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[The first thing Pearson could remember] was sitting in a high chair sucking his thumb. Someone told him to stop sucking it, and added that unless he did so, the thumb would wither away. He put his two thumbs together and looked at them for a long time. “They look alike to me,” he said to himself. “I can’t see that the thumb I suck is any smaller than the other. I wonder if she could be lying to me.” Here in this simple story we have rejection of constituted authority, faith in his own interpretation of the meaning of observed data, and finally, imputation of moral obliquity to a person whose judgement differed from his own. These characteristics were prominent throughout his entire career. Walker (1958 & -78)
Karl Pearson was born in London on March 27th 1857 into an upper-middle class family, his father a barrister. He read mathematics at Cambridge University, where Maxwell, Cayley and Stokes were the luminaries. He had the best of coaches, Routh, and came through the examinations as third wrangler. This brought him a fellowship and, for some years, financial freedom to travel and to pursue very diverse interests. He qualified as a barrister and studied social, philosophical, literary and historical questions, turning himself into a German Late Romantic. Pearson developed his own view of man’s place in a post-Christian world, expressing his ideas in a novel and play as well as in essays—some of these appeared in the Ethic of Freethought (1888) and the Chances of Death and Other Studies of Evolution (1897). Pearson founded the Men and Women’s Club and in 1890 married a fellow-member Maria Sharpe. They had three children; the son Egon Sharpe Pearson also became an important statistician.
In 1884 Pearson became Professor of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics at University College London (UCL). Mechanics and the theory of elasticity—and later biometry—eventually crowded out other pursuits. Pearson took on the task of completing Todhunter’s History of the Theory of Elasticity and Clifford’s Common Sense of the Exact Sciences. The Elasticity is a very detailed internal history of Pearson’s own specialism. The book by Clifford, the first holder of the UCL chair, explains the basic principles of mathematics in a non-technical way. Pearson not only edited what Clifford had written but contributed about a third of the final text Pearson’s ideas for the reform of mechanics were close to those of Mach and he developed them further in the Grammar of Science (1892). This presented the scientific method as “the orderly classification of facts followed by the recognition of their relationship and recurring sequences.” His achievements as an applied mathematician were recognised when he was elected to the Royal Society in 1896.
Between 1891 and -94 Pearson gave four series of lectures at Gresham College. The first series provided the basis for the Grammar. The later lectures treated statistics. Pearson had developed a new interest to which he would devote his greatest efforts. With W. F. R. Weldon, professor of zoology at UCL, he founded biometry. Weldon had come to the view that “the problem of animal evolution is essentially a statistical problem” and was applying Francis Galton’s (1822-1911) statistical methods, including correlation. Pearson joined in, developing new techniques and eventually a new theory of statistics. Over the next ten years Pearson made his most important contributions to statistics, including the method of moments, the Pearson system of curves, correlation and the chi-squared test. Pearson realised that the methods he had devised for biometry had other uses and he and his collaborators applied them to all manner of subjects. The most important of the early collaborators was G. Udny Yule, whose applied interests were in social policy and medicine. By the end of the nineteenth century there was an embryonic mathematical statistics community extending to non-biometricians such as F. Y. Edgeworth and W. F. Sheppard.
In 1901 Pearson, Weldon and Galton founded Biometrika, a “Journal for the Statistical Study of Biological Problems”. The mission was controversial. Following the “rediscovery” of Mendel, William Bateson (1861-1926) argued that the statistical study was pointless while Pearson thought Mendel’s account covered only a few special cases. In 1903 Pearson established the Biometric Laboratory. This drew visitors from all over, including W. S. Gosset (‘Student’) from Guinness in Dublin and the biologist Raymond Pearl and the economist H. L. Moore from the United States. (American economists, like Moore and Irving Fisher, thought more of Pearson than their British counterparts—see below) As well as research in theoretical and applied statistics, much effort went into constructing statistical tables. In 1907 Pearson took over a research unit founded by Galton and reconstituted it as the Francis Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics. The laboratory researched human pedigrees but it also produced controversial reports on the role of inherited and environmental factors in tuberculosis, alcoholism and insanity. Pearson saw his role in eugenics as providing the scientific foundations and he addressed other experts rather than the public directly.
In 1911 a bequest from Galton led to the establishing of a chair of Eugenics and a Department of Applied Statistics at University College. Pearson was no longer responsible for applied mathematics. After the 1914-18 war statistics continued to flourish and the department went on attracting talents, such as Neyman and Wishart, but Pearson was no longer producing influential new ideas. By the later 20s R. A. Fisher was replacing him as the dominant influence on the subject. Some of Fisher’s most important contributions were corrections to Pearson’s work and relations between the men were bad from around 1917. Pearson retired in 1933 but he continued to write and, with his son E. S. Pearson, to edit Biometrika. He died on April 27th 1936.
