Karl Pearson FRS (
27
March 1857 –
27
April 1936) established the disciplineof
mathematical
statistics.
In 1911 he
founded the world's first university statistics department at
University
College London. 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, Cambridge in 1876 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 Germanics
post at Kings
College, Cambridge.
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 Heidelberg under G H Quincke and
metaphysics under Kuno Fischer.
He next
visited the University of
Berlin, 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
Temple, 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
London in 1881 and for the professor at University
College London 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
College; 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, "...science 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 Andrews
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Pearson's chi-square
test — A particular kind of chi-square test, a statistical test of
significance.
- Coefficient of
correlation and two coefficients of
skewness
Resume of academic career
- Third
Wrangler in Mathematics Tripos, Cambridge University, 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
Publications
See also
Pearson family memorial at Crambe, Yorkshire
References
- Race, Intelligence and Bias in Academe by Roger
Pearson Scott-Townsend Publishers, 1991, 304 pp.
- [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