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In Memoriam: Niels Keiding (1944-2022)

Danish biostatistics' grand old man, professor Niels Keiding, passed away in the beginning of March 2022.

After an extended period of illness, Niels passed away on 3 March 2022 and biostatistics in Denmark has lost our “grand old man”. It is hard to exaggerate the influence that Niels has had on both theoretical and applied statistics, particularly in Denmark but also worldwide. 

Niels’s father was a biologist working with insects that are pests for agriculture and, by following his father’s work, Niels early realized that he would also work with biological data, i.e., he wanted to become a biostatistician. After high school, Niels became `cand.stat.’ (master of statistics) in 1968 - at that time, a relatively newly established program at the University of Copenhagen. After graduation, he did his military service working with analyses of intelligence tests for the conscripts. His early professional career was as assistant/associate professor at the Department of Mathematical Statistics, University of Copenhagen - a very strong department with a young and active staff. Head of department was professor Anders Hald who was also Niels’s master thesis advisor. Though strong in mathematics, Niels emphasized applications (in cooperation with researchers from subject-matter areas – mostly in medicine). Niels never took a PhD (in fact, he was proud of never having needed his certificate for completion of his masters degree). 

Niels was a founding member of the Danish Society of Theoretical Statistics in 1971 (secretary 1971-75, Honorary Life Member since 2015) and he was among those who took the initiative to establish the Scandinavian Journal of Statistics in 1974. In 1978, Niels took the initiative for establishment of `Statistical Research Unit’, which was financed for 5 years by Danish Research Councils. Later this developed into the Section of Biostatistics at the Faculty of Health Sciences at University of Copenhagen, which is now a well-established center for biostatistics in Denmark. Niels became a full professor there in 1984 and he was the head of the section until 3 years before he retired in 2014. Then he became professor emeritus at the section and kept working actively throughout his retirement. 

Through the establishment of `Statistical Research Unit’, Niels has, as mentioned, had an enormous impact on Danish biostatistics. Through his work in international (bio-)statistical societies, he has also influenced international statistics. He was treasurer for Bernoulli Society of Mathematical Statistics and Probability 1981-87; chairman of the board of Scandinavian Journal of Statistics 1988-91; vice president for The Biometric Society 1991 and 1994; president 1992-93. He served on the Research Section Committee for Royal Statistical Society 1999-2003 and was member of Council and several ad hoc committees in Institute of Mathematical Statistics and International Statistical Institute; he was vice president of the ISI 1997-99, president-elect 2003-05, and president 2005-07. For these achievements, Niels received a number of honors, including: elected to International Statistical Institute, 1978; fellow of Institute of Mathematical Statistics, 1987; received the Marvin Zelen Leadership Award in Statistical Science, 2001; elected as Foreign Member of The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, 2005; he obtained the degree of Honorary Doctor at University of Bordeaux, France, 2005; Honorary Life Member, International Biometric Society, 2008; Norman E. Breslow lecturer, Department of Biostatistics, University of Washington, Seattle, 2010; member of Academia Europaea, 2011. 

Niels has authored or co-authored numerous important publications, including early work on branching processes as well as a number of publications dealing with the history of statistics. He took the initiative to establish the group of authors of the Springer book by Andersen, Borgan, Gill and Keiding (1993): “Statistical Models Based on Counting Processes”. His publications show his interests in demography and time-to-pregnancy and, more recently, he co-authored review papers on statistical methodology in epidemiology. He has supervised several PhD students in biostatistics or epidemiology and he has been active in university administration as well as in (national and international) evaluations of research proposals, academic positions, and scientific theses. 

Niels’s initiatives, his great personal integrity, his visions, his professionalism and his clear ideas about the role of biostatistics have worked as inspiration for all (bio-)statistical departments in Denmark and even though Niels is not with us anymore, we will still benefit from his visions and the initiatives that he took. More importantly, his legacy not only includes the institutions that he initiated but, to an even larger extent, the numerous students supervised by Niels who now continue his traditions about professionalism and rigor as statisticians working in academia or industry and who will, themselves, influence future generations of statisticians in Denmark.

Per Kragh Andersen, Claus Ekstrøm and Esben Budtz-Jørgensen

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