Sir
Ronald Aylmer Fisher FRS (17 February 1890 – 29 July 1962) was an
EnglishEngland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...
statisticianA statistician is someone who works with theoretical or applied statistics. The profession exists in both the private and public sectors. The core of that work is to measure, interpret, and describe the world and human activity patterns within it...
, evolutionary biologist,
eugenicistEugenics is the "applied science or the bio-social movement which advocates the use of practices aimed at improving the genetic composition of a population", usually referring to human populations. The origins of the concept of eugenics began with certain interpretations of Mendelian inheritance,...
and
geneticistGenetics , a discipline of biology, is the science of genes, heredity, and variation in living organisms....
. Among other things, Fisher is well known for his contributions to statistics by creating
Fisher's exact testFisher's exact test is a statistical significance test used in the analysis of contingency tables where sample sizes are small. It is named after its inventor, R. A...
and
Fisher's equationIn mathematics, Fisher's equation, also known as the Fisher-Kolmogorov equation and the Fisher-KPP equation, named after R. A. Fisher and A. N...
.
Anders HaldAnders Hald was a Danish statistician who made contributions to the history of statistics.He was a professor at the University of Copenhagen from 1960 to 1982.- Bibliography :...
called him "a genius who almost single-handedly created the foundations for modern statistical science" while
Richard DawkinsClinton Richard Dawkins, FRS, FRSL , known as Richard Dawkins, is a British ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author...
named him "the greatest biologist since
DarwinCharles Robert Darwin FRS was an English naturalist. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestry, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection.He published his theory...
".
Early life
Fisher was born in
East FinchleyEast Finchley is a suburb in the London Borough of Barnet, in north London, and situated north-west of Charing Cross. Geographically it is somewhat separate from the rest of Finchley, with North Finchley and West Finchley to the north, and Finchley Central to the west.- History :The land on which...
in
LondonLondon is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...
,
EnglandEngland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...
, to George and Katie Fisher. His father was a successful fine arts dealer. He had a happy childhood, being doted on by three older sisters, an older brother, and his mother, who died when Fisher was 14. His father lost his business in several ill-considered transactions only 18 months later, according to the biography by Fisher's daughter, Joan. Joan Fisher's biography is the main source of information on her father's early life; it was published under her married name and with the statistical advice of her husband,
George E. P. Box- External links :* from a at NIST* * * * * *** For Box's PhD students see*...
.
Although Ronald Fisher had very poor eyesight he was a precocious student, winning the Neeld Medal (a competitive essay in Mathematics) at
Harrow SchoolHarrow School, commonly known simply as "Harrow", is an English independent school for boys situated in the town of Harrow, in north-west London.. The school is of worldwide renown. There is some evidence that there has been a school on the site since 1243 but the Harrow School we know today was...
at the age of 16. Because of his poor eyesight, he was tutored in mathematics without the aid of paper and pen, which developed his ability to visualize problems in geometrical terms, without contributing to his interest in writing proper derivations of mathematical solutions, especially proofs. He amazed his peers with his ability to conjecture mathematical solutions without justifying his conclusions by showing intermediate steps. He also developed a strong interest in
biologyBiology is a natural science concerned with the study of life and living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, origin, evolution, distribution, and taxonomy. Biology is a vast subject containing many subdivisions, topics, and disciplines...
, and, especially,
evolutionEvolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organisation, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.Life on Earth...
.
In 1909 he won a scholarship to
Gonville and Caius College, CambridgeGonville and Caius College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England. The college is often referred to simply as "Caius" , after its second founder, John Keys, who fashionably latinised the spelling of his name after studying in Italy.- Outline :Gonville and...
. There he formed many friendships and became enthralled with the heady intellectual atmosphere. At Cambridge, Fisher learned of the newly rediscovered theory of Mendelian
geneticsGenetics , a discipline of biology, is the science of genes, heredity, and variation in living organisms....
; he saw biometry—and its growing corpus of statistical methods—as a potential way to reconcile the discontinuous nature of
Mendelian inheritanceMendelian inheritance is a scientific description of how hereditary characteristics are passed from parent organisms to their offspring; it underlies much of genetics...
with
continuous variationQuantitative traits refer to phenotypes that vary in degree and can be attributed to polygenic effects, i.e., product of two or more genes, and their environment. Quantitative trait loci are stretches of DNA containing or linked to the genes that underlie a quantitative trait...
and gradual evolution. However, his foremost concern was
eugenicsEugenics is the "applied science or the bio-social movement which advocates the use of practices aimed at improving the genetic composition of a population", usually referring to human populations. The origins of the concept of eugenics began with certain interpretations of Mendelian inheritance,...
, which he saw as a pressing social as well as scientific issue that encompassed both genetics and statistics.
