Photo of Helen Walker

Helen Walker





Training Location(s):

PhD, Teachers College, Columbia University (1929)

MEd, Teachers College, Columbia University (1922)

PhB, Iowa Wesleyan College (1912)

Primary Affiliation(s):

Teachers College, Columbia University, 1929-1957

Career Focus:

Statistics, education, statistical literacy, history of statistics


Helen Mary Walker was born on December 1st, 1891, in Keosaqua, Iowa, the only child of Judge William Walker and Estelle Bonney Walker. She graduated from Iowa Wesleyan College in nearby Mount Pleasant in 1912 with a Bachelor of Philosophy, and went on to teach high school mathematics for nine years in Iowa and Minnesota. After encountering a statistical text containing symbols she didn’t understand, with no indication of what they represented or how they should be interpreted, Walker decided to attend graduate school to further study education. She enrolled in Teachers College, Columbia University; Columbia was one of the few universities with offering graduate studies in education, as well as a leader in statistical research. After completing her Master’s of Education in 1922, Walker went on to study mathematics at the graduate level, and teach statistics, at the University of Kansas. She did not receive a degree from the institution, instead opting to return to Teachers College to complete her Ph.D., while also working as a part-time instructor (Rice, 1990).

After receiving her Ph.D. in 1929, Walker remained at Teachers College as Assistant Professor of Education, at a time when it was exceedingly rare for women to hold tenure track positions at major universities. (Rice, 1990). In 1940, she became a Full Professor (Billard & Wallman, 2020), which she remained until she was forced to retire from Teachers College in 1957, due to her age. This was not the end of her academic career, as she spent the next 13 years teaching at different institutions. She was selected as a Fulbright Scholar, giving her the opportunity to teach in Chile and Japan from 1958-59; later, she taught at the University of Illinois in 1961, and acted as the head of a Teachers College project assisting in the establishment of the National Institute of Education in New Delhi from 1961-63 (Rice, 1990). She joined a retirement community in Claremont, California, but accepted an offer teach statistics at the Claremont Colleges (R. P. Lowman, personal communication, September 12, 2023). She taught at Pitzer College from 1966-97, and Claremont Graduate University from 1967-70, after which point she permanently retired from all work (Rice, 1990). Still, in spite of her Ph.D. and subsequent academic accomplishments, she once had to pass a literacy test in order to vote (Billard & Wallman, 2020).

Walker’s Ph.D. dissertation, entitled Studies in the History of Statistical Method, was completed in 1929 and later published as a book (Rice, 1990). The text, which organized the history of statistics into four periods (Varberg, 1963), made her “known to all students of statistics” by 1944, according to H.T. Davis (1944, p. 103). Her other published works on the history of statistics include a biography of 18th century French mathematician Abraham de Moivre; as stated by Eisenhart and Birnbaum, “one can do no better to consult Walker” on details of de Moivre’s life (1967, p. 27). She continued her work on the history of statistics in 1957, giving a talk at a joint meeting of the American Statistical Association and the Institute of Mathematical Statistics about the statistician Karl Pearson, on the centennial of his birth (Walker, 1958).

Her work in statistics was not limited to the field’s history, however. Notably, in 1928, while still a Ph.D. student, she was able to prove that, for random samples taken from a dataset, correlation of original observations can be used to estimate correlation of averages. Walker was a pioneer in educational statistics, an area of study still in its infancy when she began to contribute. Much of her work in this area was meant to address what she saw as pressing practical issues in the field of education. For her impressive body of work, she was elected to be a fellow of the American Statistical Association (ASA) in 1941, an honour limited to 150 people. In 1944, she was elected president of the ASA, the first woman to receive this honour (Rice, 1990).

Walker was a lifelong advocate of statistical literacy, publishing several widely-used instructional books on statistics. She called out the social sciences for their relative lack of focus on statistics, warning social scientists that they were doing themselves a disservice by only learning about, and teaching, a limited amount of statistical content. As such, much of her work was devoted to furthering statistical literacy in the field. Her papers on standard error (Walker, 1929a), random sampling (Walker, 1929b), and degrees of freedom (Walker, 1940), were written to be as useful as possible to educational researchers who may need to use these methods despite having little-to-no mathematical training; in particular, the paper on degrees of freedom continued to be cited long after its publication (Rice, 1990). As ASA president, she established the Committee on the Training of Statisticians, which later became the Section on Statistical Education (Utts, 2015).

Her push for statistical literacy didn’t end with researchers, as she believed everyone could benefit from statistical instruction. In her 1944 presidential address to the ASA, she stressed that “it is time for the leading statisticians to put serious thought upon the statistical education of the non-statistician” (1945, pp. 6–7), encouraging statisticians to write articles using non-technical language, and calling for post-secondary schools to improve their level of statistical instruction to students in all areas of study. She suggested that it was imperative that the ASA take a leadership role in this area, saying “[i]f the public fails to value and support statistical research, we must take some of the blame ourselves in that we have failed to insist that the nature of statistical thinking is an appropriate topic for inclusion in a liberal education” (1945, p. 6). It is interesting to note that Henry A. Wallace, then Vice President of the United States, was present at the meeting where Walker gave this address (Walker, 1945).

Walker was not afraid to be critical when necessary. The aforementioned paper on standard error (Walker, 1929a) referenced specific articles in educational research journals that she felt did not calculate standard error properly and soundly. Another paper, on sequential sampling (Walker, 1949), was motivated by her inspection of a database of nearly 5,000 psychology articles, in which she found that only two used sampling (Rice, 1990). In 1925, while still a Ph.D. student, she raised concerns about certain forms of testing, questioning whether standardized tests were an obstacle towards progress, as they created “the possibility of having our present courses crystallized–or rather verily embalmed in the status quo” (1925, p. 47).

