We are sad to report that Distinguished Professor Emeritus Robert R. Sokal
passed away in Stony Brook on Monday, April 9, 2012 at the age of 86. Prof.
Sokal was a founding member of the Department of Ecology and Evolution at
Stony Brook University, co-founder of the methodological school of Numerical
Taxonomy, and the principle investigator for major research programs in the
spatial variation of insects and humans and the evolutionary response to
selection in insects. He supervised the training of numerous Ph.D. students
and taught biometry to a much larger number. He was a member of the National
Academy of Sciences of the USA and received many other honors during his
remarkable career. We in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony
Brook will miss his insights, support, and friendship.
Prof. Sokal was born into a middle class Jewish family on January 13, 1926
in Vienna, Austria, the only child of Klara and Siegfried Sokal. He fled the
looming Nazi menace with his family in 1938 to Shanghai, China, which became
the refuge for tens of thousands of European Jews during World War II.
Robert attended secondary school and college in Shanghai, earning his B.S.
degree in Biology from St. John's University in 1947. There he also met a
young Chinese student, Julie Chenchu Yang, who became his wife and lifelong
love. A book entitled Letzte Zuflucht Schanghai (Final Refuge Shanghai) by
Stefan Schomann (2008) in German and translated into Chinese chronicled
Robert's flight from Vienna, his family's refuge in Shanghai, and the start
of his life with Julie, before he came to the United States for his graduate
Prof. Sokal received his graduate training at the University of Chicago,
where he earned his Ph.D. in Zoology in 1952 under the direction of
entomologist Alfred E. Emerson and was strongly influenced by Sewall Wright.
He joined the Entomology Department at the University of Kansas in 1951 as
an instructor, and rose rapidly through the academic ranks to Professor of
Statistical Biology in 1961. He was recruited by Lawrence B. Slobodkin to
the fledgling Department of Ecology and Evolution at the State University of
New York at Stony Brook in 1968, where he spent the remainder of his career.
Prof. Sokal's scientific publications span a broad range of subjects and
seven decades. He published major papers in ecology, evolution,
anthropology, geography, statistics, and of course systematics. His papers
appeared in Science, Nature, PNAS USA, and many of the best specialty
journals in ecology, evolution, systematics, anthropology, and statistics.
He is probably best known to evolutionary biologists and ecologists for his
Biometry textbook with F. James Rohlf, the fourth edition of which he
completed less than a year before his death. A recent search of Google
Scholar indicated that the third edition of Biometry had been cited 19,851
times. Prof. Sokal is also well known as the co-founder of Numerical
Taxonomy with Peter H. A. Sneath in 1963. This work promoted statistical
methods for classification and was controversial both because it advocated
abandonment of traditional evolutionary systematics and led to the debate
between the advocates of phenetic and cladistic methods. Regardless, it is
undeniable that Prof. Sokal pioneered the use of rigorous, objective
statistical methods and the employment of computers in systematics. Prof.
Sokal started his career with dissertation research on patterns of
geographical variation in Pemphigus aphids. Later, he initiated research on
the evolutionary response to selection in laboratory populations of
Tribolium beetles and house flies. His last major empirical project, which
he pursued for more than two decades, focused on analysis of patterns of
spatial variation in human populations for a variety of traits and the
development of new methods for these analyses. Prof. Sokal published 12
books (5 translated) and 206 articles, and his publications have been cited
tens of thousands of times.
Prof. Sokal came to Stony Brook University as a Professor in 1968. He was
named Leading Professor in 1972 and Distinguished Professor in 1991. He
retired in 1995 and became a very active Distinguished Professor Emeritus.
He served as the Chair and Graduate Program Director of the Department of
Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University from 1980 to 1983 and as
Vice Provost for Research and Graduate Studies from 1981 to 82. He remained
very active in scientific research, the Department of Ecology and Evolution,
university affairs, and the National Academy of Sciences, even attending
departmental colloquia until the last year of his life, when his declining
health precluded it.
Prof. Sokal also served in many other prestigious capacities, including
President of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Society of
Naturalists, the Classification Society, and the International Federation of
Classification Societies, the last of which he helped found. He was an
associate editor of Evolution (1965-68) and editor of The American
Naturalist (1969-1974). He received many high honors, including both
Fulbright and Guggenheim awards, the Charles R. Darwin Award for Lifetime
Achievement of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, and
many others. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
and The American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of
the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.
Robert R. Sokal is survived by his wife of 64 years, Julie Sokal, his
children David Sokal and Hannah Sokal-Holmes, and four grandchildren. He
will be greatly missed by his family, friends, and colleagues.
F. James Rohlf, John S. Toll Professor, Stony Brook University
The much revised 4th editions of Biometry and Statistical Tables are now