James Ware’s biggest impact as a biostatistician came when he worked on the Harvard School of Public Health’s Six Cities study, which discovered that air pollution by extremely fine particles can shorten life expectancy – a finding that led to changes in the Clean Air Act.
His analytical contributions to the 1993 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, and the resulting adjustments in federal standards, “has led to measurably better air quality and better health around the world,” said Douglas Dockery, the paper’s lead author, who chairs the environmental health department at what is now the Harvard T.H. Chan School.
Dr. Ware’s legacy, however, can also been seen in the Chan School’s administration and among his students who joined the international community of biostatisticians. Along with his work at Harvard, where he was the School of Public Health’s academic dean for 19 years, he was the New England Journal’s biostatistician for a quarter century.
“What he used to say is that he liked to take things that we thought and turn them into things that we knew, within statistical limits. That’s very important in medicine,” said Dr. Jeffrey M. Drazen, editor of the journal, who added: “Jim could take a study apart and figure it out.”
Dr. Ware, the Frederick Mosteller professor of biostatistics and associate dean for clinical and translational science at the Chan School, died of complications of esophageal cancer April 26 in Brigham & Women’s Hospital. He was 74 and lived in Cambridge.
“Jim was an extraordinary intellect and an extraordinary human being,” said Dr. Harvey V. Fineberg, a former dean of the School of Public Health and a former Harvard provost. “He was supremely gifted in his field. The work he did at the New England Journal alone probably improved hundreds of papers over the years. In a quiet way and in a consistent way and in a skillful way he kept contributing.”
Dr. Ware “shaped contemporary professional education in public health,” Fineberg noted, while fine-tuning the way colleagues understood the statistical significance of their findings.
“He was also a person who really loved helping others, especially students and junior colleagues who were grappling with a problem,” said Fineberg, who is now president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. “He had a wonderful gift in that he could just tell them the answer, but often he helped them figure it out instead, and helped them understand it in a deeper way than if he just gave them the answer.”
Dockery, a professor of environmental epidemiology, said Dr. Ware shaped “how we translate what can be arcane medical studies into language that’s accessible to policymakers and the public. He was a tremendous writer and really had great clarity in the way he was able to help us write and make the information clear.”
Dr. Ware was modest, colleagues said, even though his accomplishments included coauthoring well-known studies such as “Random-Effects Models for Longitudinal Data,” an oft-cited 1982 paper in the journal Biometrics that provided a much-used approach for researchers to analyze data from studies in public health and other fields.
“He was really fun to work with,” said his longtime friend Nan Laird, coauthor of “Random-Effects” and the Harvey V. Fineberg research professor of public health at Harvard. “He was always enthusiastic and he was thoughtful.”
Drazen said that “what separated him from a lot of other statisticians is that he always wanted to understand the medical question that was being asked,” and to ensure the statistics supporting or refuting “the inference were in fact appropriate. Jim was the one who got it more than everyone else. That’s what made him a gem.”
James H. Ware grew up in Mexico, Mo., which is west of St. Louis. He was the older of two children born to Lon Ware and the former Iva Welling. His father was ill for most of his youth and died when Dr. Ware was in college. His mother taught business at a junior college.
Seeking better educational opportunities, the family moved to Michigan for the last of Dr. Ware’s high school years. He attended Yale University as a National Merit scholar and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1963. At Stanford University, he received a master’s in 1965 and a doctorate in 1969, both in statistics.
Though Dr. Ware considered medical school, “he got exposed to the field of biological statistics and he just felt like it was a great match for him,” said his wife, Janice Ware.
For most of the 1970s, he was a mathematical statistician for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. While there he met Janice Wisse. They married in 1972 and she is now director of the cardiac neurodevelopmental program at Boston Children’s Hospital and teaches psychology and developmental medicine atHarvard Medical School.
In 1979, renowned Harvard statistician Frederick Mosteller recruited Dr. Ware to join the School of Public Health faculty, where he became a professor and held the chair named for his mentor. Dr. Ware was academic dean from 1990 to 2009, along with serving as acting dean of the School of Public Health from 1997 to 1999.
In addition, he and his wife were masters of Cabot House from 1996 to 2003. “That was really a big adventure for us,” she said. “It gave us a nice opportunity to be really immersed in the campus,” she added, and provided an opportunity to encourage students to pursue public health careers.
As a biostatistician, Dr. Ware’s “real strength was his ability to collaborate with all sorts of folks,” said his wife, who added that he “really never stepped forward to take credit in any visible way … I thought that fared him especially well at Harvard, where there was a lot more intensity and competition.”
Fineberg recalled that Dr. Ware “enabled people to think they were doing all the work, when in fact he had a very quiet and effective guiding hand behind the processes. He carried all this off with unfailing modesty. He never promoted himself in any way that I ever perceived even dimly. He was always helping others achieve their ambitions and helping the institution to succeed.”
In addition to his wife, Dr. Ware leaves a daughter, Cameron, and a son, Jake, both of Cambridge, and a sister, Elaine Mansfield of Ithaca, N.Y.
A memorial service will be held at 4:30 p.m. July 22 in the Harvard Faculty Club in Cambridge.
Dr. Ware loved spending time on the water in a motorboat while visiting the family’s vacation home in Westport. “He was extremely fun-loving, a person who was just remarkably happy wherever he was,” his wife said.
She added that he also “was an incredibly engaged parent.” They had worried about how he would balance his commitments as he added being a dean and house master to his biostatistician and researcher duties.
After Dr. Ware died, his former assistant recalled how he insisted that when his wife and children phoned, their calls should be put through immediately, no matter what he was doing. “I had never known that,” his wife said. “I always wondered why he was so easy to reach. That’s clearly why.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.