Chapter 02: Choosing An Educational Background Focusing on Statistics


Chapter 02: Choosing An Educational Background Focusing on Statistics



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Dr. Gehan reflects on his curriculum, performance, and choice of major at Manhattan College, and factors that influenced his selection of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill for graduate study in statistics. He talks about the “giants” at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Theoretical Statistics: Harold Hotelling, Herbert Robbins in probability, R. C. Bose, and S. N. Roy while he spent a year in that program. Dr. Gehan switched to the Department of Applied Statistics at North Carolina State in Raleigh, North Carolina under Gertrude M. Cox. While he graduated from NC State, Dr. Gehan spent most of his in Chapel Hill and reminisced about his time there. His last years at Chapel Hill were spent as a doctoral candidate and faculty member under the leadership of Bernard “Bernie” G. Greenberg, Dean of UNC School of Public Health.



Publication Date



The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Collection, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center


Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Interview Subject's Story - Educational Path; Professional Path; Influences from People and Life Experiences; Professional Path; Giving Recognition; Inspirations to Practice Science/Medicine

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Oncology | Oral History


Edmund A. Gehan, PhD:

I started Manhattan College in the Bronx in September 1947. A lot of veterans were coming back from the war. Probably half my class was veterans. But I had just graduated from high school. The first year was kind of a repeat of what I had in high school. They were bringing the veterans back into the picture of things. I didn’t work very hard at all. They had A, B, C, D—I guess the floor index was perfect, and so on. My first semester, I still remember, I got about a 2.7. I was bored. Well, I had better knuckle down the second semester, which I did, and I got a 3.4, which is an average of 3.1. That is what I graduated with four years later. In the second year, this may be of some interest to you. Which department are you in? James S. Olson, PhD I am a historian.

Edmund A. Gehan, PhD:

Oh, OK. But I am sure you had a lot of background in English, too. James S. Olson, PhD Yes.

Edmund A. Gehan, PhD:

So I finished my sophomore year, and I did pretty well in English and I did pretty well in mathematics. I still remember to this day walking—again, not having an advisor. You know, what are you going to major in? You have to decide in your junior year. So I walked back and forth—major in English, major in mathematics. What should I do? Then I said, “What do the English majors do at Christmas time? They write book reports. What do the math majors do? They don’t do anything. I think I am going to major in mathematics.” (Laughter) So I majored in mathematics, but I was always reasonably good at English. I think that has helped me later in my career to have at least an interest in background in English. But mathematics, I mean I was good at it, and was studying differential equations and complex variables and algebra and advanced calculus and so on. But in my senior year I took a course in statistics. Statistics to me was mathematics applied to life’s problems—mathematics applied to research. This really turned me on. I graduated in 1951 and I asked my professor… Well, I never have served in the army or the military. A lot of my schoolmates were going into the Korean War, but I can honestly say I wasn’t trying to avoid that. But I was kind of interested in statistics. So I said [to the professor] where can you go with statistics? He said there were three places you could go. You could go to Columbia University in New York, you can go to University of California Berkeley, or you can go to University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Well, I told you it was thirty-two stops from Brooklyn to Manhattan College. I don’t know the exact number, but Columbia is at 116th Street and Broadway. I would have been riding the subway a lot more. I had enough of that so I didn’t want to go to Columbia. I wrote a letter to UC Berkeley, and I should have saved the response I got because it was from Jersey Naymann (?), who is a giant in statistical theory and so on. I asked him, “Can you get a master’s degree in one year?” because Berkeley was the other side of the world from Brooklyn and New York. You couldn’t get a master’s degree in one year, and I guess I was from a middle class family and it just didn’t seem feasible. So by that logic, I ended up at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, which in retrospect was the best of the three to go to because North Carolina had a theoretical department and an applied department. Whereas the others were more theoretical, which I didn’t know at the time. So I went to Chapel Hill in the theoretical department, the Department of Statistics. People in that department are giants—Harold Hotelling (?), Herbert Robbins in probability, R. C. Bowes, S. M. Roy. These were all giants in statistics. I guess one thing may be sighted. Two of them were Indians from India. I would say if you took the students from New York City and India that was more than half of the department. There was nobody from North Carolina at that time. I studied for one year in that department. The applied department, under another great woman statistician, Gertrude Cox, was in Raleigh. So I was spending part of the time commuting from Chapel Hill to Raleigh. James S. Olson, PhD Was less than thirty-two stops?

