Ronald Fisher: A Biography
Ronald Fisher has been hailed as “a genius who almost single-handedly created the foundations for modern statistical science”, “the greatest of Darwin’s successors”, and even “the greatest biologist since Darwin” - Ronald Fisher: A Biography introduction. Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher was a renowned English statistician, evolutionary biologist, eugenicist and geneticist. Fisher was born February 17, 1890 to George and Katie Fisher in East Finchley in London, England. George Fisher was a successful fine arts dealer. Ronald had a happy childhood, being the youngest of five siblings with two loving parents.
Unfortunately, Fisher’s mother died when he was only 14 years old, and his father lost his business 18 months later according to the biography by Fisher’s daughter. Although Fisher had very poor eyesight as a child, he was a very precocious student, winning numerous academic awards throughout his schooling. Because of his poor eyesight, he was tutored in mathematics without the use of paper and pen, which developed his unique ability to visualize problems in geometric terms, without contributing to his interest in writing proper solutions.
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He also developed a strong interest in biology, and, especially, evolution. In 1909 he won a scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. There, he learned of the newly rediscovered Mendelian genetics theory; he saw biometry as a potential way to resolve the discontinuous nature of Mendelian inheritance with continuous variation and gradual evolution. However, Fisher’s greatest concern was eugenics, which he saw as a pressing social and scientific issue that comprised of both genetics and statistics.
In 1911, he took part in the formation of the Cambridge University Eugenics Society alongside John Maynard Keynes, R. C. Punnett, and Horace Darwin (Charles Darwin’s son). The group was very active and often hosted addresses by leader of mainstream eugenic organizations. After his graduation, Fisher was eager to join the army and defend Great Britain in World War I; however, he repeatedly failed medical examinations because of his eyesight. He instead contributed to the war effort by teaching physics and mathematics aboard H. M. Training Ship Worcester. During this time, Fisher met his wife, Eileen Guinness, and married in 1917. During the early years of his marriage, Fisher began writing book review for the Eugenic Review and gradually increased his interest in genetic and statistical work; he was eventually hired to a part time position. He published several articles on biometry during this period, including the groundbreaking “The Correlation Between Relatives on the Supposition of Mendelian Inheritance”, written in 1916.
This paper laid the foundation for what came to be known as biometrical genetics, and introduced the methodology of the analysis by variance. In 1919, Fisher started work at Rothamsted Experimental Station where he started major study of the extensive collections of data recorded over many years. From this, he created a series of reports called Studies in Crop Variation. Over the next seven years, he pioneered the principles of the design of experiments and elaborated his studies of “analysis of variance”.
He developed computational algorithms for analyzing data from his balanced experimental designs. In 1925, he combined his work into the publication of his first book, Statistical Methods for Research Workers. This went into many editions and translations in later years, and became a standard reference work for scientists of several disciplines. In 1935, this was followed by The Design of Experiments, which was also widely used. According to a reviewer, “In that book he emphasized examples and how to design experiments systematically from a statistical point of view. Fisher also named and promoted the method of maximum likelihood estimation; his 1924 article, “On a distribution yielding the error functions of several well-known statistics”, presented Karl Pearson’s chi-squared and Student’s T in the same framework as the Gaussian distribution, and his own “analysis of variance” distribution Z. These contributions made Fisher a major figure in twentieth century statistics. Fisher published a book in 1930 by name of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection; it contained of what was already known to the literature.
He developed ideas on sexual selection, mimicry, and the evolution of dominance. He also famously showed that the probability of a mutation increasing the fitness of an organism proportionately decreases with the magnitude of the mutation. He also went on to ascertain larger populations carry more variation so that they have a greater chance of survival; he set forth the foundations of what has become known as population genetics. In Fisher’s later years, he left Rothamsted to become a professor of eugenics at University College London (1933).
In 1934, Fisher advocated increasing the power of scientists within the Eugenics Society, but members with an environmentalist point of view ultimately foiled his plight; he along with many other scientists resigned. In 1939, when World War II broke out, the University tried to disband the eugenics department, and demanded that all of the animals be destroyed. Fisher tried to retaliate, however he was exiled back to Rothamsted with a much smaller staff and far fewer resources.
Fisher suffered through hardship; soon thereafter, his marriage with Eileen disintegrated, and his oldest George, a war pilot, was killed in action. In 1943 he was offered the Balfour Chair of Genetics at Cambridge University; during the war, this department was nearly destroyed, but the university promised him that he would be charged with rebuilding it after the war—the promises were never fulfilled. He eventually received many awards for his work and was dubbed a Knight Bachelor by Queen Elizabeth II in 1952.
Fisher retired from Cambridge University in 1957, and was awarded the Linnaean Society of London’s prestigious Darwin-Wallace Medal in 1958. After a lifetime of trial and error, successes and failures, humility and esteem—Fisher died at his alma mater, Cambridge University, in 1962 of colon cancer. Fisher’s important contributions to both genetics and statistics are emphasized by the remark of L. J. Savage, “I occasionally meet geneticists who ask me whether it is true that the great geneticist R. A. Fisher was also an important statistician. ”