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Sir David Cox—A Life Well Lived

Published onApr 27, 2023
Sir David Cox—A Life Well Lived

I didn’t get to know Sir David Cox until 1996 when he was already into his ‘retirement.’ Indeed, he had retired from the role of Warden of Nuffield College, Oxford, but he was still working full time in offices in the Department of Statistics and in Nuffield. When we first met, I was really scared. I was so in awe of his achievements that I was sure he would see through me as a statistician. But he was so kind and supportive, both of me individually and more broadly of now Sir Roy Anderson’s Wellcome Trust Centre for the Epidemiology of Infectious Disease, which I had joined as the statistician in 1995.

Sir David Cox and Christl Donnelly, Nuffield College Common Room, November 15, 2021. Photo by Christl Donnelly.

I learned so many things from him— statistical, ethical, and cultural. Whenever I came to him puzzling over a statistical challenge (usually urgently needed for the analysis of an unfolding disease outbreak), his advice was inevitably helpful and succinct, though often I found his handwriting a challenge. I realize rationally that he couldn’t really know everything statistical, but to me it seemed like it.

David helped fill in the gaps of my knowledge of British life. For example, he explained why he referred to my workplace—the Wellcome Centre’s shiny new multistory building (now the Peter Medawar Building for Pathogen Research)—as the “Anderson shelter.” (Some 60 years before, Sir John Anderson—no relation to Sir Roy Anderson—was asked by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to organize air raid precautions. The “Anderson shelter” was a half-buried steel-plated shelter, small and inexpensive enough for the household garden.)

Sir David Cox and Christl Donnelly with Christl’s sons Evan Hambly (left) and Drew Hambly (right), Nuffield College Common Room, July14, 2017 (the day before David’s 93rd birthday). Photo by Lou Ellen Donnelly.

Despite having moved to Oxford in 1988, David retained a soft spot for London in general and for Imperial College and the Tube in particular. He prided himself on knowing how to optimize the Tube journey between any two stops—not just knowing the appropriate connecting station(s) but, more impressively, knowing which train carriage door to board so that he was optimally placed upon reaching his destination. I never observed David moving so quickly as he did in Tube stations. The Tube seemed to energize him, every time inspiring a personal challenge. The trips to London were usually for our work as members of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB. Along with colleagues including Professors John Bourne and Rosie Woodroffe, we designed, analyzed, and interpreted the Randomised Badger Culling Trial, which tested the impacts of badger culling on TB incidence in cattle. Throughout, David was a source of wisdom and calm. Emotions sometimes ran high, but David’s message to me was the same: “Don’t worry about the politics. The science will endure.”

I was so happy that David won the first International Prize in Statistics in 2017. He had, of course, received very many prizes and been knighted. While he didn’t like a fuss to be made (he very much preferred that ‘Sir’ was not used), I think he was pleased that the value of his life’s work had been recognized.

In the year since the loss of David, the United Kingdom lost its Queen. In the public discourse that followed, I was struck by how many of the sentiments expressed made me think of David. A recurrent theme was ‘a life well lived’ and surely David lived one of the best.

David collaborated with and mentored generations of statisticians, in many cases for decades. His gentle kindness was as much one of his superpowers as his great intellect. David is sorely missed. The world of statistics isn’t the same without him.

Disclosure Statement

Christl A. Donnelly has no financial or non-financial disclosures to share for this article.

©2023 Christl A. Donnelly. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) International license, except where otherwise indicated with respect to particular material included in the article.

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