Karl Pearson (March 27, 1857 – April 27, 1936) was a major contributor to the early development of statistics as a serious scientific discipline in its own right. He founded the Department of Applied Statistics at University College London in 1911; it was the first university statistics department in the world.
Karl Pearson was born in London on the 27th March, 1857. He was educated privately at University College School, after which he went to King's College, Cambridge to study mathematics. He then spent part of 1879 and 1880 studying medieval and 16th-century German literature at the universities of Berlin and Heidelberg – in fact, he became sufficiently knowledgeable in this field that he was offered a post in the German department at Cambridge University.
His next career move was to Lincoln's Inn, where he read law until 1881 (although he never practised). After this, he returned to mathematics, deputising for the mathematics professor at King's College London in 1881 and for the professor at University College London in 1883. In 1884, he was appointed to the Goldshmid Chair of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics at University College London. 1891 saw him also appointed to the professorship of Geometry at Gresham College; here he met W.F.R. Weldon, a zoologist who had some interesting problems requiring quantitative solutions. The collaboration, in biometry and evolutionary theory, was a fruitful one and lasted until Weldon died in 1906. Weldon introduced Pearson to Francis Galton, who was interested in aspects of evolution such as heredity and eugenics.
Galton died in 1911 and left the residue of his estate to the University of London for a Chair in Eugenics. Pearson was the first holder of this chair, in accordance with Galton's wishes. He formed the Department of Applied Statistics (with financial support from the Drapers' Company), into which he incorporated the Biometric and Galton laboratories. He remained with the department until his retirement in 1933, and continued to work until his death in 1936.
Pearson married Maria Sharpe in 1890, and between them they had 2 daughters and a son. The son, Egon Sharpe Pearson, succeeded him as head of the Applied Statistics Department at University College.
Aside from his professional life, Pearson was active as a prominent freethinker and socialist. He gave lectures on such issues as "the woman's question" (this was the era of the suffragette movement in the UK) and upon Karl Marx. His commitment to socialism and its ideals led him to refuse the offer of being created an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in 1920, and also to refuse a Knighthood in 1935.
Pearson's views on eugenics, however, would be considered deeply racist today. According to a BBC report on the history of genetics (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/genes/eugenics/beginnings.shtml), "Pearson was a fanatic – a cold, calculating measurer of man who claimed to be a socialist, but loathed the working class." Pearson openly advocated "war" against "inferior races," and saw this as a logical implication of his scientific work on human measurement: "My view – and I think it may be called the scientific view of a nation," he wrote, "– is that of an organized whole, kept up to a high pitch of internal efficiency by insuring that its numbers are substantially recruited from the better stocks, and kept up to a high pitch of external efficiency by contest, chiefly by way of war with inferior races."
Awards from professional bodies
Pearson achieved widespread recognition across a range of disciplines and his membership of, and awards from, various professional bodies reflects this:
He was also elected an Honorary Fellow of King's College Cambridge, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, University College London and the Royal Society of Medicine, and a Member of the Actuaries' Club.
Contributions to statistics
Pearson's work was all-embracing in the wide application and development of mathematical statistics, and encompassed the fields of biology, epidemiology, anthropometry, medicine and social history. In 1901, with Weldon and Galton, he founded the journal Biometrika whose object was the development of statistical theory. He edited this journal till his death. He also founded the journal Annals of Eugenics (now Annals of Human Genetics) in 1925. He published the Drapers' Company Research Memoirs largely to provide a record of the output of the Department of Applied Statistics not published elsewhere.
Pearson's thinking underpins many of the `classical' statistical methods which are in common use today. Some of his main contributions are:
Most of the biographical information above is taken from A list of the papers and correspondence of Karl Pearson (1857-1936) held in the Manuscripts Room, University College London Library, compiled by M.Merrington, B.Blundell, S.Burrough, J.Golden and J.Hogarth and published by the Publications Office, University College London, 1983. See http://www.ucl.ac.uk/stats/history/pearson.html.
Further references which may be of use are:
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