Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Pitman, Edwin James George (1897–1993)

by Jane Pitman

This article was published online in 2020

Edwin Pitman 1897-1993

Edwin Pitman 1897-1993

Copyright Australian Academy of Science, used with permission

Edwin James George Pitman (1897–1993), professor of mathematics and statistician, was born on 29 October 1897 at Kensington, Melbourne, fourth of eight children of English immigrant parents Edwin Edward Major Pitman, storeman, and his wife Ann Ungley, née Hooks. Edwin attended Kensington State School, and then South Melbourne College (1911–15) thanks to a scholarship. He was awarded the exhibition in geometry and trigonometry at the senior public examinations in 1914 and won further exhibitions in algebra, elementary mechanics, and physics in 1915. Having secured (1914) a grant to support his studies at the University of Melbourne, he gained a scholarship to live on campus at Ormond College. In 1917 he was awarded the Wilson prize for mathematics and natural philosophy, and the Dixson scholarship in mathematics.

On 5 February 1918 Pitman enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Arriving in England on 14 November, he was attached to the Australian Army Pay Corps, before being granted leave to study at the London School of Economics, and the Berlitz School of Languages. After returning to Australia in October 1919, he was discharged on 11 November 1919, and resumed his studies at the University of Melbourne. He graduated BA (1921) with first class honours in mathematics and was awarded Dixson and Wyselaskie scholarships, then BSc (1922), and MA (1923).

In 1922 and 1923 Pitman was acting professor of mathematics at Canterbury College, University of New Zealand. Returning to the University of Melbourne, he was tutor in mathematics and physics at Trinity and Ormond Colleges, and part-time lecturer in physics. Early in 1926 he was appointed professor of mathematics at the University of Tasmania and moved to Hobart. On 7 January 1932 he married Edith Elinor Josephine Hurst at St John’s Church of England, New Town; Elinor had graduated BA from the university the previous year.

Despite heavy duties and academic isolation, Pitman’s research in statistics began in the 1930s, with eight papers published between 1936 and 1939. During World War II, while continuing his university duties, he served in the rank of acting squadron leader, Royal Australian Air Force, as honorary education officer, No. 6 Recruiting Centre, and later also as wing training officer in the Tasmanian Air Training Corps. Recognition of his earlier work came in 1947–48 with an invitation to the United States of America and election as a fellow of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics. In 1948 and early 1949 he was a visiting professor at Columbia University, New York, and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, with some weeks at Princeton University, New Jersey. From his return in 1949 until retirement in 1962, he continued at the University of Tasmania, apart from a year overseas in 1957, when he was a visiting professor at Stanford University, California, and visited England.

Through his teaching and his leadership of the mathematics department, Pitman contributed significantly to mathematics education in Tasmania. His lectures were clear and persuasive, and he encouraged and inspired interested students. He had a long connection with school mathematics education and in 1967 was made an honorary life member of the Mathematical Association of Tasmania.

Pitman took an active role in university affairs, including continuing efforts to overcome problems of funding, and of buildings and accommodation, particularly the move from the Domain to a new campus at Sandy Bay. He served as chairman of the professorial board (1936–40; 1942–46; 1960–61) and as staff representative on the university council (1935–37; 1941–47; 1954–56), his final term encompassing the 1955 royal commission into the university, and the start of the decade-long Sydney Sparkes Orr case. In 1956 the university summarily dismissed Orr, following findings against him by two committees that both included Pitman.

From 1954 onwards Pitman was actively involved in new Australian learned societies: the Australian Academy of Science (fellow 1954, vice-president 1960–61); the Australian Mathematical Society (second president 1958–60, honorary life member 1968); and the Statistical Society of Australia (honorary life member 1966). He was elected a member of the International Statistical Institute (1956, vice president 1960) and honorary fellow of the Royal Statistical Society (1965).

After retiring Pitman held visiting appointments at Johns Hopkins University (1963), and the universities of California, Berkeley (1963); Adelaide (1965); Melbourne (1966–67 and 1974); Chicago (1969); and Dundee (1973). The University of Tasmania awarded him an honorary DSc (1977) and named its library’s mathematics collection after him (1987). He was the first recipient (1978) of the Pitman Medal awarded annually by the Statistical Society of Australia.

Describing himself as a mathematician who strayed into statistics, Pitman made an influential contribution to the field through teaching and informal contact as well as publications. His seminal early work included papers dealing with location and scale parameters; introducing a measure of ‘closeness’ of statistical estimates; and presenting the first systematic account of distribution-free tests using permutation methods, the topic later known as non-parametric inference. He presented his extensive further work on non-parametric inference in a lecture course given twice in the United States in 1948 and later in lectures elsewhere. Lecture notes on his 1948 course at the University of North Carolina, although never published, were widely circulated and were the basis of further development in the field. Further work in statistics included an invited review (1957) of R. A. Fisher’s Statistical Methods and Scientific Inference (1956) and culminated in his monograph Some Basic Theory for Statistical Inference (1979). His work on probability culminated in his 1968 study of the relationship between properties of a probability distribution and the behaviour near the origin of its characteristic function.

An active member of the Anglican church, Pitman served on the Tasmanian diocesan council and was a diocesan representative on the Australian general synod (1943–60). His wider interests included reading, art, music, the performing arts, bridge, gardening, and travel with family. On first meeting he could be daunting and seem aloof, but he soon established good relationships with students and colleagues, and he had a gift for friendship. He is remembered by many as an inspiring teacher and mentor.

Pitman’s academic activity continued until 1982, when Elinor suffered a stroke, leading to a period of declining health for her, and later for him. He died on 21 July 1993 at Kingston, and was buried in Hobart Regional Cemetery, Kingston; his wife, two daughters, and two sons survived him. A portrait by John Henson hangs in Jane Franklin Hall, a college of the University of Tasmania.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Brown, Bruce M., and Evan J. Williams. ‘Conversations with Edwin J. G. Pitman.’ Australian Journal of Statistics 34, no. 3 (1992): 345–60
  • Cohen, Graeme. Counting Australian In: The People, Organisations and Institutions of Australian Mathematics. Sydney: Australian Mathematical Society, 2006
  • Davis, Richard. Open to Talent: The Centenary History of the University of Tasmania, 1890–1990. Hobart: University of Tasmania, 1990
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Pitman, E. J. G., Lecture notes on non-parametric statistical inference. Lectures given for the University of North Carolina, Institute of Statistics, 1948. (Unpublished lecture notes.)
  • Pitman, E. J. G. ‘Reminiscences of a Mathematician Who Strayed into Statistics.’ In The Making of Statisticians, edited by J. Gani, 112–25. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1982
  • University of Tasmania Library, Special Collections. UT 543, E. J. G. Pitman section
  • Williams, Evan J., ed. Studies in Probability and Statistics: Papers in Honour of Edwin J. G. Pitman. Jerusalem: Jerusalem Academic Press, 1974
  • Williams, Evan J. ‘Edwin James George Pitman 1897–1993.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 10, no. 2 (1994): 163–71

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jane Pitman, 'Pitman, Edwin James George (1897–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 9 May 2021.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2021