FISHER, Sir Ronald Aylmer (1890-1962)
Plaque erected in 2002 by English Heritage at Inverforth House, North End Way, Hampstead, London, NW3 7EU, London Borough of Camden
Economics and Statistics
Sir RONALD AYLMER FISHER 1890-1962 Statistician and Geneticist lived here 1896-1904
Plaque to William Hesketh Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme, at the same address, on the opposite gate-pier.
Ronald Aylmer Fisher is remembered as the most significant British statistician of the 20th century. He also developed key genetic and evolutionary theories and was a leading eugenicist – a believer in the now discredited science of improving humans by breeding.
Family and career
Fisher was born in north London and studied mathematics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where after graduating in 1912 he won a scholarship to study physics for a further year.
Between 1919 and 1933 he worked at Rothamsted Experimental Station in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, where he developed the analysis of variance (ANOVA) statistical tool to analyse historic crop data. During this period he established himself as a biostatistician, producing his classic texts Statistical Methods for Research Workers (1925) and The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930). The Design of Experiments followed in 1935.
Fisher succeeded Karl Pearson as Galton Professor of Eugenics at University College, London (UCL), in 1933, where he continued his statistical and genetic research. A decade later he was appointed Arthur Balfour Professor of Genetics at Cambridge and among his other work there co-founded Heredity, which soon became the leading genetics journal. Knighted in 1952, he retired in 1957 and then became an advocate for the tobacco industry, denying a causal link between smoking and lung cancer. Fisher’s last book, Statistical Methods and Scientific Inference, was published in 1956. He died in 1962 in Adelaide, Australia, where he had settled in 1959.
Richard Dawkins has described Fisher as the greatest biologist of the 20th century. Together with British geneticist JBS Haldane and the American mathematician Sewall Wright, he united the theories of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel to form a ‘new synthesis’ of evolutionary theory.
Fisher and eugenics
From early in his career, Fisher was at the forefront of the eugenics movement in Britain. He helped to found the Cambridge University Eugenics Society in 1911 and became an enthusiastic member of the London-based Eugenics Education Society (later the Eugenics Society), the president of which was Fisher’s patron, Leonard Darwin, the fourth son of Charles Darwin. While Professor of Eugenics at the Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics at UCL (named after Sir Francis Galton, who coined the term eugenics in 1883), he edited the Annals of Eugenics.
In 1923 Fisher called for British medical society representatives to consider the relative ‘social and racial’ advantages of providing contraceptives to the working classes. His The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection of 1930 was concerned with the decline of civilisations and, following recent census data indicating that fertility decreased with increased social status, proposed eugenic correctives to this. Fisher resigned from the Eugenics Society in 1934 after failing to gain a controlling role and steer it in what he regarded as a more scientifically genetic direction.
Even after the Second World War, when the relevations of Nazi extermination camps had discredited eugenics, Fisher continued to adhere to eugenicist views. In 1952, he argued that human groups differed profoundly in their capacity for intellectual and emotional development, and that well-intentioned efforts to minimise differences hampered efforts to share the world’s resources amicably. Despite being debunked by scholarly research, such views have proved persistent in some circles in the years since Fisher’s death.
Ronald Aylmer Fisher is commemorated with a blue plaque on the gate-pier of Inverforth House, North End Way, Hampstead, where he lived as a child between 1896 and 1904, when financial collapse forced the family to move to Streatham in south London. On the opposite pier is a plaque to the mansion’s next resident, the philanthropist and soap manufacturer William Hesketh Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme, who renamed it The Hill.
Walter Bodmer, ‘RA Fisher, statistician and geneticist extraordinary: a personal view’, International Journal of Epidemiology, 32:6 (2003), 938–42
JF Box, RA Fisher: the Life of a Scientist (Chichester, 1978)
Rothamsted Research, Surprising Birthplace of Modern Data Analysis Celebrates 100 Years
The Royal Society (Science in the Making), Ronald Fisher
HG Spencer, ‘Fisher, Sir Ronald Aylmer (1890–1962)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004) (subscription required)
N Stepan, Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain, 1800–1960 (Basingstoke, 1982)
UCL Division of Biosciences, R A Fisher
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