Sources E. S. Pearson’s biography is the major source. It is thorough and fair-minded, though inevitably dated. For the early Pearson it has now been surpassed by Porter (2004). The newer biography focuses on the making of the statistician and does not try to cover in the same detail what Pearson did when his career was under way.
The sketch over the menu is from Peter Lee’s portraits of statisticians
KP 1882 1890 & 1910 from E. S. Pearson’s Biometrika biography
Weldon from KP’s Biometrika memoir
KP with Galton from the Galton website http://www.mugu.com/galton/:
Bateson from the Bateson website http://post.queensu.ca/~forsdyke/bateson1.htm
Fisher from J. H. Bennett (1971) Collected Papers of R. A. Fisher volume 1, Adelaide: Adelaide University Press.
The UCL Special Collections digital archive has some nice family photographs including Maria and baby Egon, Karl and Maria with pram and Karl and Maria with teenage children.
There is a wealth of photographs of places associated with the Pearson family on John Bibby’s From Crambe to chi-squared.
There are photographs of the Pearson family home at Karl Pearson’s Hampstead home.
There are more brief lives at
This archive is excellent for finding out quickly who was who in Mathematics. There are several links to it in this guide.
The Department of Statistical Science at UCL descends from Pearson’s Department of Applied Statistics.
R. H. Williams, Zumbo, B. D., Ross, D., & Zimmerman, D.W. (2003) Human Nature Review, 3: 296-301.
Encyclopedia articles not only introduce Pearson but lead on to related people and topics—to W. K. Clifford, F. Galton, W. F. R. Weldon, W. Bateson, ‘Student’ (W. S. Gosset), R. A. Fisher, F. Y. Edgeworth, G. U. Yule, M. Greenwood, E. Mach, … to biometrics, chi-squared, correlation, eugenics, evolution, goodness of fit, method of moments, Pearson system, regression, …. .
M. E. Magnello (2008) Pearson, Karl, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Ed. William A. Darity, Jr.. Vol. 6. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2008. 190-194. here
M. E. Magnello (2005) Karl Pearson, Encyclopedia of Social Measurement, 3 2005, 31-39, Amsterdam: Elsevier.
J. Woiak (2004) Pearson, Karl (1857-1936), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.
J. Aldrich (2001) Pearson, Karl (1857-1936) International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 11159-11163. Kidlington, Oxford: Pergamon.
M. E. Magnello (1999) Pearson, Karl, Encyclopedia of Life Sciences, available to subscribing institutions at http://www.els.net/
M. E. Magnello (1998a) Karl Pearson, Encyclopedia of Statistical Science, (update), 653-656. New York: Wiley.
M. E. Magnello (1998b) Karl Pearson, Encyclopedia of Biostatistics 4, 3308-3315. Chichester: Wiley.
F. N. David (1997) Karl Pearson, in N. L. Johnson & S. Kotz (eds) Leading Personalities in Statistical Sciences from the Seventeenth Century to the Present, 150-151. New York: Wiley.
F. N. David (1985) Karl Pearson, Encyclopedia of Statistical Science, 6, 653-656. New York: Wiley.
H. M. Walker (1978) Karl Pearson, International Encyclopedia of Statistics, 2, 691-698. New York: Free Press.
C. P. Eisenhart (1974) Karl Pearson, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 10, 447-73. New York: Scribner. Not subject to copyright
P. Alexander (1967) Karl Pearson, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 6, 68-69. New York: Macmillan.
These articles are brief and introductory except Eisenhart’s which is a small monograph. The Encyclopedia of Biostatistics has the fullest set of links. Pearson also figures in several of the articles in the
Companion Encyclopedia to the History and Philosophy of the Mathematical Sciences, 1994. London: Routledge.