In 1911 he was involved in forming the
Cambridge UniversityThe University of Cambridge is a public research university located in Cambridge, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest university in both the United Kingdom and the English-speaking world , and the seventh-oldest globally...
Eugenics Society with
John Maynard KeynesJohn Maynard Keynes, Baron Keynes of Tilton, CB FBA , was a British economist whose ideas have profoundly affected the theory and practice of modern macroeconomics, as well as the economic policies of governments...
, R.C. Punnett and
Horace DarwinSir Horace Darwin, KBE, FRS , a son of the English naturalist Charles Darwin, was a civil engineer.Darwin was born in Down House in 1851, the fifth son and ninth child of the British naturalist Charles Darwin and his wife Emma, the youngest of their seven children that survived to adulthood.He was...
(
Charles DarwinCharles Robert Darwin FRS was an English naturalist. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestry, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection.He published his theory...
's son). The group was active, and held monthly meetings, often featuring addresses by leaders of mainstream eugenics organizations, such as the Eugenics Education Society of London, founded by Charles Darwin's half-cousin,
Francis GaltonSir Francis Galton /ˈfrɑːnsɪs ˈgɔːltn̩/ FRS , cousin of Douglas Strutt Galton, half-cousin of Charles Darwin, was an English Victorian polymath: anthropologist, eugenicist, tropical explorer, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, proto-geneticist, psychometrician, and statistician...
in 1909. Near Fisher's graduation in 1912, Fisher's tutor informed his student that, despite his enormous aptitude for scientific work and his mathematical potential, that his disinclination to show calculations or to prove propositions unfortunately rendered him unsuited for a career in applied mathematics, which required greater fortitude: His tutor gave him a "luke-warm" recommendation, stating that if Fisher "had stuck to the ropes he would have made a first class mathematician, but he would not."
After his graduation, Fisher was eager to join the army in anticipation of
Great Britain'sGreat Britain or Britain is an island situated to the northwest of Continental Europe. It is the ninth largest island in the world, and the largest European island, as well as the largest of the British Isles...
entry into
World War IWorld War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...
; however, he failed the medical examinations (repeatedly) because of his eyesight. Over the next six years, he worked as a statistician for the City of London. For his war work, he took up teaching physics and mathematics at a series of
public schoolsA public school, in common British usage, is a school that is neither administered nor financed by the state or from taxpayer contributions, and is instead funded by a combination of endowments, tuition fees and charitable contributions, usually existing as a non profit-making charitable trust...
, including
Bradfield CollegeBradfield College is a coeducational independent school located in the small village of Bradfield in the English county of Berkshire.The college was founded in 1850 by Thomas Stevens, Rector and Lord of the Manor of Bradfield...
in
BerkshireBerkshire is a historic county in the South of England. It is also often referred to as the Royal County of Berkshire because of the presence of the royal residence of Windsor Castle in the county; this usage, which dates to the 19th century at least, was recognised by the Queen in 1957, and...
, as well as aboard H.M. Training Ship
Worcester. Major
Leonard DarwinMajor Leonard Darwin , a son of the English naturalist Charles Darwin, was variously a soldier, politician, economist, eugenicist and mentor of the statistician and evolutionary biologist Ronald Fisher.- Biography :...
(another of Charles Darwin's sons) and an unconventional and vivacious friend he called Gudruna were almost his only contacts with his Cambridge circle. They sustained him through this difficult period. A bright spot in his life was that Gudruna matched him to her sister Eileen Guinness; they married in 1917 when she was only 17. With the sisters' help, he set up a subsistence farming operation on the Bradfield estate, where they had a large garden and raised animals, learning to make do on very little. They lived through the war without using their food coupons.
During this period, Fisher started writing book reviews for the
Eugenic Review and gradually increased his interest in genetic and statistical work. He volunteered to undertake all such reviews for the journal, and was hired to a part-time position by Major Darwin. He published several articles on biometry during this period, including the ground-breaking "
The Correlation Between Relatives on the Supposition of Mendelian InheritanceThe Correlation Between Relatives on the Supposition of Mendelian Inheritance is a scientific paper by R.A. Fisher which was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1918,...
", written in 1916 and published in 1918. This paper laid foundation for what came to be known as biometrical genetics, and introduced the methodology of the
analysis of varianceIn statistics, analysis of variance is a collection of statistical models, and their associated procedures, in which the observed variance in a particular variable is partitioned into components attributable to different sources of variation...
