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Karl Pearson FRS (27 March 185727 April 1936) established the disciplineof mathematical statistics.

In 1911 he founded the world's first university statistics department at University College Londonmarker. He was a controversial proponent of eugenics, and a protégé and biographer of Sir Francis Galton.

A sesquicentenary conference was held in London on 23 March 2007, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth.


Karl and Maria Pearson had two daughters, Sigrid Loetitia Pearson and Helga Sharpe Pearson, and one son, Egon Sharpe Pearson. Egon Pearson became an eminent statistician himself, establishing the Neyman-Pearson lemma. He succeeded his father as head of the Applied Statistics Department at University College.

Education and early work

Karl Pearson was educated privately at University College School, after which he went to King's College, Cambridgemarker in 1876 to study mathematics. He then spent part of 1879 and 1880 studying medieval and 16th century German literature at the universities of Berlinmarker and Heidelbergmarker – in fact, he became sufficiently knowledgeable in this field that he was offered a Germanics post at Kings College, Cambridgemarker.

He graduated from Cambridge University in 1879 as Third Wrangler in the Mathematical Tripos. He then travelled to Germany to study physics at the University of Heidelbergmarker under G H Quincke and metaphysics under Kuno Fischer. He next visited the University of Berlinmarker, where he attended the lectures of the famous physiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond on Darwinism (Emil was a brother of Paul du Bois-Reymond, the mathematician). Other subjects which he studied in Berlin included Roman Law, taught by Bruns and Mommsen, medieval and 16th century German Literature, and Socialism. He was strongly influenced by the courses he attended at this time and he became sufficiently expert on German literature that he was offered a post in the German Department of Cambridge University. On returning to England in 1880, Pearson first went to Cambridge: Back in Cambridge, I worked in the engineering shops, but drew up the schedule in Mittel- and Althochdeutsch for the Medieval Languages Tripos.

In his first book, The New Werther, Pearson gives a clear indication of why he studied so many diverse subjects: I rush from science to philosophy, and from philosophy to our old friends the poets; and then, over-wearied by too much idealism, I fancy I become practical in returning to science. Have you ever attempted to conceive all there is in the world worth knowing — that not one subject in the universe is unworthy of study? The giants of literature, the mysteries of many-dimensional space, the attempts of Boltzmann and Crookes to penetrate Nature's very laboratory, the Kantian theory of the universe, and the latest discoveries in embryology, with their wonderful tales of the development of life — what an immensity beyond our grasp! … Mankind seems on the verge of a new and glorious discovery. What Newton did to simplify the planetary motions must now be done to unite in one whole the various isolated theories of mathematical physics.

Pearson then returned to London to study law so that he might, like his father, be called to the Bar. Quoting Pearson's own account: Coming to London, I read in chambers in Lincoln's Inn, drew up bills of sale, and was called to the Bar, but varied legal studies by lecturing on heat at Barnes, on Martin Luther at Hampstead, and on Lasalle and Marx on Sundays at revolutionary clubs around Soho.

His next career move was to Inner Templemarker, where he read law until 1881 (although he never practised). After this, he returned to mathematics, deputizing for the mathematics professor at King's College Londonmarker in 1881 and for the professor at University College Londonmarker in 1883. In 1884, he was appointed to the Goldsmid Chair of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics at University College London. 1891 saw him also appointed to the professorship of Geometry at Gresham Collegemarker; here he met Walter Frank Raphael 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 Charles Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, who was interested in aspects of evolution such as heredity and eugenics. Pearson became Galton's protégé — his "statistical heir" as some have put it — at times to the verge of hero worship.

After Galton's death in 1911, Pearson embarked on producing his definitive biography—a three-volume tome of narrative, letters, genealogies, commentaries, and photographs—published in 1914, 1924, and 1930, with much of Pearson's own financing paying for their print runs. The biography, done "to satisfy myself and without regard to traditional standards, to the needs of publishers or to the tastes of the reading public", triumphed Galton's life, work, and personal heredity. He predicted that Galton, rather than Charles Darwin, would be remembered as the most prodigious grandson of Erasmus Darwin.

When Galton died, he left the residue of his estate to the University of London for a Chair in Eugenics. Pearson was the first holder of this chair—the Galton Chair of Eugenics, later the Galton Chair of Genetics—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.

Einstein and Pearson's work

When the 23 year-old Albert Einstein started a study group, the Olympia Academy, with his two younger friends, Maurice Solovine and Conrad Habicht, he suggested that the first book to be read was Pearson's The Grammar of Science. This book covered several themes that were later to become part of the theories of Einstein and other scientists. Pearson asserted that the laws of nature are relative to the perceptive ability of the observer. Irreversibility of natural processes, he claimed, is a purely relative conception. An observer who travels at the exact velocity of light would see an eternal now, or an absence of motion. He speculated that an observer who traveled faster than light would see time reversal, similar to a cinema film being run backwards. Pearson also discussed antimatter, the fourth dimension, and wrinkles in time.

