Remembering Leland Wilkinson
Leland Wilkinson, H2O.ai chief scientist, our brilliant, beloved and kind friend, colleague, mentor, academic, author, entrepreneur, musician, pioneer and luminary in data visualization and statistical graphics, passed away on Friday, Dec. 10 in Lake Forest, Ill., following a stroke. His passing is an incredible loss to our community, and we will miss him immeasurably.
Leland's work and writings will be celebrated and live on in the many brilliant collaborations, talks, students, colleagues and lives he inspired. His impact will continue to be felt across the statistics, data visualization, data science and machine learning world. H2O.ai Fellows recognize individual Makers who have made iconic contributions and sustained technical achievements to further the democratization of AI. The H2O.ai Fellows unanimously named Leland an H2O.ai Fellow, posthumously, for his contributions to the H2O.ai community, customers and code. The Leland Wilkinson Award for AI and Data Visualization and a series of talks and gatherings during the H2O World conference this spring will be dedicated to celebrating Leland’s life and work.
We invite you to share memories, stories, and thoughts below, as together we remember and celebrate Leland’s life and legacy.
About Leland Wilkinson
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Leland wrote SYSTAT, the first comprehensive, statistical software package designed expressly for microcomputers. It represented an end-run around the punch cards, queues and mainframes required for statistical analysis at that time. The program was the ﬁrst of its kind to include comprehensive graphics driven by a command structure of universally applicable options, foreshadowing the graphical structure that Leland would more fully develop and articulate during the 1990s. SYSTAT also was the ﬁrst software implementation of the now widely used heatmap display. He founded SYSTAT, a company of the same name, headquartered in Evanston, Ill., and later sold SYSTAT to SPSS in 1995. He went on to build a team of graphics programmers there who developed the nViZn platform that produces the visualizations in SPSS, Clementine, and other analytics services. Leland wrote the seminal book on statistical graphics, his magnum opus, The Grammar of Graphics, in 1999. The Grammar of Graphics provided a new way of creating and describing data visualizations, a language — or grammar — for specifying visual elements on a plot, which was a completely novel idea that has fundamentally shaped modern data visualization. The book served as the foundation for the R package ggplot2, the Python Bokeh package, the R package ggbio and helped shape the Polaris project at Stanford University.
Leland received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, a bachelor of sacred theology degree from Harvard Divinity School, and a doctorate from Yale. He was an adjunct professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a fellow of the American Statistical Association, an elected member of the International Statistical Institute and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He won the best speaker award at the National Computer Graphics Association and the Youden prize for best expository paper in the statistics journal Technometrics. He served on the Committee on Applied and Theoretical Statistics of the National Research Council, was vice chair of the Board of the National Institute of Statistical Sciences (NISS) and served on the Board of Trustees of the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IPAM) at UCLA. In addition to The Grammar of Graphics, numerous journal articles, the original SYSTAT computer program and manuals, and patents in visualization and distributed analytic computing, Leland is the author (with Grant Blank and Chris Gruber) of Desktop Data Analysis with SYSTAT and co-author of Demystifying AI for the Enterprise, to be published this month.
To learn more about Leland’s life and work please visit:
The Grammar of Graphics, his magnum opus.
‘This is still so very surreal for me. I have been thinking of Lee all day. I feel so very fortunate to have had him as a friend and colleague. I can recall many conversations we had at HQ. Topics varied from statistics, data visualization, computer science, sports cars, classical music, and the list goes on. He was a great mind in all respects and even a greater human being. He will be dearly missed.’
‘My colleague and friend, Leland Wilkinson, passed away on Friday. It was such an honor to work with Lee, and to be his friend. He was brilliant, he made incredible contributions to visualization and statistical computing, and on top of all that he was a genuinely kind person.’
‘Leland was always such a warm and inviting person to be around. He was so deeply passionate about his work and I was lucky to have worked with him on the AutoViz project. He was immensely accomplished and yet was also very humble. Leland was always so supportive and enjoyed teaching me as much as I enjoyed learning from him.’
‘I didn’t know Leland for very long. But I always felt that Leland knew me. You left an everlasting impression on me, Lee—miss you.’
‘Feels pretty surreal that Leland is not here anymore. I’m still in disbelief. I was mentioning Leland to a new hire just the day before Leland passed away – during a 1-1 training on how he designed AutoViz/Wrote GG and how he responds to any question quickly on slack until you really get it, regardless of your level of understanding. Just a great person who exhibits humility even with his great knowledge/understanding of statistics. Very sad.’
