Ronald Fisher

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Sir Ronald Fisher
R. A. Fischer.jpg
Born (1890-02-17)17 February 1890
East Finchley, London, England
Died 29 July 1962(1962-07-29) (aged 72)
Adelaide, South Australia
Residence England and Australia
Nationality British
Fields Statistics, Genetics, and Evolutionary biology
Alma mater University of Cambridge
Academic advisors Sir James Jeans and F. J. M. Stratton
Doctoral students C. R. Rao, D. J. Finney, and Walter Bodmer [1]
Known for
Influences Leonard Darwin
Notable awards

Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher FRS[2] (17 February 1890 – 29 July 1962), known as R.A. Fisher, was an English statistician, evolutionary biologist, mathematician, geneticist, and eugenicist. Fisher is known as one of the chief architects of the modern evolutionary synthesis, where he outlined Fisher's principle as well as the Fisherian runaway theory of sexual selection, as one of the three principal founders of population genetics and for his important contributions to statistics, including the analysis of variance (ANOVA), maximum likelihood, fiducial inference, and the derivation of various sampling distributions.

Anders Hald called him "a genius who almost single-handedly created the foundations for modern statistical science",[3] while Richard Dawkins named him "the greatest biologist since Darwin"[4] while Geoffrey Miller said of him "To biologists, he was an architect of the "modern synthesis" that used mathematical models to integrate Mendelian genetics with Darwin's selection theories. To psychologists, Fisher was the inventor of various statistical tests that are still supposed to be used whenever possible in psychology journals. To farmers, Fisher was the founder of experimental agricultural research, saving millions from starvation through rational crop breeding programs."[5]

Personal life[edit]

Fisher was born to Kate and George, a successful auctioneer and fine arts dealer, in East Finchley in London, England, and had three older sisters and one older brother.[6] From 1896 until 1904 they lived at Inverforth House in London, where English Heritage installed a blue plaque in 2002 to mark his residency. Due to poor eyesight, he learnt mathematics without paper and pen, which developed his ability to visualize problems in geometrical terms, but not in writing proper derivations of mathematical solutions, especially proofs. He amazed his peers with his ability to conjecture mathematical solutions without justifying his conclusions by showing intermediate steps.

His mother died from acute peritonitis when he was 14, and his father then lost his business 18 months later. He won the Neeld Medal (a competitive essay in mathematics) at Harrow School age 16 and developed a strong interest in biology, and especially evolutionary biology. In 1909, he won a scholarship to the Gonville and Caius College at the University of Cambridge. On graduating in 1912, his tutor told him that despite his aptitude for scientific work and mathematical potential his disinclination to show calculations or to prove propositions rendered him unsuited for a career in applied mathematics, which required greater thoroughness, giving him a "lukewarm" recommendation, stating that if Fisher "had stuck to the ropes he would have made a first-class mathematician, but he would not."[7]

Unable to join the British Army because of poor eyesight, Fisher worked for six years as a statistician for the City of London. He took up teaching physics and mathematics at a sequence of public schools, as well as at the Thames Nautical Training College and at Bradfield College, where, with his new bride, 17 year old Eileen Guinness her sister, they became subsistence farmers , with a large garden and animals, surviving on very little and living through the last two years of the war without using food coupons.[8] He had two sons and six daughters and according to Yates and Mather, "His large family, in particular, reared in conditions of great financial stringency, was a personal expression of his genetic and evolutionary convictions."[2]

Rothamsted Experimental station

In 1919 he was offered a position at the Galton Laboratory led by Karl Pearson, but he instead accepted a temporary job at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden where he analysed the data recorded over many years and produced a series entitled Studies in Crop Variation.

