Honorary Member 2024

James A. Hanley
Honorary Member

Honorary Membership in the SSC is awarded to statistical scientists, or in special circumstances other individuals, of outstanding distinction who have made exceptional contributions to the development of the statistical sciences. The recipient should be someone whose work for which the Honorary Membership is awarded was substantially done in Canada or has had a major impact in Canada. The recipient need not be a member of the SSC.

James A. Hanley, Professor Emeritus of Biostatistics at McGill University, has been named an Honorary Member of the Statistical Society of Canada (SSC). This award is intended to honor an individual who has made exceptional contributions to the development of the statistical sciences in Canada and whose work has had a major impact in this country.
Jim, as he is known by colleagues, was born on June 5, 1947, in a cottage hospital in the small town of Castletownbere in southwest Ireland. Before being brought by his family’s small boat to their home on Bere Island, his father (a carpenter, small farmer, etc.) and mother (daughter of a primary school teacher) had him baptized as James Anthony. His nationalist maternal grandfather suggested he be called Séamus: he was known by that Gaelic-for-James name for the 22 years he lived in Ireland, and still is by his family.

Jim’s primary school, built by the British in 1857, had just two rooms: one for infants to Grade 2 with one teacher who relied on him to teach addition tables to the grades below him; the other, with one teacher for Grades 3-7, where he could also hear what those above him were learning.

Jim attended St Brendan’s secondary school in Killarney. Until the 1960s, this boarding school primarily prepared pupils for entry to the priesthood; Jim was in the stream that got five years of Latin and Greek, but no chemistry or physics. Until 1964, very few pupils achieved the “Leaving Certificate Honours” in mathematics. This changed dramatically in his last year, when, after the final-year math teacher suddenly died in the summer, his class was taught by someone with a PhD in chemistry.

Jim was unsure whether he would be able to major in Honors Physics (his first choice) at University College Cork (UCC). Thus, in addition to 1st year mathematics, mathematical physics, and physics, he also took economics. This was on the advice of the Registrar, who normally did not meet with students, and happened to be the professor of statistics. Jim had been given a letter of introduction to him from a family acquaintance, who had already explained to his parents that a statistics degree led to a career in the Irish Central Statistics Office, or as an actuary (his parents preferred engineering, a profession they understood better).

Jim’s father died a year before Jim, the eldest of six, completed his BSc. While pondering his future, he stayed on at UCC for his MSc in Mathematics and Statistics, supporting himself as a teaching assistant. Financial aid for a PhD program in the UK was near impossible, so he applied to the two USA and the two Canadian graduate programs in statistics described in flyers on the college notice board.

He first accepted the offer from the PhD program at SUNY/Buffalo, but a few weeks later, accepted the one from the University of Waterloo, mainly on the strength of the personal letter from William Forbes, who advised him to come to Canada as a landed immigrant (he did), and the glossier appearance of the printed material.
Jim’s thesis topic was cigarette-smoking behavior. He examined its initiation via a 1972 survey of 78,000 Canadian schoolchildren. He designed the questionnaire as a standard-size computer card where students indicated their responses by darkening the answer boxes. The cards were read by the optical mark recognition feature of the IBM computer facility of the University of Waterloo. When creating the dataset, he got to learn a lot of Canadian geography.

Jim also examined the maintenance of the smoking behavior by studying the nicotine exposure of 24 individual smokers, who (in an experimental crossover design) switched between regular and lower nicotine cigarettes. Data collection involved weekly visits, by bicycle, to subjects’ homes to collect their cigarette butts, and to measure their blood carbon monoxide levels by breathalyzer. This experience gave him a great respect for data.

Jim’s PhD work was supervised by William Forbes, who was a chemist, and Jack Robinson, who was a chemical engineer. They were both professors in the Department of Statistics, but Jim considered that his work was inferior to that of his classmates, who were proving theorems for their PhD. He still passes on the wise counsel from Marvin Zelen, from SUNY/Buffalo, who as an adjunct professor at Waterloo gave lectures on logistic and life-table (Cox) regression: “Jim, it’s not what you do for your PhD that matters, it’s what you’ll do afterwards.”

Despite Jim’s having reneged on SUNY’s graduate studies offer, Marvin asked him to join his Statistical Laboratory, and its team of clinical trial statisticians supporting two large co-operative oncology groups. He joined after graduation in March 1973, and took over the radiotherapy studies that Jack Kalbfleisch (who returned to Waterloo) had been responsible for in his two years there. In 1977, Marvin moved his group (which had the size of a baseball team) to the Sidney Farber Cancer Center in Boston; he secured appointments for his PhD statisticians in the Department of Biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health.
In 1979, after giving a talk on the Zelen Design at a clinical trials conference, Jim met Duncan Thomas, who told him of a vacancy in McGill’s Department of Epidemiology and Health. After he came to Montréal in 1980, the department’s graduate program grew quickly, particularly after the department changed its name in 1984 to recognize the largest concentration of biostatisticians at a Canadian university.

Jim’s abundant contributions to statistics and epidemiology have already been described in Liaison (vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 31-33) when he received the 2016 SSC Award for Impact of Applied and Collaborative Work. His work on the interpretation and comparison of ROC curves has been extremely influential, and more than 100 papers of his have been cited over 100 times. Examples of his commitments towards the community include his leadership of the local organizing committee for the International Biometric Conference in Montréal in 2006, his 2008 pro bono work for the Government of Canada on a lawsuit that tried to alter the rules governing the direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs, the series of public lectures he organized on the 50th anniversary of his department, his interviews with prominent academics, articles on pedagogy and on the history of epidemiology and statistics, and his continuing efforts to share his knowledge and teaching material, much of which is available at https://jhanley.biostat.mcgill.ca.

Besides the 2016 SSC Impact Award, Jim received the Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching from McGill in 2011, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Society of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in 2017. He retired in December 2023, to allow him and his wife Ann Marie, whom he met at Waterloo in 1972, to see more of the world. They will continue to do this primarily via ocean travel, where on sea days he can spend some time on matters statistical, historical, and oceanographical.

Jim’s grandfather and father passed on considerable sailing and boating skills to his sibs, but his own skippering debut on open water in a houseboat in the St. Lawrence near Gananoque in 1996 did not impress his family. And so he will be travelling, under a professional ship’s master, in much larger vessels than the 14-foot one, built by his father and grandfather, that carried him, a few days old, across Berehaven harbor. He will, however, continue to pursue ocean exploration, both directly and via reading, all inspired by the maritime lore learned from his grandfather when growing up, without electricity, in Bere Island.

The citation for the award reads: 

The citation for the award reads:

To James A. Hanley, for ground-breaking research on diagnosis testing and the assessment of disease screening programs; for the exceptional quality of his training and mentoring; for fostering excellence in the use of statistical methods through collaboration and education; and for his exemplary service to the profession.

This text was written by Christian Genest, who was also responsible for the nomination.