Albert Madansky, renowned statistician with an ‘endless curiosity’ for business, 1934–2022

Alum and longtime UChicago professor studied subjects ranging from nuclear war to behavioral science and pastrami

Albert Madansky, AB’52, SM’55, PhD’58, a brilliant statistician and longtime faculty member at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, died Dec. 8, 2022 in Chicago. He was 88.

Madansky joined the faculty in 1974 and spent decades in a variety of roles at the school, including director of the Center for Management of Public and Nonprofit Enterprise, director of the former Center for International Business and Education Research, associate dean for Ph.D. studies, and deputy dean for faculty. He was the H.G.B. Alexander Professor Emeritus of Business Administration at the time of his death.

“He was kind of a salesman for the University of Chicago,” said James E. Schrager, clinical professor of entrepreneurship and strategic management. “One of his most enjoyable missions was to recruit great faculty members.”

Schrager, a longtime colleague and friend, also described Madansky as a “renaissance person” who wanted to learn as much as he could. “He wasn’t just a brilliant mathematician, but could do so many other things. His endless curiosity motivated him to look at everything in the world of business,” he said.

Early in his career, Madansky was also a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and a Fulbright Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Throughout his career, he used his mathematical knowledge and training to quantify fascinating problems across a variety of fields, including market research, finance, behavioral science, and even international relations, gaining global recognition for his work in the field of statistics particularly.

He was the author of many scholarly articles and books, including Foundations of Econometrics and Prescriptions for Working Statisticians. He also helped develop the Gastineau-Madansky model for stock option pricing and the Edmundson-Madansky inequality model used in stochastic linear programming.

In his early 20s, Madansky collaborated on a top-secret project at the Rand Corporation, where he was tasked with figuring out the probability of a nuclear accident in the midst of the Cold War. The analysis meant he had to turn to Bayesian statistics since there were no prior occurrences. “He had to study and understand each component of the atom bomb to see where a potential incident could occur,” Schrager recalled. Parts of the roughly 200-page now-declassified report that Madansky wrote in 1958 remain redacted.

After arriving at Booth, Madansky got the attention of his colleagues right away, said Roman Weil, the V. Duane Rath Professor Emeritus of Accounting. “He had deep understanding of many disciplines—operations research, management science, econometrics, applied economics,” said Weil. “I was impressed with his intellect from the beginning.”

Linus Schrage, professor emeritus of operations research and operations management, said Madansky was always prepared to discuss something completely unexpected with his colleagues. “When you saw him approaching in the halls of the school, he would invariably break out in a big grin, and you prepared to be part of a two-minute discussion about some new problem or challenge whose exact nature was hard to predict.”

Memorably, he would find ways to turn a statistical lens toward one of his favorite issues: food. Along with the late economist Martin Shubik, he set out to discover the best pastrami sandwich served in New York City via blind taste tests. “Pastrami is devoured, not tasted,” Madansky wrote in a 1987 issue of Chance: New Directions for Statistics and Computing. “Nonetheless, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, I designed and conducted two separate experiments involving delicatessen taste tests.” In Chicago, he followed suit by analyzing the local pastrami scene.

On campus, he was an active participant in the Latke-Hamantash Debate, an annual event held by the University of Chicago Hillel Center since 1946. The debate over which Jewish holiday dish—the fried potato pancake or the triangular pastry—is superior, was a favorite of Madansky’s because it allowed him to bring his sense of problem-solving and humor to discuss topics close to his heart, said his daughter Michele Madansky, MBA’90, PhD’99. “Scholarship, Judaism and food—it was like the trifecta of all the different things he enjoyed,” she adds.

For Michele, attending Booth meant seeing her father’s professional side—both silly and serious—shine through. She recalled how she had to take Madansky’s econometrics course because he was the only professor teaching it that school year. Even as his daughter, she knew that she did not have an edge. “I knew that if I had 89.9 percent, I would not have gotten an A,” she said. “I did get an A, but barely.”

Outside of Booth, Madansky always made it one of his priorities to help others with statistics when the chance arose, recalled Michele. Often that meant making time for a Zoom call to explain concepts to his grandchildren or to others he encountered, including workers in the building where he lived. “He was always available and became more patient with age,” she said. Madansky also built a practice as an expert witness leveraging statistical analyses for a variety of law cases.

Even after retirement, he remained committed and engaged in his research. Most recently, he was in the peer review process of a paper he cowrote with Schrager that stemmed from their time together reading more than 1,000 pages of Nobel laureate Herbert A Simon’s academic anthologies on decision-making and problem-solving. “He was a happy warrior, always with a glimmer in this eye, on the way to another intellectual adventure,” Schrager said.

Madansky was the son of Polish Jewish immigrants; his mother was a seamstress and his father, a shoemaker. Yiddish was his first language. He was deeply connected to his synagogue and a Judaic scholar. He was able to marry his interests by consulting on methodology for the National Jewish Population Survey.   

All of his education was at the University of Chicago, with an undergraduate degree from the College and advanced degrees from the Department of Statistics. His graduate studies included a substantial number of courses at Chicago Booth. His family also has deep connections to the University—his wife, daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren have cumulatively earned four UChicago ABs, four MBAs, and one Ph.D. 

He is survived by his wife, Paula, AB’59, seven children and stepchildren, 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

—Adapted form an article published by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.