, which was a considerable advance over the
correlationIn statistics, dependence refers to any statistical relationship between two random variables or two sets of data. Correlation refers to any of a broad class of statistical relationships involving dependence....
methods used previously. The paper showed that the inheritance of traits measurable by real values (i.e., continuous or dimensional traits), is consistent with Mendelian principles. This forms the basis of the genetics of complex trait inheritance and mitigated debates between biometricians and Mendelians, and the compatibility of
particulate inheritance with natural selectionThe modern evolutionary synthesis is a union of ideas from several biological specialties which provides a widely accepted account of evolution...
With the end of the war he went looking for a new job in dejection, calling himself "an egregious failure in two professions" as a commercial statistician and as a teacher. He was offered a position at the
Galton LaboratoryThe Galton Laboratory, was a laboratory for research into human genetics based at University College London in London, United Kingdom. It was originally established in 1904, and became part of UCL's biology department in 1996....
led by
Karl PearsonKarl Pearson FRS was an influential English mathematician who has been credited for establishing the disciplineof mathematical statistics....
, the founder of mathematical statistics in the United Kingdom. Because he saw the developing rivalry with Pearson as a professional obstacle, however, he accepted instead a temporary job as a statistician with a small agricultural station in the country in 1919.
Early professional years
In 1919 Fisher started work at
Rothamsted Experimental StationThe Rothamsted Experimental Station, one of the oldest agricultural research institutions in the world, is located at Harpenden in Hertfordshire, England. It is now known as Rothamsted Research...
located at
HarpendenHarpenden is a town in Hertfordshire, England.The town's total population is just under 30,000.-Geography and administration:There are two civil parishes: Harpenden and Harpenden Rural....
, Hertfordshire, England. Here he started a major study of the extensive collections of data recorded over many years. This resulted in a series of reports under the general title
Studies in Crop Variation. This began a period of great productivity. Over the next seven years, he pioneered the principles of the
design of experimentsIn general usage, design of experiments or experimental design is the design of any information-gathering exercises where variation is present, whether under the full control of the experimenter or not. However, in statistics, these terms are usually used for controlled experiments...
and elaborated his studies of "
analysis of varianceIn statistics, analysis of variance is a collection of statistical models, and their associated procedures, in which the observed variance in a particular variable is partitioned into components attributable to different sources of variation...
". He furthered his studies of the statistics of small samples. Perhaps even more important, he began his systematic approach of the analysis of real data as the springboard for the development of new statistical methods. He developed computational algorithms for analyzing data from his balanced experimental designs. In 1925, this work culminated in the publication of his first book,
Statistical Methods for Research WorkersStatistical Methods for Research Workers is a classic 1925 book on statistics by the statistician R.A. Fisher. It is considered by some to be one of the 20th century's most influential books on statistical methods. According to ,...
. This went into many editions and translations in later years, and became a standard reference work for scientists in many disciplines. In 1935, this was followed by
The Design of Experiments, which was also widely used. According to ,
Ronald A. Fisher was "interested in application and in the popularization
of statistical methods and his early book Statistical Methods for Research WorkersStatistical Methods for Research Workers is a classic 1925 book on statistics by the statistician R.A. Fisher. It is considered by some to be one of the 20th century's most influential books on statistical methods. According to ,...
, published in 1925, went through many editions and
motivated and influenced the practical use of statistics in many fields of
study. His Design of Experiments (1935) [promoted] statistical technique and application. In that book he
emphasized examples and how to design experiments systematically from
a statistical point of view. The mathematical justification of the methods
described was not stressed and, indeed, proofs were often barely sketched
or omitted altogether ..., a fact which led H. B. MannHenry Berthold Mann was a professor of mathematics and statistics at Ohio State University. Mann proved the Schnirelmann-Landau conjecture in number theory, and as a result earned the 1946 Cole Prize. He and his student developed the U-statistic of nonparametric statistics...
to fill the gaps with a rigorous mathematical treatment in his well known treatise, ."
In addition to "
analysis of varianceIn statistics, analysis of variance is a collection of statistical models, and their associated procedures, in which the observed variance in a particular variable is partitioned into components attributable to different sources of variation...
", Fisher named and promoted the method of
maximum likelihoodIn statistics, maximum-likelihood estimation is a method of estimating the parameters of a statistical model. When applied to a data set and given a statistical model, maximum-likelihood estimation provides estimates for the model's parameters....
estimation. Fisher also originated the concepts of
sufficiencyIn statistics, a sufficient statistic is a statistic which has the property of sufficiency with respect to a statistical model and its associated unknown parameter, meaning that "no other statistic which can be calculated from the same sample provides any additional information as to the value of...
,
ancillarityIn statistics, an ancillary statistic is a statistic whose sampling distribution does not depend on which of the probability distributions among those being considered is the distribution of the statistical population from which the data were taken...
