Isobel Loutit: A Statistician of Quality

Friday, March 12, 2010

Isobel Loutit: A Statistician of Quality

Last summer on a family holiday in Winnipeg, we had dinner with my father-in-law at his seniors’ apartment building in the downtown area. Seated at our table in the dining room were four sisters. Since mealtime conversations at any dinner party I have ever attended rarely turn to the topic of statistics, I was surprised by the turn of events. For some reason that I cannot recall one of the sisters, a diminutive and exuberant nonagenarian, stated that she was a statistician. After asking where she had worked and when, and where, when and with whom she had studied, I came to the conclusion that I was talking not only to the oldest surviving statistician in the province of Manitoba, but also to one of the first women, if not the first, to work professionally as a statistician in Canada. Her name is Isobel Loutit. I quickly made an appointment to interview her about her career. The nearly two hours I subsequently spent with her were both fascinating and informative.


Lloyd Warren
circa 1902

Of Scottish ancestry (Loutit is an Orkney Scottish name), Isobel was born in Selkirk Manitoba in July of 1909. She studied mathematics with a minor in French at the University of Manitoba, graduating with a B.A. in 1929. This was before the time of one of Manitoba’s earliest statisticians, Cyril Goulden. Although Goulden had arrived in Manitoba in 1925 he did not teach until about two years after Isobel’s graduation. They never met; Goulden was working at the Dominion Rust Research Laboratory, which was located with the Agricultural College on the Fort Garry campus. At the time Isobel attended university, Arts and Science classes were held at a downtown campus, which is now the area occupied by Memorial Park opposite the Manitoba Legislature. Isobel’s major mathematics professors were Neil Bruce MacLean, Norman Wilson and Lloyd Warren. Originally an astronomer and applied mathematician by training, it was Warren who developed the actuarial science program at Manitoba. Wilson and Warren were authors of an undergraduate text (1) that Isobel used in her first year at university. (2) Warren also taught the statistics courses. When Isobel took her statistics course from Warren, the textbook for the course was by Gavett (3) with Yule’s classic statistics book (4) (probably the 8th edition) given, among three others, as an additional reference. (5) The course syllabus contained topics in descriptive statistics, correlation, time series and curve fitting. Isobel took some related courses. One course was on the theory of probability using the appropriate chapters (mainly permutations and combinations) from Hall and Knight’s classic mathematics book (probably the 25th printing of the 4th edition), (6) and Coolidge (7) as an additional reference, followed by applications to insurance using a standard life contingencies text. (8) She also took courses in numerical analysis (called finite differences at the time) and least squares theory. Her classmates recognized Isobel as both a fun loving and a very clever individual, (9) traits that I also noticed when I talked to her.


Isobel Loutit

In Isobel’s year, there were four women, including herself, who graduated in mathematics. Upon graduation there were only three avenues of employment open to them: teaching, nursing and secretarial work. When I asked her if industrial jobs were open to women she replied, “Not really. We could try, but I don’t know anybody that got one.” Three of the women, including Isobel, went into teaching; the fourth took a secretarial course after graduation and worked as a secretary at Monarch Life in Winnipeg. Given the restrictions on career choices, teaching was a natural route for Isobel to follow. Her father had been a school teacher and a principal as well as a sales manager for Moir’s School Supplies. Even within the teaching profession there were restrictions; men were given the first preference for the subjects they wanted to teach. Trained primarily as a mathematician, Isobel taught her minor subject French instead. Occasionally, Isobel did get to teach some mathematics classes. Once when the regular mathematics teacher was off sick for a couple of weeks, Isobel took over his classes. When he came back to work many students continued to come to Isobel for help in mathematics. Isobel taught in the schools for about ten years including a one-year stint in a country school and five years at Winnipegosis finally ending up at a junior high in East Kildonan.

