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VUMC mourns loss of Biostatistics pioneer Federspiel

Oct. 30, 2020, 10:55 AM


by Bill Snyder

Charles Foster (Chuck) Federspiel, PhD, a beloved member of the Vanderbilt University faculty for 61 years and founding director of the Division of Biostatistics, died on Oct. 19. He was 91.

Charles Foster (Chuck) Federspiel, PhD

“He was a true scholar, and an exceptional mentor, colleague and friend,” said Yu Shyr, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Biostatistics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Harold L. Moses Professor of Cancer Research. “His loss is a great one for the VUMC community.”

“His door was always open and he provided astute advice,” added William Dupont, PhD, professor of Biostatistics and Preventive Medicine. “I will always be grateful for his support, which had a critical impact on my career.”

Rameela Raman, PhD, associate professor of Biostatistics, remembers him as “truly a very kind and considerate person.” Added Biostatistics Professor Bryan Shepherd, PhD, “I’m thankful that Chuck was part of our department, and that he stayed engaged in it until very late in his life.”

“Chuck was a gentleman of the highest order,” said Frank Harrell Jr., PhD, professor of Biostatistics, “a fine person, a force for positivity and grace, and fun to be around. His service to Vanderbilt leaves an indelible imprint. We will greatly miss him.”

Dr. Federspiel grew up in Ithaca, Michigan. After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he joined the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps in the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) of what was then known as the national Communicable Disease Center (CDC) in Atlanta.

“He was in the second EIS class and was a role model for subsequent biostatisticians joining that elite team,” said William Schaffner, MD, a former EIS officer who currently is professor of Preventive Medicine and Medicine at VUMC.

In 1959, Dr. Federspiel earned his PhD in statistics from a joint University of North Carolina/North Carolina State University graduate program. Later that year he joined the Vanderbilt faculty as the University’s only PhD-level biostatistician.

“Chuck was always very supportive and creative in finding opportunities for his students,” recalled Wayne Ray, PhD, professor of Health Policy, who as a master’s student in Biostatistics in the early 1970s participated in an externship program Dr. Federspiel organized. The experience, Ray said, “was fundamental for my career.”

In addition to his role in establishing the Division of Biostatistics, Dr. Federspiel served as interim chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine from 1978 to 1982, when Schaffner succeeded him.

“Novel at the time, (Dr. Federspiel) saw the public health research opportunities in working with administrative ‘big data’ and he initiated a collaboration with the (Tennessee) Medicaid program, which now has extended for more than 45 years,” Schaffner said.

With colleagues Gerald Hickson, MD, James Pichert, PhD, and Cynthia Miller, MSSW, Dr. Federspiel helped pioneer early studies of medical malpractice and risk management programs and was a co-founder of the Vanderbilt Center for Patient and Professional Advocacy.

“Chuck was always concerned that we help individuals who were off track to get back on course as professionals,” said Hickson, the center’s founding director and Joseph C. Ross Professor of Medical Education and Administration.

“Chuck always listened, waited for the right moment, and then offered that thoughtful comment, that piece of insight that we all needed to hear.”

Dr. Federspiel is survived by his wife Jo, daughter Ingrid, and grandson Hartsul. In lieu of attending a memorial service, cards and letters may be sent care of Robbie Luckett to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Department of Biostatistics, 2525 West End Ave., Suite 1100, Nashville, TN 37203.

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