Pearson's relativity was based on idealism, in the sense of ideas or pictures in a mind. "There are many signs," he wrote, "that a sound idealism is surely replacing, as a basis for natural philosophy, the crude materialism of the older physicists." (Preface to 2nd Ed., The Grammar of Science) Further, he stated, " is in reality a classification and analysis of the contents of the mind...." "In truth, the field of science is much more consciousness than an external world." 6

Politics and eugenics

An aggressive eugenicist who applied his social Darwinism to entire nations, 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." He reasoned that, if August Weismann's theory of germ plasm is correct, then the nation is wasting money when it tries to improve people who come from poor stock. Weismann claimed that acquired characteristics could not be inherited. Therefore, training benefits only the trained generation. Their children will not exhibit the learned improvements and, in turn, will need to be improved. "No degenerate and feeble stock will ever be converted into healthy and sound stock by the accumulated effects of education, good laws, and sanitary surroundings. Such means may render the individual members of a stock passable if not strong members of society, but the same process will have to be gone through again and again with their offspring, and this in ever-widening circles, if the stock, owing to the conditions in which society has placed it, is able to increase its numbers." (Introduction, The Grammar of Science).

"History shows me one way, and one way only, in which a high state of civilization has been produced, namely, the struggle of race with race, and the survival of the physically and mentally fitter race. If you want to know whether the lower races of man can evolve a higher type, I fear the only course is to leave them to fight it out among themselves, and even then the struggle for existence between individual and individual, between tribe and tribe, may not be supported by that physical selection due to a particular climate on which probably so much of the Aryan's success depended . . ."(Karl Pearson, National Life from the Standpoint of Science [London, 1905])

Ironically, Pearson was known in his lifetime as a prominent "freethinker" and socialist. He gave lectures on such issues as "the woman's question" (this was the era of the suffragist 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.

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:
  • 1896: elected FRS: Fellow of the Royal Society
  • 1898: awarded the Darwin Medal (not to be confused with the Darwin Awards)
  • 1911: awarded the honorary degree of LLD from the University of St Andrewsmarker
  • 1911: awarded a DSc from University of London
  • 1920: offered (and refused) the OBE
  • 1932: awarded the Rudolf Virchow medal by the Berliner Anthropologische Gesellschaft
  • 1935: offered (and refused) a knighthood

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 until 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:

  1. Linear regression and correlation — Pearson was instrumental in the development of this theory. One of his classic data sets (originally collected by Galton) involves the regression of sons' height upon that of their fathers'. Pearson built a 3-dimensional model of this data set (which remains in the care of the Statistical Science Department) to illustrate the ideas. The Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient is named after him, and it was the first important effect size to be introduced into statistics.
  2. Classification of distributions — Pearson's work on classifying probability distributions forms the basis for a lot of modern statistical theory; in particular, the exponential family of distributions underlies the theory of generalized linear models.
  3. Pearson's chi-square test — A particular kind of chi-square test, a statistical test of significance.
  4. Coefficient of correlation and two coefficients of skewness

Resume of academic career

  • Third Wrangler in Mathematics Tripos, Cambridge Universitymarker, 1879
  • Studied medieval and sixteenth-century German literature, Berlin and Heidelberg Universities, 1879-1880
  • Read law, called to the Bar by Inner Temple, 1881
  • Delivered lectures on mathematics, philosophy and German literature at societies and clubs devoted to adult education
  • Deputised for the Professor of Mathematics, King's College London, 1881, and for the Professor of Mathematics at University College London, 1883
  • Formed the Men and Women's Club, with some others, to discuss equality between the sexes
  • Appointed to Goldsmid Chair of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics, University College London, 1884
  • Appointed Professor of Geometry, Gresham College, 1891
  • Collaborated with Walter Frank Raphael Weldon, Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, in biometry and evolutionary theory, 1891-1906
  • Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, 1896
  • Founded journal Biometrika with Weldon and Francis Galton founder of the School of Eugenics at University College London, 1901
  • Appointed first Galton Professor of Eugenics, University College London, 1911
  • Formed Department of Applied Statistics incorporating the Biometric Laboratory and Galton Laboratory, University College London
  • Founded journal Annals of Eugenics, 1925
  • Died April 27 1936


See also

Pearson family memorial at Crambe, Yorkshire


  1. Race, Intelligence and Bias in Academe by Roger Pearson Scott-Townsend Publishers, 1991, 304 pp.
  2. [1]

Most of the biographical information above is taken from the Karl Pearson page at the Department of Statistical Sciences at University College London, which has been placed in the public domain. The main source for that page was 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.

Additional information from entry for Karl Pearson in the Sackler Digital Archive of the Royal Society

Further reading

  • Eisenhart, Churchill (1974): Dictionary of Scientific Biography, pp. 447–473. New York, 1974.
  • Filon, L. N. G. and Yule, G. U. (1936): Obituary Notices of the Royal Society of London, Vol. ii, No. 5, pp. 73–110.
  • Pearson, E. S. (1938): Karl Pearson: An appreciation of some aspects of his life and work. Cambridge University Press.

External links

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