,
Fisher's linear discriminatorLinear discriminant analysis and the related Fisher's linear discriminant are methods used in statistics, pattern recognition and machine learning to find a linear combination of features which characterizes or separates two or more classes of objects or events...
and
Fisher informationIn mathematical statistics and information theory, the Fisher information is the variance of the score. In Bayesian statistics, the asymptotic distribution of the posterior mode depends on the Fisher information and not on the prior...
. His 1924 article "On a distribution yielding the error functions of several well known statistics" presented
Karl Pearson'sKarl Pearson FRS was an influential English mathematician who has been credited for establishing the disciplineof mathematical statistics....
chi-squaredPearson's chi-squared test is the best-known of several chi-squared tests – statistical procedures whose results are evaluated by reference to the chi-squared distribution. Its properties were first investigated by Karl Pearson in 1900...
and Student's
t in the same framework as the Gaussian distribution, and his own "analysis of variance"
distribution z (more commonly used today in the form of the F distribution). These contributions made him a major figure in 20th century statistics.
In defending the use of the
z distribution when the data were not
Gaussian, Fisher used a "randomization test" for data from randomized experiments. Randomization had previously been used by Charles Sanders Peirce. According to biographers Yates and Mather, "Fisher introduced the randomization test, comparing the value of t or z actually obtained with the distribution of the t or z values when all possible random arrangements were imposed on the
experimental data;" in the randomization test, the random arrangements considered were those arising from the design specified in the treatment protocol. When similar tests are used on data from non-randomized studies, the tests are called permutation tests of significance. Fisher wrote that permutation tests were "in no sense put forward to supersede the common and expeditious tests based on the Gaussian theory of errors."
His work on the theory of
population geneticsPopulation genetics is the study of allele frequency distribution and change under the influence of the four main evolutionary processes: natural selection, genetic drift, mutation and gene flow. It also takes into account the factors of recombination, population subdivision and population...
also made him one of the three great figures of that field, together with
Sewall WrightSewall Green Wright was an American geneticist known for his influential work on evolutionary theory and also for his work on path analysis. With R. A. Fisher and J.B.S. Haldane, he was a founder of theoretical population genetics. He is the discoverer of the inbreeding coefficient and of...
and J.B.S. Haldane, and as such was one of the founders of the neo-Darwinian
modern evolutionary synthesisThe modern evolutionary synthesis is a union of ideas from several biological specialties which provides a widely accepted account of evolution...
. In addition to founding modern
quantitative geneticsQuantitative genetics is the study of continuous traits and their underlying mechanisms. It is effectively an extension of simple Mendelian inheritance in that the combined effects of one or more genes and the environments in which they are expressed give rise to continuous distributions of...
with his 1918 paper, he was the first to use diffusion equations to attempt to calculate the distribution of gene frequencies among populations. He pioneered the estimation of
genetic linkageGenetic linkage is the tendency of certain loci or alleles to be inherited together. Genetic loci that are physically close to one another on the same chromosome tend to stay together during meiosis, and are thus genetically linked.-Background:...
and gene frequencies by maximum likelihood methods, and wrote early papers on the wave of advance of advantageous genes and on clines of gene frequency. His 1950 paper on gene frequency clines is notable as the first application of a computer, the
EDSACElectronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator was an early British computer. The machine, having been inspired by John von Neumann's seminal First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC, was constructed by Maurice Wilkes and his team at the University of Cambridge Mathematical Laboratory in England...
, to biology.
Fisher had a long and successful collaboration with E.B. Ford in the field of
ecological geneticsEcological genetics is the study of genetics in natural populations.This contrasts with classical genetics, which works mostly on crosses between laboratory strains, and DNA sequence analysis, which studies genes at the molecular level....
. The outcome of this work was the general recognition that the force of
natural selectionNatural selection is the nonrandom process by which biologic traits become either more or less common in a population as a function of differential reproduction of their bearers. It is a key mechanism of evolution....
was often much stronger than had been appreciated before, and that many ecogenetic situations (such as
polymorphismPolymorphism in biology occurs when two or more clearly different phenotypes exist in the same population of a species — in other words, the occurrence of more than one form or morph...
) were not selectively neutral, they were maintained by the force of selection. Fisher was the original author of the idea of
heterozygote advantageA heterozygote advantage describes the case in which the heterozygote genotype has a higher relative fitness than either the homozygote dominant or homozygote recessive genotype. The specific case of heterozygote advantage is due to a single locus known as overdominance...
, which was later found to play a frequent role in genetic polymorphism. The discovery of indisputable cases of natural selection in nature was one of the main strands in the
modern evolutionary synthesisThe modern evolutionary synthesis is a union of ideas from several biological specialties which provides a widely accepted account of evolution...
.
