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STATISTICIANS IN HISTORY
Mollie Orshansky:
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Editor’s Note: Views expressed in this article are those of the author, and should not be construed as representing the
policy of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This article is condensed from an unpublished draft
paper with references. That paper is based on extensive research involving published articles and documents, unpub-
lished documents, and conversations with Mollie Orshansky.
M
ollie Orshansky was born on January 9,
A daughter from a poor family graduating from
1915, in the Bronx in New York City.
college during the Great Depression, Orshansky did
She was the daughter of Ukrainian-
not have the luxury of attending graduate school
Jewish immigrants who spoke limited English.
before she started working. Instead, she found a job
Although her father worked hard at a number of
as a statistical clerk in the New York Department of
jobs, Orshansky and her sisters grew up poor—in
Health’s Bureau of Nursing, where she worked on
her words, the family could “barely … make ends
infant mortality and other subjects for a year.
Gordon M. Fisher
meet.” The girls slept two to a bed and wore hand-
In 1936, the U.S. Children’s Bureau (then part of
me-down clothing. Orshansky remembered going
the U.S. Department of Labor) offered Orshansky a
with her mother to stand in relief lines for surplus
job as a junior statistical clerk. She accepted the job,
food. As she was to say later, “If I write about the
moving from New York to Washington, DC. Her
poor, I don’t need a good imagination—I have a
first job assignment involved logarithmic equations
good memory.”
for 600 infants who had been in a study. In July
Orshansky was both the first high-school
1939, the bureau promoted her to research clerk, a
graduate and first college graduate in her family.
job in which she stayed until January 1942, work-
She graduated from Hunter College High School
ing on biometric studies of child health, growth,
in Manhattan (then a school for gifted young
and nutrition.
women) in 1931. Because she received two schol-
It was while she was working at the U.S.
arships from the college, she was able to attend
Children’s Bureau that Orshansky began taking
Hunter College (at that time a women’s college).
graduate courses. At various times between 1936–
She graduated from Hunter in 1935 with an AB
1937 and 1960, she took courses in economics and
in mathematics and statistics. She was a statistician
statistics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture
by training and profession, although she has some-
Graduate School and American University. From
times been referred to as an economist.
January 1942 to March 1943, Orshansky took a job
SEPTEMBER 2008 AMSTAT NEWS 15
SEPTEMBER AMSTAT FINAL.indd 15 8/20/08 2:26:55 PM
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