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Statistics legend C.R. Rao dies at 102

C. R. Rao.

C.R. Rao, who passed away on Aug. 22 at the age of 102, was a pioneer in the field who laid the foundation for modern statistics. He was a research professor in the Department of Biostatistics in the School of Public Health and Health Professions.


Published August 25, 2023

“Dr. Rao was not only a groundbreaking mathematical statistician who revolutionized his field, but also that rare individual possessed of both genius intellect and profound humility. ”
President Satish K. Tripathi

C.R. Rao, widely recognized as one of the world’s greatest statisticians and a UB faculty member since 2010, died Aug. 22. He was 102.

A pioneer in the field who laid the foundation for modern statistics, Rao earlier this year was named the recipient of the 2023 International Prize in Statistics, considered the Nobel Prize for the field.

“Dr. Rao was not only a groundbreaking mathematical statistician who revolutionized his field, but also that rare individual possessed of both genius intellect and profound humility,” said President Satish K. Tripathi, who himself holds two master’s degrees in statistics. “It was a tremendous honor to count him as a member of UB’s faculty, and his tenure at our university served as the capstone to an extraordinary career spanning, remarkably, 80 years.

“While our scholarly community mourns Dr. Rao’s loss, we are consoled to know that his legacy will live on in the researchers at UB and around the world — including the scores he mentored — who are using his innovative theorems and visionary contributions to advance the field to which he dedicated his professional life.”

In announcing Rao’s receipt of the International Prize in Statistics, the International Prize in Statistics Foundation noted that Rao’s “work more than 75 years ago continues to exert a profound influence on science,” adding that three fundamental results Rao published in 1945 “paved the way for the modern field of statistics and provided statistical tools heavily used in science today.”

The first result, known as the Cramer-Rao lower bound, provides a means for knowing when a method for estimating a quantity is as good as any method can be, the announcement notes. The second result, named the Rao-Blackwell Theorem, provides a means for transforming an estimate into an optimal one. Taken together, the two methods form the foundation on which much of statistics is built.

The insights from Rao’s third result pioneered a new interdisciplinary field called “information geometry,” which has recently been used in Higgs boson measurements at the Large Hadron Collider, as well as in recent research on radars and antennas, along with contributing significantly to advancements in artificial intelligence.

Calyampudi Radhakrishna Rao spent 40 years of his professional career at the Indian Statistical Institute, where he made those three discoveries — by the age of 25 — that set the groundwork for statistics becoming a field of study separate from mathematics.

In 1979, Rao took mandatory retirement from ISI and moved to the United States, where he held teaching positions at the University of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania State University. He came to UB in 2010 as a research professor in the Department of Biostatistics, School of Public Health and Health Professions.

“I was fortunate to have made some fundamental contributions to the field of statistics and to see the impact of my work in furthering research,” Rao told UBNow during an interview shortly after he celebrated his 100th birthday in 2020.

“In my lifetime, I have seen statistics grow into a strong independent field of study based on mathematical — and more recently computational — tools. Its importance has spread across numerous areas, such as business, economics, health and medicine, banking, management, and the physical, natural and social sciences.”

Rao considered his greatest contribution to the field of statistics to be “the encouragement I provided to my PhD students, 51 of them, some of whom have made outstanding contributions to statistics.”

“They have, in turn, produced 649 PhDs as of 2019,” he said. “This is a matter of pride to me.”

In addition to the International Prize in Statistics, Rao was the recipient of numerous other prestigious awards, including the India Science Award in 2014 and the U.S. National Medal of Science, presented by President George W. Bush in 2002. In 2013, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2002, Rao established the C.R. Rao Advanced Institute of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science in Hyderabad, India.

He authored 476 research papers — 201 between 1940 and 1980 in India, and 275 between 1980 and 2010 in the United States. He has written 15 books, including leading textbooks in the field.

Rao continued to do research projects until he was nearly 100.

He earned an MA in mathematics from Andhra University, an MA in statistics from Calcutta University and a PhD from Cambridge University (1948). In 1965, Cambridge awarded him the higher doctoral degree, ScD. Kings College later gave him the rare honor of life fellow.

He also held 39 honorary doctorates from universities, including UB, in 19 countries on six continents.