Fisher introduced the concept of
Fisher informationIn mathematical statistics and information theory, the Fisher information is the variance of the score. In Bayesian statistics, the asymptotic distribution of the posterior mode depends on the Fisher information and not on the prior...
in 1925. Fisher information has been the subject of renewed interest in the last few years, due to
B. Roy FriedenB. Roy Frieden is an American mathematical physicist.Frieden obtained a Ph.D. in Optics from The Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester. His doctoral thesis advisor was Robert E. Hopkins...
's book
Physics from Fisher Information, which attempts to derive the laws of physics from a Fisherian starting point.
Fisher's Genetical Theory of Natural Selection
Fisher was an ardent promoter of
eugenicsEugenics is the "applied science or the bio-social movement which advocates the use of practices aimed at improving the genetic composition of a population", usually referring to human populations. The origins of the concept of eugenics began with certain interpretations of Mendelian inheritance,...
, which also stimulated and guided much of his work in the genetics of humans. His book
The Genetical Theory of Natural SelectionThe Genetical Theory of Natural Selection is a book by R.A. Fisher first published in 1930 by Clarendon. It is one of the most important books of the modern evolutionary synthesis and is commonly cited in biology books.-Editions:...
was started in 1928 and published in 1930. It contained a summary of what was already known to the literature. He developed ideas on
sexual selectionSexual selection, a concept introduced by Charles Darwin in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, is a significant element of his theory of natural selection...
, mimicry and the evolution of dominance. He famously showed that the probability of a mutation increasing the fitness of an organism decreases proportionately with the magnitude of the mutation. He also proved that larger populations carry more variation so that they have a larger chance of survival. He set forth the foundations of what was to become known as
population geneticsPopulation genetics is the study of allele frequency distribution and change under the influence of the four main evolutionary processes: natural selection, genetic drift, mutation and gene flow. It also takes into account the factors of recombination, population subdivision and population...
.
About a third of the book concerned the applications of these ideas to humans, and presented the data available at that time. He presented a theory that attributed the decline and fall of civilizations to its arrival at a state where the fertility of the upper classes is forced down. Using the census data of 1911 for Britain, he showed that there was an inverse relationship between fertility and social class. This was partly due, he believed, to the rise in social status of families who were not capable of producing many children but who rose because of the financial advantage of having a small number of children. Therefore he proposed the abolition of the economic advantage of small families by instituting subsidies (he called them allowances) to families with larger numbers of children, with the allowances proportional to the earnings of the father. He himself had two sons and six daughters. According to Yates and Mather, "His large family, in particular, reared in conditions of great financial stringency, was a personal expression of his genetic and evolutionary convictions."
The book was reviewed, among others, by physicist
Charles Galton DarwinSir Charles Galton Darwin, KBE, MC, FRS was an English physicist, the grandson of Charles Darwin. He served as director of the National Physical Laboratory during the Second World War.-Early life:...
, a grandson of
Charles DarwinCharles Robert Darwin FRS was an English naturalist. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestry, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection.He published his theory...
's, and following publication of his review, C.G. Darwin sent Fisher his copy of the book, with notes in the margin. The marginal notes became the food for a correspondence running at least three years. Fisher's book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection also had a major influence on the evolutionary biologist
W. D. HamiltonWilliam Donald Hamilton FRS was a British evolutionary biologist, widely recognised as one of the greatest evolutionary theorists of the 20th century....
and the development of his later theories on the genetic basis for the existence of
kin selectionKin selection refers to apparent strategies in evolution that favor the reproductive success of an organism's relatives, even at a cost to the organism's own survival and reproduction. Charles Darwin was the first to discuss the concept of group/kin selection...
.
Between 1929 and 1934 the Eugenics Society also campaigned hard for a law permitting sterilization on eugenic grounds. They believed that it should be entirely voluntary, and a right, not
a punishmentCompulsory sterilization also known as forced sterilization programs are government policies which attempt to force people to undergo surgical sterilization...
. They published a draft of a proposed bill, and it was submitted to Parliament. Although it was defeated by a 2:1 ratio, this was viewed as progress, and the campaign continued. Fisher played a major role in this movement, and served in several official committees to promote it.
In 1934, Fisher moved to increase the power of scientists within the Eugenics Society, but was ultimately thwarted by members with an environmentalist point of view, and he, along with many other scientists, resigned.
Method and personality
The interest in eugenics, and his experiences working on the Canadian farm, made Fisher interested in starting a farm of his own. In these plans he was encouraged by Gudruna, the wife of a college friend, and this led to him meeting Ruth Eileen Grattan Guinness, Gudruna's younger sister. Their father, Dr
Henry Grattan GuinnessHenry Grattan Guinness D. D. was an Irish Protestant Christian preacher, evangelist and author. He was the great evangelist of the Evangelical awakening and preached during the Ulster Revival of 1859 which drew thousands to hear him...