It was the Second World War that changed the direction of Isobel Loutit’s career. In a very short period she went from being a school teacher to a quality control statistician at Northern Electric, now Northern Telecom, in Montreal. One day she saw a war casualty list on which the names of four of her former students appeared, and she decided to contribute directly to the war effort. (10) At about the same time, to ease the labour shortage in the war effort the government was advertising for women to take on jobs in industry that had been normally held by men. For the most part these were factory and clerical jobs. Isobel responded to an advertisement for women in the sciences, mathematics and physics in particular, to help engineers who were testing equipment and material for the war effort. In January of 1942 Isobel joined the Inspection Board of the United Kingdom and Canada in Peterborough, Ontario. After two months she was posted as a government employee to Northern Electric in Montreal, which had a government contract to manufacture parts for the Vickers Anti-Aircraft Gun Predictor, an electrically run mechanical calculating device used to aim the artillery. Developed in the 1920s, about five to ten thousand instruments were in use during the war. (11) One of the problems that Northern Electric had faced in the manufacture of parts for the Predictor was that they had sent a number of engineers and technical people to Coventry in England to obtain the plans for it and to study how it was manufactured. On the way over the boat they were traveling in was torpedoed and sunk. This tragedy had slowed production.

Isobel’s government job was to check to make sure that the calculating machines that were manufactured were actually carrying out the calculations correctly. As part of her training she was required to take the machines apart and reassemble them in working order. Because of Isobel’s mathematics and subsequent technical expertise, V.O. Marquez, then a Northern Electric manager and subsequently CEO, requested that the government release Isobel so that she could take a permanent position at Northern. It was not a straightforward transition. Government war workers normally were not allowed to change jobs. Further, the arrangements that were made for her were all verbal – nothing was in writing and she was required to be unemployed for one day before taking up her new job. She joined Northern Electric in January of 1943 and remained there until her retirement in 1972.


Vickers Anti-aircraft
gun predictor

On arriving at Northern Electric there was an immediate problem. Isobel had come in on a government pay scale and there were two pay scales at Northern, one for men and another for women. Marquez could not give Isobel a raise since she was already at the highest salary level for women. Since her work was engineering related, Marquez’s solution was to appoint her as an engineer, although she had no training or qualifications in that field. Northern Electric did not have a differential pay scale for engineers. She remained an “engineer” throughout her career at Northern Electric until she took on managerial responsibilities.

When the work with the Vickers Predictor ended, Isobel moved to the Telephone Division of the company. In 1947 she moved to the Wire and Cable Division where she took charge of the Statistical Methods and Quality Control group in the Division. She was in charge of data analysis and supervised a number of people, including the engineers, technicians and clerks who kept records related to product quality and who carried out regular quality control studies. Her earliest computing environment was a Comptometer calculating machine. The statistical work was slow. The necessary calculations with the correct formulae took all day to get the required answer. Isobel kept abreast of new developments in equipment (for example, the move to computers with punch cards) and in sampling inspection methodology. In 1966, although her job description and pay remained the same, she was formally given the title of Department Chief (12) and a management job description. She was the first female in management at Northern Electric and, in Isobel’s words, it was a giant step for the company to take. What did change on taking a management position was that Isobel was required to undergo a medical examination since the company was concerned about potential heart attacks among their managers. The medical examination turned out to be relatively useless since the only comparison group that her medical examiners had were male managers.

To remain current with new developments in her field Isobel took several professional development courses. In 1954 she took a two-week course on the design of experiments related to quality control. (13) Held that summer at Queen’s University, the course was taught by Daniel DeLury of the University of Toronto. Later, she took a course from Western Electric in Allentown, Pennsylvania and in 1961 she took a quality control management course run by General Electric at West Point, New York. The latter course was run in a case study and seminar format so that enrolment in this course was restricted to only 30 participants. (14) Isobel was the only Canadian to attend and one of only two women in the course. The gender ratio in the course was probably an improvement over Isobel’s previous experiences. In 1955 she had attended a national quality control conference in New York. There were several hundred men in attendance and only a dozen women.

In the course of professional upgrading and conferences, Isobel met some of the giants of quality control, including in her early years in quality control W. Edwards Deming. She also met Walter Shewhart of Bell Labs and control chart fame. Her comment on Shewhart was, “He was a quiet guy – he lived in his charts.”

Typical of industry there was no incentive to publish scientific papers or articles. Consequently, Isobel never published any statistical or quality control work under her own name. She did, however, write a number of in house technical reports on how to carry out statistical procedures so that employees could do their jobs better.


