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Karl Pearson

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 the son of barrister William Pearson and Maria, née Sharpe, a relative of the poet Samuel Rogers. 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 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, predicting that it was Galton, rather than Charles Darwin, who would be remembered as the most prodigious grandson of Erasmus Darwin (at the time, Darwinian evolution was not enjoying much scientific support, and Pearson was a staunch disciple of Galton's competing biometric approach).

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, 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 two 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. In the 1930s he had a protracted feud with R.A. Fisher over a statistical disagreement, which continued after his death through his son.

Pearson's views on eugenics, however, would be considered deeply racist today. According to a BBC report on the history of genetics, "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."

Last Update: 2006-Jän-17