‘Heartbroken – strength to Marilyn, Lee’s immediate & H2O family, and his legion of fans & friends. As everyone points out, Lee was a brilliant mind for sure but his friendship and his humanity are legendary (I was a recipient of his gracious friendship in the Bay Area and when I reached Australia). I just got off the phone with the publisher of our next book together, which Lee had touchingly dedicated to Marilyn. We are dedicating “Demystifying AI for the Enterprise” to Lee’s memory. Next reprints & editions will also include an insert that calls out Lee’s brilliant life & accomplishments.’
‘I’m terribly saddened by our loss and my heart and thoughts go out to Lee’s family in this time of sorrow. I cannot express how honored I feel that I had a chance to meet and work with Lee, not only for what a great teacher and scientist he was, but for how he inspired me to the deepest core on how tirelessly passionate one can be, to follow our beliefs and interests for whole life. I’ll carry Lee in my heart for the rest of my life.’
‘Leland welcomed me to H2O.ai with warmth and kindness, making me feel at home after I switched careers as a astrophysics professor. He was always very generous with his time and energy, ready to chat about anything from careers to detailed statistical issues. I’ll always remember him for his passion for things being scientifically correct with an unwavering energy for making his views clear. I’ll also remember him for his general “cool dude” demeanor, which for a person of such intellect seemed to come unusually naturally.’
‘We missed you dearly Lee.’
‘I met Lee when I started at H2O. He was such a kind and inquisitive man. I loved our conversations about visualizations. He was a titan in his field and an inspiration to me. I will miss him.’
‘I have very fond memories of working with Lee. I immediately picture his smile, side booth chats about our Skytree experiences, and the way he would consistently just walk up to me with conversation starters that were way past my own, technical depth. Thank you for the learnings. Love to all who miss him.’
‘I may not know Mr. Leland Wilkinson and his work but after reading his story, one thing’s for sure he was a good man with spirit to try and make more n more stuff , and probably had an amazing vision for humanity. Requiescat in peace Leland.’
‘The news literally crashed me. No question his impact felt across all H2O and far beyond. His works inspired so many practitioners of data science including myself to re-assess and elevate the practice of creating visualizations, especially Leland’s ever growing in importance Grammar of Graphics. Both depth and humility he expressed his expertise and advice with in a wide variety of statistical topics never stopped to amaze me. I will forever cherish the moments of listening to and conversing with Lee on subjects going far beyond statistics. Lee will be desperately missed.’
‘I had the privilege of working with Lee at Skytree, on a graphical update to his Adviser software. He was extremely knowledgeable, and eager and willing to share his expertise with anyone seeking to learn. He taught me a ton about Statistics, Visualization, and ML. He had a kind and patient disposition and a great sense of humor. Lee was an all around good guy. I hope his family is doing okay. He will be missed.’
‘It is with great sadness that I received the news of Leland’s passing. He was a colleague, a friend, a brilliant academician and a giant in his field. But most of all, he was an amazing human being with passion for excellence who always tried to look for the goodness and best in everyone. My deep condolences to Leland’s family and all his loved ones. We lost a great human being.’
‘Met Lee in 1986 in the Psych Department where he was my statistics professor. Saw him build Systat and shared many moments. He always kept in touch here and there. Always a kind person of incredible knowledge. His best story: he went to buy a very expensive car dressed like a bum kind of. He said he would only give his money to whom would respect him no matter how he looked. He was as humble as intelligent. Kind. Welcoming. Saddened for his loss so early in life.’
‘May your soul rest in peace Leland!’
‘I’m absolutely saddened by this loss and our hearts and thoughts go out to Wilkinson’s family!’
‘I knew Leland for a long time, but it wasn’t until the last 10 years that I saw him more frequently at H2O. Lee had a stellar career in Statistics, making lasting contributions, especially in the area of graphics. On the personal side, Lee was happy person, and was always very warm and friendly to me. He would ask me about my piano playing (I am an amateur); I’m sorry that I never got to hear him play. He also bragged about his daughter Amie, especially after she won the Ruth Lyttle Satter Prize. He was bursting with pride! His family was clearly very important to him.’
‘Lee was such a lovely man, a gentleman in every sense of the word, and someone I really admired and appreciated as a statistician, and computer scientist, and valued as a friend and colleague. He touched so many peoples lives in a positive way.’