Fisher was inducted into the Royal Society in 1929. His fame grew and he began to travel and lecure widely. In 1931, he spent six weeks at the Statistical Laboratory at Iowa State College where he gave three lectures per week, and met many American statisticians, including George W. Snedecor before returning again in 1936. In 1933 he became Professor of Eugenics at University College London (UCL). In 1937, he visited the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta, and its one part-time employee, P. C. Mahalanobis, often returnings to encouraging its development, being the guest of honour at its 25th anniversary in 1957 when it had 2000 employees.[9]

In 1939 UCL dissolved the eugenics department, ordering all of the animals to be destroyed. Fisher was dispatched back to Rothamsted with a much reduced staff. His marriage disintegrated and his oldest son George, an aviator, was killed in combat.[10] In 1943, he took the Balfour Chair of Genetics where the Italian researcher Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza was recruited in 1948, establishing a one-man unit of bacterial genetics. Fisher continued his work on mouse chromosome mapping; breeding the mice in laboratories in his own house.[11] In 1947, Fisher cofounded the journal Heredity with Cyril Darlington and in 1949 he published The Theory of Inbreeding.

Memorial plaque Ronald Aylmer Fisher 1890-1962
Memorial plaque over remains of Ronald Aylmer Fisher, lectern-side aisle of St Peter's Cathedral, Adelaide

His daughter and one of his biographers, Joan, married the noted statistician George E. P. Box.[12] Fisher was made a Knight Bachelor by Queen Elizabeth II in 1952 and awarded the Linnean Society of London Darwin–Wallace Medal in 1958. In 1957, a retired Fisher emigrated to Australia where he spent time as a senior research fellow at the Australian CSIRO in Adelaide, where he died in 1962, with his remains interred within St Peter's Cathedral.[13]

Academic achievements[edit]


As a prominent opponent of Bayesian statistics, Fisher was the first to use the term "Bayesian".[14] His article On a distribution yielding the error functions of several well known statistics (1924) presented Pearson's chi-squared test and William Gosset's Student's t-distribution in the same framework as the Gaussian distribution, and his own parameter in the analysis of variance, Fisher's z-distribution, commonly used decades later as the F distribution.

He pioneered the principles of the design of experiments and developed new statistical methods for the analysis of variance, the statistics of small samples and the analysis of real data. In 1925, the published of his first book, Statistical Methods for Research Workers where he developed computational algorithms for analyzing data from his balanced experimental designs,[15] with various editions and translations, becoming a standard reference work for scientists in many disciplines. In 1935, he published by The Design of Experiments, also widely used.

Fisher named and promoted the method of maximum likelihood estimation and originated the concepts of sufficiency, the ancillary statistic, linear discriminant analysis and Fisher information.


Influenced by Karl Pearson ("Mathematical Contributions to the Theory of Evolution") in 1918 Fisher published "The Correlation Between Relatives on the Supposition of Mendelian Inheritance", founding modern quantitative genetics and using the statistical methods of biometry to lay the foundation for biometrical genetics, and reconcile the discontinuous nature of Mendelian inheritance with continuous variation and gradual evolution. He introducing the methodology of the analysis of variance, an advance over the correlation methods then used, and showing that the inheritance of phenotypic traits measurable by real values is consistent with Mendelian principles.[16] This forms the basis of the genetics of complex trait inheritance and the compatibility of particulate inheritance with natural selection.

Along with Sewall Wright and J. B. S. Haldane he founded population genetics and the neo-Darwinian modern evolutionary synthesis, publishing The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection in 1930 where he developed ideas on sexual selection, including Fisher's principle and the Fisherian runaway, and mimicry and the evolution of dominance, demonstrating that the probability of a mutation increasing the fitness of an organism decreases proportionately with the magnitude of the mutation. He also proved that larger populations carry more variation so that they have a greater chance of survival. Reviewed by Charles Galton Darwin, who sent Fisher his copy of the book, with notes in the margin, which initiated a correspondence lasting several years.[17] This book also had a major influence on W. D. Hamilton'ss theories on the genetic basis of kin selection.

