John Wilder Tukey was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, 16 June 1915, the only son of the two top 1898 graduates of Bates College. While his father taught Latin in New Bedford, Tukey was largely educated by his mother at home. He later obtained the B.S. and M.S. degrees in chemistry from Brown University and a Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton University.
Tukey’s diverse talents allowed him an eclectic career. In 1939 he began a teaching at Princeton and eventually rose to the position of Chairman of the Department of Statistics. He also worked with Bell Laboratories for decades. During World War II, Tukey helped create the U-2 spy plane. In the 1950s, he was part of a committee that reviewed the value of the Kinsey Report and, in the process, he often argued with its creator. In the 1970s, he asserted that aerosol cans were detrimental to the ozone layer. He also worked on the polls used by NBC to predict elections and served as a consultant to the Educational Testing Service.
Tukey was noted for his contributions to the theory and application of Fourier methods. His work on the cepstrum (with B.P. Bogart and M.J.R. Healy) was influential in vocoder development and other areas and gave the profession such Tukeyisms as "quefrency," "gamnitude," and "saphe." His gift for language also had broader impact; he is credited with coining the terms "bit" and “software.”
Finally, his development of the Fast Fourier Transform Algorithm (published jointly with J.W. Cooley) revolutionized the application of Fourier methods. It drastically altered the economics of frequency domain versus time domain approaches to problems and digital versus analog implementation, and was the major stimulus for the rapid, subsequent development of digital signal processing.
Dr. Tukey was the father of modern exploratory data analysis. He was honored many times for his contributions to statistics and to science. In 1965 he was named the first recipient of the S.S. Wilks Award of the American Statistical Association. He received the National Medal of Science in 1973 and the Shewhart Medal of the American Society of Quality Control in 1977. He was awarded the IEEE Medal of Honor in 1982 "For his contributions to the spectral analysis of random processes and the fast Fourier transform algorithm."
John Tukey and the former Elizabeth Louise Rapp were married in July 1950. She died in 1998. He passed away on 26 July 2000 in New Brunswick, NJ.
David Leonhardt, "John Tukey, 85, Statistician; Coined the Word 'Software,'" New York Times, Jul 28, 2000.