, had died when they were young. Ruth Eileen was only sixteen years of age when she met Fisher. She knew that her mother would not approve of her marrying so young. As a result Fisher married Ruth Eileen at a secret wedding ceremony without her mother's knowledge, on 26 April 1917, only days after Ruth Eileen's 17th birthday. They had two sons and seven daughters, one of whom died in infancy. His daughter Joan married
George E. P. Box- External links :* from a at NIST* * * * * *** For Box's PhD students see*...
and wrote a biography of her father that celebrated his scientific achievements and frankly exposed his personal failings and personality flaws, while suffering from partisanship in championing Fisher's role in statistics, often just paraphrasing passages from Fisher or from George E. P. Box.
As an adult, Fisher was noted for his loyalty to his friends. Once he had formed a favourable opinion of any man, he was loyal to a fault. A similar sense of loyalty bound him to his culture. He was a patriot, a member of the
Church of EnglandThe Church of England is the officially established Christian church in England and the Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The church considers itself within the tradition of Western Christianity and dates its formal establishment principally to the mission to England by St...
, politically conservative, and a scientific rationalist. Much sought after as a brilliant conversationalist and dinner companion, he very early on developed a reputation for carelessness in his dress and, sometimes, his manners. In later years he was the archetype of the absent-minded professor.
He knew the scriptures well and
H. Allen OrrH. Allen Orr is University Professor and Shirley Cox Kearns Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester.- Education and career :He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Biology and Philosophy from the College of William and Mary and his Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Chicago. At...
describes him as "deeply devout Anglican who, between founding modern statistics and population genetics, penned articles for church magazines" in the Boston Review. But he was not dogmatic in his religious beliefs. In a 1955 broadcast on Science and Christianity, he said, "The custom of making abstract dogmatic assertions is not, certainly, derived from the teaching of
JesusJesus of Nazareth , commonly referred to as Jesus Christ or simply as Jesus or Christ, is the central figure of Christianity...
, but has been a widespread weakness among religious teachers in subsequent centuries. I do not think that the word for the Christian virtue of faith should be prostituted to mean the credulous acceptance of all such piously intended assertions. Much self-deception in the young believer is needed to convince himself that he knows that of which in reality he knows himself to be ignorant. That surely is hypocrisy, against which we have been most conspicuously warned."
Later years
Some think that it was first Fisher who referred to the growth rate
r (used in equations such as the
logistic functionA logistic function or logistic curve is a common sigmoid curve, given its name in 1844 or 1845 by Pierre François Verhulst who studied it in relation to population growth. It can model the "S-shaped" curve of growth of some population P...
) as the
Malthusian parameter, as a criticism of the writings of Thomas Robert Malthus, who Fisher referred to "...
a relic of creationist philosophy..." in observing the fecundity of nature and deducing (as Darwin did) that this therefore drove natural selection. However, it is much more likely that Fisher called
r the Malthusian parameter because, in 1798, Malthus published
An Essay on the Principal of Population, which contained a mathematical model of population growth that became commonly known as the Malthusian Growth Model and which contained said parameter in the following formula:
where
P_{0} = initial population,
r = growth rate,
t = time.
He received the recognition of his peers in 1929 when he was inducted into the
Royal SocietyThe Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, known simply as the Royal Society, is a learned society for science, and is possibly the oldest such society in existence. Founded in November 1660, it was granted a Royal Charter by King Charles II as the "Royal Society of London"...
. His fame grew and he began to travel more and lecture to wider circles. In 1931 he spent six weeks at the Statistical Laboratory at Iowa State College in
Ames, IowaAmes is a city located in the central part of the U.S. state of Iowa in Story County, and approximately north of Des Moines. The U.S. Census Bureau designates that Ames, Iowa metropolitan statistical area as encompassing all of Story County, and which, when combined with the Boone, Iowa...
. He gave three lectures a week on his work, and met many of the active American statisticians, including
George W. SnedecorGeorge Waddel Snedecor was an American mathematician and statistician. He contributed to the foundations of analysis of variance, data analysis, experimental design, and statistical methodology. Snedecor's F distribution and the George W...
. He returned again for another visit in 1936.
In 1933 he left Rothamsted to become a Professor of
EugenicsEugenics is the "applied science or the bio-social movement which advocates the use of practices aimed at improving the genetic composition of a population", usually referring to human populations. The origins of the concept of eugenics began with certain interpretations of Mendelian inheritance,...
at
University College LondonUniversity College London is a public research university located in London, United Kingdom and the oldest and largest constituent college of the federal University of London...
. In 1937 he visited the
Indian Statistical InstituteIndian Statistical Institute is a public research institute and university in Kolkata's northern outskirt of Baranagar, India founded by Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis in 1931...
