Birthday: February 17, 1890
British Intellectuals & Academics
Died At Age: 72
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Also Known As: Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher
Born Country: England
Born in: East Finchley, London, England
Famous as: Statistician
father: George Fisher
mother: Katie Heath
Died on: July 29, 1962
place of death: Adelaide, South Australia, Australia
Cause of Death: Colon Cancer
education: Harrow School
awards: Fellow of the Royal Society
Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher was a statistician and geneticist who is credited for setting the course of modern statistics. Many of the important concepts in statistics are his contribution; these include ‘maximum likelihood’, ’fiducial inference’. Fisher was born in London and educated at institutions such as the ‘Harrow School’ and ‘Cambridge University’. He was exceptionally brilliant and won scholarships throughout his student life. His career as a biostatistician commenced when he started working at the ‘Rothamsted Station’. Here, he had access to massive amounts of crop data which became the basis for some of his groundbreaking work in statistics. Fisher had a deep interest in evolutionary biology and used his mathematical genius to bring together the theories of Mendel and Darwin which till that point were thought to be irreconcilable. He showed that Mendel’s work on genetics actually supported Darwin’s arguments. Fisher’s research in experimental agriculture gave farmers the rational crop breeding method that saved time and energy. He was, however, not without faults,;he was a firm supporter of eugenics and harboured prejudices regarding race and class. Nonetheless, his legacy remains untarnished and he remains one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century.
Childhood & Early Life
Ronald Fisher was born in London in a well-to-do family on 17 February, 1890. His father, George Fischer was a partner in the auctioneer and art-dealer firm ‘Robinson & Fisher’. His mother’s name was Katie Heath.
Ronald Fisher was one of the twin boys but his elder twin was stillborn. He had three older sisters and a brother. During his childhood years, the family lived in the affluent Hampstead neighborhood of London.
In 1904, fortunes turned for the Fisher family. Ronald Fisher was about 14 years old then and he lost his mother to acute peritonitis. A year and a half later, his father had lost his business. The family moved to a modest accommodation in Streatham.
Around the same time as his mother died, Fisher started studying at the prestigious ‘Harrow School’. This was a difficult time, but he excelled and won the school’s Neeld Medal in mathematics in 1906. He got a scholarship of £80 from the ‘Caius and Gonville College’ Cambridge which helped with his fees.
Ronald Fisher suffered from shortsightedness and was forbidden to work under electric light for the fear of eye-strain. Because he was not allowed to strain his eye much, he developed a unique ability to visualize maths problems and solve them in his mind.
In 1909, Fisher won a scholarship and went to the ‘University of Cambridge’ to study mathematics and astronomy. He graduated in 1912. Awarded a Wollaston scholarship, he continued for another year at Cambridge studying astronomy and physics and working on the theory of errors.
During his undergraduate days, Ronald Fisher was deeply interested in evolutionary biology and Eugenics. He was in favour of positive Eugenics where socially strong population were encouraged to have more children. He founded the ‘Cambridge University Eugenics Society’ in 1911.
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After finishing his studies at Cambridge, Ronald Fisher left for Canada and worked on a farm to make a living. He came back and took a job as a statistician at the ‘Mercantile and General Investment Company’ in London.
In 1914, when World War I broke out, he tried to get enlisted. He had earlier got trained at the Officer’s Training Corps at Cambridge. He aced all the aspects of his medical test except for his eyes for which he got a C5 and was rejected.
From 1913 to 1919, Ronald Fisher taught mathematics and physics to high school students in various schools such as the ‘Rugby’ and also at ‘Thames Nautical Training College’ and ‘Bradfield College’.
In 1919, he became a statistician at the Rothamsted Experimental Station in Hertfordshire which was the oldest station in England. At the Station, he had access to data since 1842. These were crop data from ‘Classical Field Experiments’. Fisher applied his knowledge of mathematics to the data and came up with experimental designs to study them.
In 1933, Ronald Fisher became the head of the Department of Eugenics, at the University College London. His lectures were challenging for students and only the most intelligent of them could go through with his courses.
In 1939, after the ‘University College London’ closed down the ‘Eugenics Department’ he returned to Rothamsted station.
In 1943, Ronald Fisher took the ‘Balfour Chair of Genetics’ at Cambridge. He was brought to rebuild the Genetics Department but he was not successful as he did not have administrative ability, nor was he a popular teacher. He stayed on in Cambridge till 1957.
In 1957, Fisher moved to Australia. Here he collaborated with E.A.Cornish at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Adelaide.
In 1918, Ronald Fisher published the paper ‘The Correlation Between Relatives on the Supposition of Mendelian Inheritance’. In this paper, the concept of “variance” was discussed for the first time. Fisher used statistical tools to bring together the theories of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel.
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In 1925, ‘Statistical Methods for Research Workers’ was published. The book elucidated the science of experimental design based on his work at the Rothamsted Station. It remained in print for almost 50 years after it was published.
Ronald Fisher introduced the principle of ‘Randomization’ in statistics. According to this principle, all control units of a sample must be randomly selected from the whole of the representative population. He devised methods such as ‘Analysis of Variance’ (ANOVA) and ‘F-distribution’ which were to become the basis of modern statistical experiments.
In his 1930s book ‘The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection’ Fisher completed his reconciliation of the works of Mendel and Darwin by studying sex selection, mimicry and sex ratios. This book is considered one of the most critical books on evolution after Darwin’s.
In 1929 Ronald Fisher became a Fellow of the ‘Royal Society’. He received Society’s ‘Royal Medal’ in 1938.
In 1958, he received the Royal Society’s Darwin Medal for “his contributions to the theories of natural selection.” The Copley Medal was given to him for “his contributions to statistics and making quantitative a field of biology”.
He received several honorary degrees from universities all around the world including ‘Harvard University’, ‘University of Adelaide’ and the ‘Indian Statistical Institute’. He was knighted in 1952.
Family & Personal Life
Because of his work in the Canadian farm and his background statistics Ronald Fisher got interested in starting a farm of his own. He was helped in this by his college friend’s wife Gudruna. This is how he met Gudruna’s 16-year-old younger sister Ruth Eileen.
Ruth Eileen’s and Gudruna’s father had died when they were young. Knowing that her mother would not approve of her marrying Fisher at such an early, she married him without her mother’s knowledge on April 26, 1917, when she was barely 17.
The couple had two sons and seven daughters. One daughter died in infancy. Fisher played an active role in his children’s education. He would often get his children to work and let his eldest son George help him with the laboratory mice.
Fisher’s marriage broke up during World War II, he also lost his son, George, an aviator during the war.
At the age of 67, Ronald Fisher left England for the warmer Australian climate to live and work there. He died of colon cancer on 29 July 1962, at the age of 72, in Adelaide. He was interred at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Adelaide.
Ronald Fisher loved smoking the pipe and was a paid consultant for the tobacco industry. He believed there wasn’t enough statistical evidence to link smoking and lung cancer and gave scientific arguments against the link. He famously said “correlation does not imply causation’’. In 1954, the medical evidence showing the link was published proving Fisher wrong.