Leslie Kish International Fellows Fund, 426 Thompson St., Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1248, or to the Council for a Livable World, 110 Maryland Avenue, N.E., Washington, DC, 20002.

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