(in Calcutta), which at the time consisted of one part-time employee, Professor P. C. Mahalanobis. He revisited there often in later years, encouraging its development. He was the guest of honour at its 25th anniversary in 1957 when it had grown to 2000 employees
. In 1939, when World War II broke out, the University tried to dissolve the eugenics department, and ordered all of the animals destroyed. Fisher fought back, but he was then exiled back to Rothamsted with a much reduced staff and resources. He was unable to find any suitable war work, and though he kept very busy with various small projects, he became discouraged of any real progress. His marriage disintegrated. His oldest son, George, an aeroplane pilot, was killed in the war.
In 1943 he was offered the Balfour Chair of Genetics at Cambridge University, his alma mater. During the war, this department was almost entirely destroyed, but the University promised him that he would be charged with rebuilding it after the war. He accepted the offer, but the promises were largely unfilled, and the department grew very slowly. A notable exception was the recruitment in 1948 of the Italian researcher Cavalli-Sforza, who established a one man unit of bacterial genetics. He continued his work on mouse chromosome mapping and other projects. They culminated in the publication in 1949 of
The Theory of Inbreeding. In 1947 he co-founded with Cyril Darlington the journal
Heredity: An International Journal of GeneticsHeredity is a scientific journal concerned with heredity in a biological sense, i.e. genetics. It was founded by R.A. Fisher and C. D. Darlington in 1947. It is the official journal of The Genetics Society....
.
Ronald Fisher was opposed to the
UNESCO Statement of RaceThe Race Question is the first of four UNESCO statements about issues of race. It was issued on 18 July 1950 following World War II and Nazi racism. The statement was an attempt to clarify what was scientifically known about race and a moral condemnation of racism...
. He believed that evidence and everyday experience showed that human groups differ profoundly “in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development” and concluded that the “practical international problem is that of learning to share the resources of this planet amicably with persons of materially different nature,” and that “this problem is being obscured by entirely well-intentioned efforts to minimize the real differences that exist.” The revised 1951 statement titled "The Race Concept: Results of an Inquiry" was accompanied by Fisher's dissenting commentary.
He eventually received many awards for his work and was dubbed a
Knight BachelorThe rank of Knight Bachelor is a part of the British honours system. It is the most basic rank of a man who has been knighted by the monarch but not as a member of one of the organised Orders of Chivalry...
by
Queen Elizabeth IIElizabeth II is the constitutional monarch of 16 sovereign states known as the Commonwealth realms: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Belize,...
in 1952.
Fisher was opposed to the conclusions of
Richard DollSir William Richard Shaboe Doll CH OBE FRS was a British physiologist who became the foremost epidemiologist of the 20th century, turning the subject into a rigorous science. He was a pioneer in research linking smoking to health problems...
and
A.B. HillSir Austin Bradford Hill FRS , English epidemiologist and statistician, pioneered the randomized clinical trial and, together with Richard Doll, was the first to demonstrate the connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer...
that
smoking caused lung cancerThe health effects of tobacco are the circumstances, mechanisms, and factors of tobacco consumption on human health. Epidemiological research has been focused primarily on cigarette tobacco smoking, which has been studied more extensively than any other form of consumption.Tobacco is the single...
. He compared the correlations in their papers to a correlation between the import of apples and the rise of divorce in order to show that
correlation does not imply causation"Correlation does not imply causation" is a phrase used in science and statistics to emphasize that correlation between two variables does not automatically imply that one causes the other "Correlation does not imply causation" (related to "ignoring a common cause" and questionable cause) is a...
.
To quote Yates and Mather again, "It has been suggested that the fact that Fisher was employed as consultant by the tobacco firms in this controversy casts doubt on the value of his arguments. This is to misjudge the man. He was not above accepting financial reward for his labours, but the reason for his interest was undoubtedly his dislike and mistrust of puritanical tendencies of all kinds; and perhaps also the personal solace he had always found in tobacco."
After retiring from Cambridge University in 1957 he spent some time as a senior research fellow at the CSIRO in
AdelaideAdelaide is the capital city of South Australia and the fifth-largest city in Australia. Adelaide has an estimated population of more than 1.2 million...
,
AustraliaAustralia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...
. He died of colon cancer there in 1962.
He was awarded the
Linnean Society of LondonThe Linnean Society of London is the world's premier society for the study and dissemination of taxonomy and natural history. It publishes a zoological journal, as well as botanical and biological journals...
's prestigious Darwin–Wallace Medal in 1958.
Fisher's important contributions to both genetics and statistics are emphasized by the remark of
L.J. SavageLeonard Jimmie Savage was an American mathematician and statistician. Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman said Savage was "one of the few people I have met whom I would unhesitatingly call a genius."...