Isobel Loutit and David Bellhouse, 2001

Isobel became very active in the American Society for Quality Control (ASQC) and the Montreal Section in particular, which was formed in 1950. Her most visible contributions to the ASQC were made in the 1960s. In 1961 Isobel was the program chair for the Quality Control All-Day Forum run by the Montreal Section. The forum had been held annually since 1957 as a one-day conference in quality control. Isobel invited her former boss V.O. Marquez, now promoted to vice-president of Northern Electric, to give the address at lunch. At the forum Isobel launched a first for the Montreal Section and the ASQC. Her remarks at lunch as chair of the forum were given in French. It was the first official use of French by this professional society. There had been some squabbling in the section over the use of French at meetings and so Isobel took it upon herself, without any advance notice to others, to break the ice on the language barrier at the section. The next year Isobel gave a talk on operator charting at one of the monthly meetings of the Montreal Section. In the talk she described the use of statistical quality control methods as it related to wire and cable production, and noted some of the difficulties that were encountered including homogeneity of lots, randomness of the samples and precision of measurements. (15) Four years later in 1966 all the Canadian sections of the ASQC (Hamilton, Kitchener, London, Montreal and Toronto) came together for the first Canadian Regional Conference of the ASQC. It was held in Toronto and Isobel was the program chair for the conference. (16) In 1969 she became chair of the Montreal Section of the ASQC, the first woman to hold this position. At the end of her term as Montreal Section chair she was invited to be the convener at a dinner for presidents of various societies held at McGill’s Faculty Club. She began her remarks with “Ladies and gentlemen... ” When laughter immediately followed, she looked around and noticed she was the only woman at the dinner. Ironically, when in 2000 she was invited to attend the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Montreal Section of the ASQC and to provide some short remarks, her letter of invitation was addressed to M. (or Mr.) I. Loutit with a salutation of “Dear Sir”.

Isobel Loutit was a highly successful career statistician in an environment that was then almost exclusively a man’s world. It was a great pleasure to meet her and an enormous learning experience for me.

David Bellhouse, The University of Western Ontario

This inteview with Isobel Loutit took place in 2001 and was originally published in Liaison 16.2, May 2002.


  1. N.R. Wilson and L.A.H. Warren, 1926, An Intermediate Algebra. Toronto, Oxford University Press.
  2. Arts and Science Calendar for 1925 – 1926, University of Manitoba. University of Manitoba Archives.
  3. G. Irving Gavett, 1925, A First Course in Statistical Method. McGraw-Hill, New York.
  4. G.U. Yule, 1927, An Introduction to the Theory of Statistics, 8th Edition. C. Griffin and Co., London.
  5. Arts and Science Calendars for 1927 – 1928 and 1928 - 1929, University of Manitoba. University of Manitoba Archives.
  6. H.S. Hall and S.R. Knight, 1891, Higher Algebra: a Sequel to Elementary Algebra for Schools, 4th Edition. Macmillan and Company, London. Reprinted 1924 (and several other years).
  7. J.L. Coolidge, 1925, An Introduction to Mathematical Probability. Oxford, Clarendon Press.
  8. E.F Spurgeon, 1922, Life Contingencies, London, Institute of Actuaries, C. & E. Layton.
  9. Brown and Gold, the Year Book of the University of Manitoba, Volume 10, 1929. University of Manitoba, Students’ Union.
  10. The Northern News, October 23, 1961.
  11. William Aspray, 1990, Computing Before Computers, Ames, Iowa State University Press, pp. 186 – 189.
  12. The Northern News, April 18, 1966.
  13. The Northern News, October 23, 1961.
  14. Letter from Paul C. Clifford, ASQC Education and Training Institute to all section chairmen of ASQC dated April 14, 1961 (letter in the possession of Isobel Loutit).
  15. Newsletter, American Society for Quality Control, Montreal Section, March 1962.
  16. The Northern News, April 4, 1966.

About the Interviewer

A native of Manitoba, with family still residing there, and a graduate of the University of Manitoba, David Bellhouse is a Professor of Statistics at the University of Western Ontario. He obtained his Ph.D. in Statistics from the University of Waterloo in 1975. His research interests include survey sampling as well as the history of probability and statistics.