During the first half of the 20th century, the majority of professional women chose not to marry or start a family because of the formal (legal, structural) and informal (e.g., social beliefs) barriers placed on their ability to both work and be primary caregivers. Walker was one such professional woman who remained unmarried, though during her time teaching at Columbia, she adopted an adult daughter, a former student named Regina. Amazingly, even with her academic career and parental responsibilities, she also took care of her elderly relatives in Iowa, making frequent trips to her home state (Rice, 1990).

Walker was involved with Pi Lambda Theta, a professional organization for women in education, today open to all genders. In 1936, she was chosen to head a committee researching obstacles to the professionalization of women (Hines, 2000). She served on its National Board of Directors from 1939-49, and as national president from 1941-45 (Rice, 1990). During her tenure as president, there were concerns that Black women who were formerly in the Pi Lambda Theta chapter based in Wayne State University, Detroit, as students, would not be admitted to the Detroit alumnae chapter. Walker personally spoke to members of the alumnae chapter to assure that Black women would not be ineligible for membership due to their race (Hines, 2000).

In addition to Pi Lambda Theta and the ASA, Walker held high positions in several other organizations. She was elected to be a member of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), where she served as secretary-treasurer from 1940-43, and became its second woman president in 1949. One of her main concerns while president was increasing membership and making the AERA more accessible (Rice, 1990).

The fourth and final organization where Walker served on a national level was the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). Having been involved with the YWCA as a student at the University of Kansas, she was elected to the National Board in 1936 and served three consecutive terms, her tenure ending in 1949. From 1945-49, she was, unsurprisingly, chair of the Committee on Data and Trends (Rice, 1990).

She held membership in several other organizations, including the honour societies Kappa Delta Phi and Sigma Xi, the American Mathematical Association, the Foreign Policy Association, and the History of Science Society. Interestingly, she was not known to have ever been a member of the American Psychological Association (Rice, 1990).

Walker did not view her role as an instructor as any less important than her research. Throughout her time as an educator, a period lasting over 50 years, she was very active in her students’ education, serving on multiple occasions on dissertation committees and as advisor to student groups. Her teaching methods were creative and often innovative, with classes featuring self-instructional methods and physical demonstrations, some of which she developed herself. She went above and beyond as a mentor to her students, helping them reach their career goals and preparing them for the professional world as best she could. It is no surprise that many former students had fond memories of her (Rice, 1990).

One such student was psychologist Dr. Robert P. Lowman, who had her as a statistics instructor for a full-year course as a first-year psychology graduate student at Claremont Graduate University (then called Claremont Graduate School) in 1967-68. Lowman described Walker as an “exceptionally good teacher”, and went as far as to say she may have been the best teacher he had as a post-secondary student. While she may have been physically limited due to her age, requiring the use of a cane, she was still “as sharp as they come”. He recalled that the classroom where the instruction took place had blackboards on three of its four walls, and oftentimes Walker filled every blackboard by the end of the class. Because of her great depth of knowledge, the material she taught covered a lot of ground, incorporating stories from the history of statistics. She aimed to answer every student question, and took time to prepare answers to possible student questions ahead of time. On the rare occasions when she didn’t have an answer, she would return the following class with an “elaborate” response; getting to solve these problems seemed to be what excited her most about teaching. All of this made for a very engaging and memorable student experience (R. P. Lowman, personal communication, September 12, 2023).

Lowman also recalled a time Walker had invited the students in her class to come over to her house one evening for tea. While he and his classmates were not particularly excited, they ended up having an “amazingly fun” experience, sharing photos from their lives and getting to know each other better. Walker had to end the event a half-hour before midnight, not because she was tired, but because she had planned to attend a midnight rally for then-presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, who was campaigning against the Vietnam War. Even though she was on the verge of retirement, she remained committed to her students’ well-being, to various social causes, and to the statistical education of future generations (R. P. Lowman, personal communication, September 12, 2023).

In 1979, Teachers College held the Helen M. Walker Series on probability and statistics, a lecture series named in honour of one of their most accomplished alumni and former faculty. Consisting of four lectures delivered by statistician Churchill Eisenhart, Walker was unfortunately only able to attend the first one, where she contributed a short speech of her own, as she suffered a debilitating hip injury. On January 17th, 1983, at the age of 91, Helen Mary Walker passed away, leaving behind an incredible body of work. Her legacy lives on to this day: in 2015, the ASA chose to name its first major donor club “The Helen Walker Society”, after one of its most important members and contributors to the field, a boundary breaker and pioneer (Billard & Wallman, 2020).

by Spencer Arshinoff (2023)

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works


Walker, H. M. (1925). What the Tests Do Not Test. The Mathematics Teacher, 18(1), 46–53.

Walker, H. M. (1929). Studies in the history of statistical method with special reference to certain educational problems. Williams & Wilkins Co.

Walker, H. M. (1943). Elementary Statistical Methods. H. Holt.

Walker, H. M. (1945). The Role of the American Statistical Association. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 40(229), 1–10.

Walker, H. M. (1958). The Contributions of Karl Pearson. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 53(281), 11–22.


Billard, L., & Wallman, K. K. (2020). Women Trailblazers in the Statistical Profession. International Statistical Review, 88(2), 280–301.

Rice, M. S. (1990). Contributions of Helen Walker to the field of educational research [Ph.D. Thesis]. Georgia State University.

Stinnett, S. (1990). Women in Statistics: Sesquicentennial Activities. The American Statistician, 44(2), 74–80.

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