, "I occasionally meet geneticists who ask me whether it is true that the great geneticist R.A. Fisher was also an important statistician" (
Annals of Statistics, 1976).
A selection from Fisher's 395 articles
These are available on the
University of Adelaide website:
- "Frequency distribution of the values of the correlation coefficient in samples from an indefinitely large population." Biometrika, 10: 507–521. (1915)
- "The correlation between relatives on the supposition of Mendelian inheritance
The Correlation Between Relatives on the Supposition of Mendelian Inheritance is a scientific paper by R.A. Fisher which was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1918,...
" Trans. Roy. Soc. Edinb., 52: 399–433. (1918). It was in this paper that the word varianceIn probability theory and statistics, the variance is a measure of how far a set of numbers is spread out. It is one of several descriptors of a probability distribution, describing how far the numbers lie from the mean . In particular, the variance is one of the moments of a distribution...
was first introduced into probability theoryProbability theory is the branch of mathematics concerned with analysis of random phenomena. The central objects of probability theory are random variables, stochastic processes, and events: mathematical abstractions of non-deterministic events or measured quantities that may either be single...
and statisticsStatistics is the study of the collection, organization, analysis, and interpretation of data. It deals with all aspects of this, including the planning of data collection in terms of the design of surveys and experiments....
.
- "On the mathematical foundations of theoretical statistics" Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, A, 222: 309–368. (1922)
- "On the dominance ratio. Proc. Roy. Soc. Edinb., 42: 321–341. (1922)
- "On a distribution yielding the error functions of several well known statistics" Proc. Int. Cong. Math., Toronto, 2: 805–813. (1924)
- "Theory of statistical estimation" Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 22: 700–725 (1925)
- "Applications of Student's distribution" Metron, 5: 90–104 (1925)
- "The arrangement of field experiments" J. Min. Agric. G. Br., 33: 503–513. (1926)
- "The general sampling distribution of the multiple correlation coefficient" Proceedings of Royal Society, A, 121: 654–673 (1928)
- "Two new properties of mathematical likelihood" Proceedings of Royal Society, A, 144: 285–307 (1934)
Books by Fisher
Full publication details are available on the
University of Adelaide website:
- Statistical Methods for Research Workers
Statistical Methods for Research Workers is a classic 1925 book on statistics by the statistician R.A. Fisher. It is considered by some to be one of the 20th century's most influential books on statistical methods. According to ,...
(1925) ISBN 0-05-002170-2.
- The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection
The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection is a book by R.A. Fisher first published in 1930 by Clarendon. It is one of the most important books of the modern evolutionary synthesis and is commonly cited in biology books.-Editions:...
(1930) ISBN 0-19-850440-3.
- The design of experiments (1935) ISBN 0-02-844690-9
- The use of multiple measurements in taxonomic problems (in Annals of Eugenics 7/1936)
- Statistical tables for biological, agricultural and medical research (1938, coauthor:Frank Yates
Frank Yates FRS was one of the pioneers of 20th century statistics.He was born in Manchester. Yates was the eldest of five children, and the only boy, born to Edith and Percy Yates. His father was a seed merchant. He attended Wadham House, a private school, before gaining a scholarship to Clifton...
)
- The theory of inbreeding (1949) ISBN 0-12-257550-4, ISBN 0-05-000873-0
- Contributions to mathematical statistics, John Wiley, (1950)
- Statistical methods and scientific inference (1956) ISBN 0-02-844740-9
- Collected Papers of R.A. Fisher (1971–1974). Five Volumes. University of Adelaide.
Biographies of Fisher
- Box, Joan Fisher (1978) R. A. Fisher: The Life of a Scientist, New York: Wiley, ISBN 0-471-09300-9. Preface
- Frank Yates
Frank Yates FRS was one of the pioneers of 20th century statistics.He was born in Manchester. Yates was the eldest of five children, and the only boy, born to Edith and Percy Yates. His father was a seed merchant. He attended Wadham House, a private school, before gaining a scholarship to Clifton...
& Kenneth MatherSir Kenneth Mather FRS was a British geneticist. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1949, and won its Darwin Medal in 1964....
(1963) "Ronald Aylmer Fisher" in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society of London 9: 91–120.
Secondary literature
- Edwards, A.W.F., 2005, "Statistical methods for research workers" in Grattan-Guinness, I.
Ivor Grattan-Guinness, born 23 June 1941, in Bakewell, in England, is a historian of mathematics and logic.He gained his Bachelor degree as a Mathematics Scholar at Wadham College, Oxford, got an M.Sc in Mathematical Logic and the Philosophy of Science at the London School of Economics in 1966...
, ed., Landmark Writings in Western Mathematics. Elsevier: 856–70.
External links