Karl Pearson was a great teacher. For fifty years he taught at University College; his subjects were applied mathematics, astronomy and statistics. For nearly forty years he almost monopolised the teaching of statistics in Britain and many prominent statisticians studied with him. Some went as undergraduates, some as fledgling members of staff and some as visitors; the modern PhD system was established only towards the end of Pearson’s career and he was never part of it. The following were among those who studied with him—the reference, unless otherwise stated, is to an obituary in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society or, after 1948, to Series A of that journal: Burton H. Camp, Florence Nightingale David, 157 (1994), 299-301 JSTOR; William Palin Elderton, 125, (1962), 669-673 JSTOR; Edgar Charles Fieller, 124, (1961), 275-277 JSTOR; Louis Napoleon George Filon (1875-1937); William Sealy Gosset, 101, (1938), 248-251 JSTOR; Major Greenwood, 112, (1949), 247-249 JSTOR; J. Arthur Harris, Biometrika, 28, (1936), p. 444 JSTOR; David Heron, 133, (1970), 276-279 JSTOR; Austin Bradford Hill, 154, (1991), 482-484 JSTOR; Joseph Oscar Irwin, 145, (1982), 526-528 JSTOR; Leon Isserlis, 129, (1966), 612-616 JSTOR; Henry Ludwell Moore Econometrica, 30, (1962), 1-21 JSTOR; Ethel May Newbold, 96, (1933), 354-357 JSTOR; Jerzy Neyman, 145, (1982), 523-524 JSTOR; Raymond Pearl, Ecology, 22, (1941), 408, JSTOR; Egon Sharpe Pearson, 144, (1981), 270-271 JSTOR; Edmund Cecil Rhodes, 128, (1965), (4), 615-616 JSTOR; Henry Schultz, Econometrica, 7, (1939), 97-103. JSTOR; Ernest Snow, 123, (1960), 355-356 JSTOR; Herbert Edward Soper, 94, (1931), 135-141 JSTOR; Samuel Stouffer, American Statistician, 14, (1960), 36 JSTOR; L. H. C. Tippett, 149, (1986), 44 JSTOR; John Wishart, 119, (1956), 270-271 JSTOR; George Udny Yule, 115, (1952), 156-161 JSTOR.
Some of Pearson’s students wrote about him during his lifetime and especially after he died. Pearson generated strong reactions: “the man is a liar” wrote J. M. Keynes to W. Bateson in 1910 (Bateson Letters, John Innes Archives). On Pearson’s death in 1936 and his centenary in 1957 the survivors reflected on him and his work.
The Times obituary is available on the MacTutor Pearson page. Also available is an obituary for the Royal Society of Edinburgh by G. H. T. (presumably Godfrey Hilton Thomson (1881-1955) the statistical psychologist who contributed to Biometrika and was once offered a job by Pearson).
E. S. Pearson (1895-1980), Pearson’s son and his successor as head of the Department of Applied Statistics University College, London (UCL) and editor of Biometrika, wrote a full biography soon after his father’s death
This appeared as a book with the same title, published by Cambridge University Press, in 1938.
George Udny Yule (1871-1951) was a student and eventually an assistant professor in Pearson’s department. Later he went his own way he and Pearson came to disagree about association, time series correlation, …. The Royal Society obituary also has a contribution from L. N. G. Filon, Pearson’s student and eventually his successor in the Goldsmid chair in Applied Mathematics
G. Udny Yule & L. N. G. Filon (1936) Karl Pearson, Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society of London, 2, 74-110. RS
Burton Camp, professor of mathematics at Wesleyan and President of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics in 1938, was an American visitor to Pearson’s laboratory during 1923-4; see Bellhouse (2011). He wrote on the occasion of Pearson’s retirement:
Burton H. Camp (1933) Karl Pearson and Mathematical Statistics, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 28,
(Dec), 395-401. JSTOR
Raymond Pearl (1879-1940) attended Pearson’s lectures in 1905-6 and was once a co-editor of Biometrika. See Matthews (1995) and Bellhouse (2011) for his fluctuating relations with Pearson. From 1919 Pearl was a professor at Johns Hopkins. In his obituary he wrote warmly of Pearson’s influence on his generation.
Raymond Pearl (1936) Karl Pearson, 1857-1936, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 31, 653-664. JSTOR
William Palin Elderton (1877-1962) was a distinguished actuary. He first met Pearson in 1900 when he was training to be an actuary and was drawn into the University College statistical group. Elderton computed the first chi-square tables and in 1907 published an account of the Pearson curves (see below). His sister Ethel M. Elderton worked for Pearson for many years. In his obituary Elderton gave a balanced account of Pearson’s achievement and personality.
W. P. Elderton (1937) Professor Karl Pearson, Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 68, 183-185. here
E. S. Pearson recalls Elderton’s relations with KP in the obituary, William Palin Elderton (1877-1962), Biometrika, 49, (1962), 297-303. JSTOR
R. A. Fisher (1890-1962), Pearson’s greatest successor and fiercest critic, wrote an article for the Dictionary of National Biography but it was not accepted. Edwards published the article and tells the story in
A.W. F. Edwards (1994) R. A. Fisher on Karl Pearson, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 48, 97-106. JSTOR
Pearson emerges without glory from Fisher’s sketch of the history of statistics (available from the University of Adelaide in pdf format)
Statistics from Scientific Thought in the Twentieth Century, (ed. A. E. Heath), pp. 31-55. London: Watts, 1951.
An anonymous reviewer of Fisher’s Statistical Methods for Research Workers (1925) used a quotation from Macaulay to describe Fisher’s relationship to Pearson: “just so we have heard a baby, mounted on the shoulders of its father, cry out, ‘how much taller I am than Papa!’” The reviewer was probably Major Greenwood. For more on Fisher and Pearson see A Guide to R. A. Fisher.