‘I’ve known Lee for as long as my wife Betty – the three of us met first at Skytree in early 2013. Through various paths, we all came back together at H2O.ai, and it warms my heart to know that he truly enjoyed his time on team H2O. Lee has always been more than a colleague to me. He was a family friend, a mentor, an idol. It is only fitting that we ended up buying a house in his old neighborhood, from the same realtor. We have a long way to live up to his art collection though. And we both love Bach sonatas. Elegant, brilliant and modest, always young and hungry, never complacent, always in search of the truth. Lee was always there to answer questions or to tell a funny insightful story, and his contributions to our products always left us in awe – his love for writing high quality code to solve complex problems was evident. His impact on all of us will never be forgotten, a skillful mastery of humility and genius. His love for sharing knowledge made every H2O World unforgettable. Lee’s groundbreaking contributions to the field of data science and data visualization will continue to impact the field for as long as humanity will be around. I feel blessed to have shared many great moments with Lee over the past decade, and will miss him dearly.’
‘Leland’s sudden demise has been a harsh reality to accept. I started working closely with Lee when we began the AutoInsights project at H2O.ai in 2019. The project has Lee’s DNA embedded in it in various forms. We started working closely on another exciting project, and I hope I do justice to it in his absence. I will miss all our conversations. It was fun to learn, argue, and eventually agree on ideas to solve a problem. We are all aware of Lee’s knowledge in the field of Statistics, Data Science/Machine Learning (especially Visualization), and software, but his interest in cars made us buddies. His smile was infectious. It was an honor to learn, collaborate and know Leland. The data community lost a key innovator, leader, and incredible human being. Lee, we will miss you. Love and strength to his family and friends.’
‘I remember Leland as a collague at UIC, an inspiring collaborator on our work on intelligent assistants for visualization, and as a gentleman. Peace to his memory.’
Barbara Di Eugenio
‘I had the honor and joy to work with Lee while on the nvizn team. 11 years. He was the kindest, sweetest, most brilliant man. And humble. He always listened and thought about what you said. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with him.’
Valeri Taylor (McGuire)
‘I’ve known Lee since the early 80s. At conferences we’d get together – folks from SPSS, Systat, BMDP. We were friends for many years. After various company acquisitions we all became colleagues at SPSS. The first thing I think of when I think of Lee is his joyful enthusiasm. And his brilliant mind. He will be sorely missed.’
‘I met Lee when he joined SPSS. His warmth, kindness and generosity of spirit was inherent in every conversation, whether helping this sales manager better understand his baby, SYSTAT or chatting about what music or books we were enjoying at the moment. His brilliance is evident in the work he left behind, but more importantly, his grace is what has left an even more indelible mark on the people he encountered along the way.’
‘So sorry to lose my good friend and colleague in such a quick and unexpected way. I’ve known Lee since the days when he was still actively developing SYSTAT. And after he sold the program and company, I met with him regularly at board meetings of NISS, the National Institute of Statistical Sciences. He was such a wonderful friend and colleague, and we had many discussions about common values based on Christianity and theology, which was clearly part of his foundation and personal ethics. He returned to the NISS board again about six years ago, and we had many discussions about statistics, data science and graphics. He was also a key mentor and presenter at the annual NISS Writing Workshop. His passing leaves a deep void that is only filled with the good memories from the past.’
‘I feel so fortunate for having known Lee, who I met shortly after moving to Chicago in 2008 and eventually came on board at SYSTAT running the support desk. Not everyday you meet an illustrious academic entrepreneur. Lee was a highly opinionated expert to the point of sometimes sounding arrogant, but was extraordinarily down-to-earth given his accomplishments. He would spend time talking with every employee at the office (there were only 4 of us) as well as the security and folks downstairs at the front desk, each and every day his schedule allowed for him to come in and treated us all like family. Really just a swell, funny, tenderhearted guy. He definitely changed my life, as I know he did countless others as well. (Many of the SYSTAT licensed career statisticians who’d call me for support would credit his books and software documentation alone for being life-changing, or the only way that stats finally made sense to them.) Very selfishly, I miss being able to go into his office and pull books on Statistical Programming and the like, whenever I wanted. It was a pretty extraordinary resource, plus I would ask him if there was something interesting that confounded me. He’d go straight to the white-board like I was one of his post-docs. Couldn’t be more thankful for the example he set for me as a statistician, businessman (though he would disdain being called that), and friend. Wish I could have thanked him before he left us, but at the same time, I know he already knew.’