Fisher was the first to use diffusion equations to attempt to calculate the distribution of gene frequencies and the estimation of genetic linkage by maximum likelihood methods among populations. In 1950 he published "Gene Frequencies in a Cline Determined by Selection and Diffusion"[18] on the wave of advance of advantageous genes and on clines of gene frequency, being notable as the first application of a computer, the EDSAC, to biology.[citation needed] In ecological genetics he and E. B. Ford showed how the force of natural selection was much stronger than had been assumed, with many ecogenetic situations (such as polymorphism) being maintained by the force of selection. Fisher introduced the idea of heterozygote advantage,[19] which was later found to play a frequent role in genetic polymorphism.


Fisher as a steward at the First International Eugenics Conference in 1912

In 1910 he joined the Eugenics Society at Cambridge, whose members included John Maynard Keynes, R. C. Punnett, and Horace Darwin. He saw eugenics as addressing a pressing social and scientific issues that encompassed both genetics and statistics. During World War I Fisher started writing book reviews for the Eugenic Review and volunteered to undertake all such reviews for the journal, being hired for a part-time position. The last third of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection focussed on eugenics, attributing the fall of civilizations to the fertility of their upper classes being diminished, and used British 1911 census data to show an inverse relationship between fertility and social class, partly due, he claimed, due to the lower financial costs and hence increasing social status of families with less children. He proposed the abolition of extra allowances to large families, with the allowances proportional to the earnings of the father. He served in several official committees to promote Eugenics.[citation needed] In 1934, he resigned from the Eugenics Society over a dispute about increasing the power of scientists within the movement.[citation needed]

He opposed UNESCO's The Race Question, believing that evidence and everyday experience showed that human groups differ profoundly "in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development" and concluded that the "practical international problem is that of learning to share the resources of this planet amicably with persons of materially different nature", and that "this problem is being obscured by entirely well-intentioned efforts to minimize the real differences that exist". The revised statement titled "The Race Concept: Results of an Inquiry" (1951) was accompanied by Fisher's dissenting commentary.[20]

Fisher publicly spoke out against the 1950 study showing that smoking tobacco causes lung cancer, arguing that correlation does not imply causation.[21] To quote his biographers Yates and Mather, "It has been suggested that the fact that Fisher was employed as consultant by the tobacco firms in this controversy casts doubt on the value of his arguments. This is to misjudge the man. He was not above accepting financial reward for his labours, but the reason for his interest was undoubtedly his dislike and mistrust of puritanical tendencies of all kinds; and perhaps also the personal solace he had always found in tobacco."[2]

Personal beliefs[edit]

Fisher was noted for being loyal, and was seen as a patriot, a member of the Church of England, politically conservative, as well as a scientific rationalist. He developed a reputation for carelessness in his dress and was the archetype of the absent-minded professor. H. Allen Orr describes him in the Boston Review as a "deeply devout Anglican who, between founding modern statistics and population genetics, penned articles for church magazines".[22] In a 1955 broadcast on Science and Christianity,[2] he said:


Stained glass window in the dining hall of Caius College, in Cambridge, commemorating Ronald Fisher and representing a Latin square.

Statistical Methods for Research Workers[edit]

Statistical Methods for Research Workers (ISBN 0-05-002170-2) published in 1925 book, is one of the 20th century's most influential books on statistical methods. According to Conniffe,[23]

Ronald A. Fisher was "interested in application and in the popularization of statistical methods... his early book Statistical Methods for Research Workers, published in 1925, went through many editions and influenced the practical use of statistics in many fields of


The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection[edit]

The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection was started in 1928 and published in 1930, with a second edition in 1950 and a third in 1997 where developed ideas on sexual selection, mimicry and the evolution of dominance. He showed that the probability of a mutation increasing the fitness of an organism decreases proportionately with the magnitude of the mutation. He also proved that larger populations carry more variation and have a larger chance of survival. It was here that he wrote the foundations of what was to become population genetics.

