Statistician, longtime faculty member James Thompson dies

By Patrick Kurp

James Thompson, the Noah Harding Emeritus Professor of Statistics, who was a statistician at Rice before there was a Statistics Department and who retired last year after 46 years as a member of the faculty, died Dec. 4 at age 79.

James Thompson

James Thompson

“Jim taught me skepticism,” said John Dobelman, professor in the practice of statistics, whose doctoral adviser in 2004 was Thompson. “He was brutally honest. He often stepped in and, besides providing the technical and academic guidance I needed, provided family and mentorship.”

When Thompson joined the Rice faculty in 1970, after three years spent teaching statistics at Indiana University and three years at Vanderbilt, it was as a member of the Mathematical Sciences Department in the Wiess School of Natural Sciences. Only in 1987 did statistics become a separate department within the School of Social Sciences, with Thompson as the founding chair. The department moved to the George R. Brown School of Engineering in 1990.

“Jim’s leadership in these early years and throughout his tenure set the foundation for the globally recognized department we are today,” said Kathy Ensor, professor of statistics, who served as department chair from 1999 to 2013.

The present chair and the Noah Harding Professor of Statistics, Marina Vannucci, said, “Faculty members in the department have carried out Jim’s legacy, and today we maintain an active research environment in modern statistics and the understanding of complex data.”

“Jim was part of the great recruiting class in mathematical sciences that saw the arrival of (professors) Richard Tapia and Ken Kennedy,” said David Scott, the Noah Harding Professor of Statistics and a student of Thompson’s when working for his master’s degree and Ph.D. at Rice. “He organized a statistics steering committee that recommended creation of a stand-alone department.”

Thompson earned a B.S. in chemical engineering from Vanderbilt University in 1960 and his M.A. and Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton University in 1963 and 1965, respectively. At Rice, his research focused on statistical model building, biomathematics, quality control and computational finance. He did pioneering work in HIV/AIDS and cancer modeling and served as an adjunct professor at MD Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Texas School of Public Health.

“Jim was a naturalist who used modeling as a magnifying glass to see nature better,” said Marek Kimmel, professor of statistics at Rice. “His work in biomathematics was pioneering and overlapped with my own research focus in mathematical cancer research and the mathematical theory of epidemics.”

Promoted to full professor in 1977, Thompson served as department chair from 1987 to 1990 and from 1993 to 1996. He became the Noah Harding Professor of Statistics in 2000.

“Jim was one of the early Rice faculty members to become heavily involved in joint research in the Texas Medical Center, especially with biostatisticians at MD Anderson,” Scott said. In 1987, Thompson published Cancer Modeling with MD Anderson faculty member Barry W. Brown.

In 1971 Thompson began working with NASA to improve its program for using satellite data to predict Soviet agricultural production. His early work lowered the misclassification rate from 25 percent to 5 percent. Later, with his former doctoral student David Scott and NASA team leader Richard Heydorn, he developed a four-channel system that forecast grain production more accurately than the Ministry of Agriculture in Moscow.

Working with MD Anderson researchers, Thompson developed a protocol for using external-beam radiotherapy to emulate the effects of implant-radium therapy. Working for the Army Research Office, Thompson built a large-scale computer model for organizing a fortified defense against Soviet attacks through the Fulda Gap in Germany. Twice he was invited by the Army Research Office to give the annual short course in applied mathematics on the topics of empirical model building and statistical process control.

Thompson developed the SIMEST algorithm for creating multiple replicates of computer-generated pseudo-realities, which is used to estimate the parameters of the underlying model. With his student Marc Elliot, he also developed the MaxMean algorithm that permits the finding of the underlying structures of high-dimensional data sets.

In 2012 Thompson obtained a patent on a computationally intensive algorithm for portfolio optimization called the Simugram. In collaboration with Scott Baggett and John Dobelman, professor in the practice of statistics at Rice, he developed the “Max-Median Rule for Portfolio Selection” and continued to work on portfolio strategies with a new faculty member, Philip Ernst, assistant professor of statistics.

“Dr. Thompson was an outstanding co-author,” Ernst said, “an excellent mentor, and a very dear friend. I will eternally cherish the time we spent together. He will be sorely missed.”

At the time of his retirement last year, Thompson said, “We are very empirical. We have always been data-oriented. We deal with the real world.”

Thompson was a fellow of the American Statistical Association (ASA), the Institute of Mathematical Statistics and the International Statistical Institute. He was the recipient of the Army’s Wilks Medal and the ASA’s Don Owen Award for his work in quality control.

He directed 17 doctoral students, and authored or co-authored 14 books, including Models for Investors in Real World Markets (2002) and Empirical Model Building: Data, Models, and Reality (2nd ed., 2011).

Shortly before Thompson’s retirement, Scott said, “As a young colleague of mine observed recently, Jim is always generous with his advice, and you would be crazy not to listen and follow.”

Ensor said, “Jim’s positive influence in the statistics profession will continue long into the future.”

Thompson is survived by his wife, Ewa Thompson, professor emeritus of Slavic studies and former chair of the Department of German and Slavic Studies at Rice.

A funeral mass for Thompson will be held at 1 p.m. Dec. 9 at Our Lady of Czestochowa Church, 1731 Blalock Road, and will be followed by a reception at a location to be announced. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the James R. Thompson Distinguished Lectureship in Statistics. For more information, contact Sara Lillehaugen Rice, director of development for the School of Engineering, at

–Patrick Kurp is a science writer in the George R. Brown School of Engineering.


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