Douglas Altman, 1948-2018

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It is with great sadness that we heard of the death of one of our fellows, the celebrated medical statistician Doug Altman; considered by many to have contributed more than any other statistician to improving the evidence for clinical practice. 

A world-leading expert on health research methodology and reporting, Doug was director for the Centre for Statistics in Medicine and professor of statistics in medicine at the University of Oxford, posts he held for more than 20 years. He was also senior statistical editor at the British Medical Journal.

Doug was a passionate advocate for improving the reporting of medical research. In 1994, he wrote an editorial (in 2015 rated the most important BMJ article published during the previous 20 years) in which he said: ‘What should we think about researchers who use the wrong techniques, use the right techniques wrongly, misinterpret their results, report their results selectively, cite the literature selectively, and draw unjustified conclusions? We should be appalled. Yet numerous studies have shown that all of the above phenomena are common. This is surely a scandal.’

Doug sought to address these concerns through co-founding the international EQUATOR (Enhancing the QUAlity and Transparency Of health Research) network, which seeks to promote transparent and accurate reporting of health research. Not only that, helped convene the Statistical Methods Group of the Cochrane Collaboration, co-led the CONSORT reporting guideline group and co-founded the COMET initiative, which brings together researchers to develop standardised core outcome sets for use in clinical trials.

His dedication to this issue was also evident through numerous papers and books, most notably a Lancet paper on methods of measurement, written with his long-term collaborator Martin Bland, which has been cited more than 40,000 times according the Google Scholar. His book, Practical Statistics for Medical Research, has sold more than 50,000 copies.

Doug was also a popular speaker at conferences for humorously presented critiques of bad statistical practice in the medical research literature, but he always came up with constructive ideas for better ways of proceeding, as his plenary speech at our 2013 conference demonstrated.

An RSS member since 1970, Doug was both a chartered statistician (CStat) and a chartered scientist (CSci). He was awarded the Society’s Bradford Hill medal for contributions to medical statistics in 1997. RSS President David Spiegelhalter said: 'Doug was a truly extraordinary person. Google Scholar records him as the most highly-cited statistician, ever. And he was also kind, generous and fun.'

In 2011, he was elected a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences and in 2015, his outstanding contribution to the improvement of the scientific and medical research literature was recognised in a BMJ Lifetime Achievement Award. The BMJ stated that ‘Altman has done more than anybody to raise the standards of medical publication and in the process has transformed the role of statistician from number cruncher to custodian of important but often neglected values’.

Doug will be missed by many RSS fellows and the Society sends deepest condolences to his family and friends at this time.

Photo shows Doug giving his plenary lecture at the RSS 2013 Conference (full video here).


NB: this article was amended on 7 June 2018 to include David Spiegelhalter's tribute to Doug.