Edmund A. Gehan, PhD:

It was thirty miles. (Laughter) And I didn’t have a car, but I was fortunate to meet some friends that had a car. Well, I could see some of the theoretical stuff was beyond me and I enjoyed playing cards. There weren’t many books in statistics then. The first class I took from Herbert Robbins, I still remember, he talked some about the binomial distribution and what is the probability that the better team wins the World Series—certain probability things that are straightforward. Then at the end he said, “By the way, do the problems at the end of the first three chapters in [William] Feller’s book (Place book title here?).” This wasn’t homework. He just said, “do this.” Well, there may have been a hundred and twenty problems in those three [chapters], and if you did them you really would have learned a lot, but I didn't do them. Anyway, I wasn’t doing particularly well, and I could see that more of my work was toward the applied so I switched my major to experimental statistics where the major was at North Carolina State, but I was living in Chapel Hill. I loved Chapel Hill. It is a beautiful town and I had already formed a number of things there.

Lesley W. Brunet:


Edmund A. Gehan, PhD:

Friendships and so on. Well, this is a sidetrack. It may come up later, I don’t know, but it is something in relation to this sort of thing. One of the aspects of my career was that I worked at a summer resort in New Jersey. It was a hotel for young people, but they put on shows during the weekend. The closest I could come to it is they would have shows like Saturday Night Live up there. They had a whole sequence of skits there, and I was smart enough—I don’t know whether that is the right word, but when I went to Chapel Hill, I brought copies of about six or seven of these skits. Again, this was a long time ago. It wasn’t so easy to meet girls on a campus. In the Fall they would have a party where the girls were invited and they were down there. I was in a graduate dormitory. So they had some entertainment. A guy played the guitar or something, and somewhere in the middle of the dance they said, “OK, so and so is going to play the guitar.” It didn’t work. Everybody was standing around. It didn’t work. So I said, “I think I can do better than that—I’ve got all these skits.” The second semester, or the second year, I said I would put on the show. We got a carpet from somewhere where the people could sit down on it. We put on some of these skits, which went over extremely well and became popular and so on. The other thing is that I eventually became the dorm advisor because I was known to some of the people. I was the dormitory advisor of the graduate dorm in Chapel Hill. One of my claims to fame is while I was a graduate student at North Carolina State I was a dormitory advisor at Chapel Hill. So, in all of my affiliations, I spent perhaps two nights in Raleigh. I mean, I don’t have anything against Raleigh. Anyway, that is kind of a sidetrack. Yes, I graduated from North Carolina State, but all my work was at Chapel Hill. The Department of Statistics there started in 1949 under Bernard [Bernie] Greenberg, and when I got my master’s degree in 1953, Bernie Greenberg, also from New York City, invited me to study for my doctorate and paid me the grand sum of $250 a month, which was fantastic—tax free. James S. Olson, PhD Not bad.

Edmund A. Gehan, PhD:

Not bad, not bad at all. Since that time, if today one did what I did, your degree would be from Chapel Hill. Biostatistics was a part of experimental statistics in Raleigh then. When I left Chapel Hill in early 1958—I think there it shows that I was an Instructor, 1955-57 because I didn’t have my Ph.D. But they didn’t have so many people in biostatistics, so when a student named Harry Smith graduated and went off, Greenberg put me on the junior faculty even without my degree. So from 1955-57 really is when I began consulting with medical investigators. That is almost fifty years ago—forty-eight years ago. I’d better retire. In 1957 I got my Ph.D. Chapel Hill was beautiful, but you know, there was ivy on the walls. I don’t know. I didn’t want to see my fortune go up or down with how basketball or football… It was great while it lasted, but I was interested in moving on. I moved to Washington, D.C. and to NCI in January 1958. James S. Olson, PhD Where on the diploma is your Ph.D.?

Edmund A. Gehan, PhD:

N.C. State, in experimental statistics and public health because biostatistics was a part of the School of Public Health. That’s kind of another story. I was never very interested in public health. I was much more interested in medical statistics.

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Chapter 02: Choosing An Educational Background Focusing on Statistics