Design of Experiments[edit]

Main article: Design of Experiments

Fisher's Design of Experiments, published in 1935, was "also fundamental, [and promoted] statistical technique and application... The mathematical justification of the methods was not stressed and proofs were often barely sketched or omitted altogether .... [This] led H.B. Mann to fill the gaps with a rigorous mathematical treatment in his treatise".[23][24]


A selection from Fisher's 395 articles[edit]

These are available on the University of Adelaide website:

Books by Fisher[edit]

Full publication details are available on the University of Adelaide website:

Biographies of Fisher[edit]

Secondary literature[edit]

  • Edwards, A.W.F., 2005, "Statistical methods for research workers" in Grattan-Guinness, I., ed., Landmark Writings in Western Mathematics. Elsevier: 856–70.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ronald Fisher at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  2. ^ a b c d e Yates, F.; Mather, K. (1963). "Ronald Aylmer Fisher 1890-1962". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 9: 91–129. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1963.0006. K.K. edit
  3. ^ Hald, Anders (1998). A History of Mathematical Statistics. New York: Wiley. ISBN 0-471-17912-4. 
  4. ^ Dawkins, R. (2010). WHO IS THE GREATEST BIOLOGIST SINCE DARWIN? WHY? Edge "Who is the greatest biologist since Darwin? That's far less obvious, and no doubt many good candidates will be put forward. My own nominee would be Ronald Fisher. Not only was he the most original and constructive of the architects of the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Fisher also was the father of modern statistics and experimental design. He therefore could be said to have provided researchers in biology and medicine with their most important research tools, as well as with the modern version of biology's central theorem."
  5. ^ Miller, Geoffrey (2000). The mating mind: how sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature, London, Heineman, ISBN 0-434-00741-2 (also Doubleday, ISBN 0-385-49516-1) p.54
  6. ^ Box, R. A. Fisher, pp 8–16
  7. ^ Sir John Russell. Letter to The Times of London.
  8. ^ Box, R. A. Fisher, pp 35–50
  9. ^ Box, R. A. Fisher, p 337
  10. ^ Box, R. A. Fisher, p 396
  11. ^ William G. Hill, Trudy F.C. Mackay (1 August 2004). "D. S. Falconer and Introduction to Quantitative Genetics". Genetics 167 (4): 1529–36. PMC 1471025. PMID 15342495. 
  12. ^ Box, Joan Fisher (1978) R. A. Fisher: The Life of a Scientist Preface, ISBN 0-471-09300-9
  13. ^
  14. ^ Agresti, Alan; David B. Hichcock (2005). "Bayesian Inference for Categorical Data Analysis" (PDF). Statistical Methods & Applications 14 (14): 298. doi:10.1007/s10260-005-0121-y. 
  15. ^ Box, R. A. Fisher, pp 93–166
  16. ^ Box, R. A. Fisher, pp 50–61
  17. ^ Fisher, R. A., 1999. The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. Complete Variorum Edition. Oxford University Press. Appendix 2.
  18. ^ Fisher, R. A. (1950) "Gene Frequencies in a Cline Determined by Selection and Diffusion", Biometrics, 6 (4), 353–361 JSTOR 3001780
  19. ^ Fisher R. 1930. The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection.
  20. ^ "The Race Concept: Results of an Inquiry", p. 27. UNESCO 1952
  21. ^ Marston, Jean (8 March 2008). "Smoking gun (letter)". New Scientist (2646): 21. 
  22. ^ Gould on God: Can religion and science be happily reconciled?
  23. ^ a b c Conniffe, Denis 1991. R.A. Fisher and the development of statistics—a view in his centenary year. Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland. 26 (3): pp. 55–108.
  24. ^ Mann, H.B. (1949). Analysis and design of experiments: Analysis of variance and analysis of variance designs. New York, N. Y.: Dover. MR 32177. 


External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by
Austin Bradford Hill
Presidents of the Royal Statistical Society
Succeeded by
William Piercy