Major Greenwood (1880-1948) wrote the article that actually appeared in the DNB. Greenwood was an early follower of Pearson and became professor of medical statistics at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine: see Matthews (1995) for his relations with Pearson. In 1928 Greenwood wrote a memorandum on the state of medical statistics in which Pearson is compared with Newton but, as with Newton and the calculus, the Continentals had the better system!
M. Greenwood (1949) Pearson, Karl, The Dictionary of National Biography, 1931-40, ed. L. G. Wickham Legg, pp. 681-684, Oxford University Press.
V. Farewell, T. Johnson & P. Armitage (2006) ‘A Memorandum on the Present Position and Prospects of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology’ by Major Greenwood, Statistics in Medicine, 25, 2167-2177.
Greenwood expressed his feelings towards Pearson in the opening paragraphs of his Presidential Address to the Statistical Society given a few months after Pearson’s death.
J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964), at UCL from 1933 first as professor of genetics then of biometry, compared Pearson to Columbus: following a false theory of heredity he discovered methods that proved indispensable for the study of evolution.
J. B. S. Haldane (1957) Karl Pearson, 1857-1957. A Centenary Lecture delivered at University College London, Biometrika, 44, 303-313. JSTOR
H. M. Walker (1891-1983), pioneer historian of statistics, wrote a centenary piece on a man “to whom no smaller word than titan is appropriate”
Helen M. Walker (1958) The Contributions of Karl Pearson, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 53, 11-22. JSTOR
S. A. Stouffer (1900-1960) pioneer quantitative sociologist studied with Pearson in the 1930s.
Samuel A. Stouffer (1958) Karl Pearson—An Appreciation on the 100th Anniversary of his Birth, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 53, 23-27. JSTOR
2007 was the Karl Pearson sesquicentenary (or sesquicentennial) and this was marked in various ways. There was a Karl Pearson sesquicentenary conference in London in March and a session (“Karl Pearson’s 150th birthday,” IPM78) at the conference of the International Statistical Institute in Lisbon in August; see below.
Pearson’s output was vast: Morant’s bibliography lists 648 publications and some of the projects like the Elasticity and the Galton biography were on the grandest scale.
G. M. Morant (1939) A Bibliography of the Statistical and other Writings of Karl Pearson, Cambridge University Press.
For the statistical papers—at least—Morant provides abstracts and cross-references. Most of the abstracts were written by B. L. Welch.
Most of Pearson’s articles are now accessible through JSTOR. However many of his contributions to Biometrika were unsigned editorials and material from lectures and the only infallible method for finding them on JSTOR is to go through volume by volume. Alternatively use the Morant bibliography.
The Pearson Papers at University College London has more than 16,000 letters, family papers and scientific manuscripts, including students’ notes on Pearson’s lectures and the records of the Men and Women’s Club. A catalogue is available:
A list of the papers and correspondence of Karl Pearson (1857-1936) held in the Manuscripts Room, University College London Library compiled by M Merrington, B Blundell, S Burrough, J Golden, J Hogarth (University College London, 1983).
The AIM25 listing contains a basic description of the collection.
Porter (2004) has a long list of archives, the ones he used in writing his book. There is also material at King’s College, Cambridge (Bradshaw Papers), in the University Library at Cambridge, at the Royal Society, the Royal Astronomical Society, Adelaide University Library, the Worshipful Company of Drapers, the American Philosophical Society Library and the Rockefeller Archive Center.
The books listed show Pearson’s range of interests: applied mathematics, philosophy of science, biometrics, eugenics, statistics, literature, linguistics and society. His novel and play are included for their biographical interest, not for their influence for they sank without trace; there are copies in the British Library but not, it seems, in the main UK university libraries. However reprints of them are now available. To see the mass and variety of the publications not included consult the Morant bibliography or the Karl Pearson entry in the COPAC catalogue. Over 300 articles can be found on JSTOR.
This selection omits several volumes of tables, tracts for computers and monographs on physical anthropology.
Loki (1880) The New Werther. London: C. Kegan Paul. Amazon
Through letters to his renounced beloved, Arthur describes the disappointments of philosophy, science, art and love until, like Goethe’s Werther, he commits suicide. For discussion see Porter (2004, ch. 3) and E. S. Pearson (1936, pp. 200-1)
[Anonymous] (1882) The Trinity. A Nineteenth Century Passion-Play, The Son; or, Victory of Love. Cambridge: E. Johnson. Amazon
In the foreword to this retelling of the Christ story Pearson wrote “Modern science and modern culture are freeing us from the old theological shackles; let them take heed that in destroying a human divinity they do not forget a divine humanity.” For discussion see Porter (2004, ch. 4) and E. S. Pearson (1936, pp. 201ff)
The Exact Sciences are mathematics, pure and applied. The book was re-issued in 1946 with a laudatory preface by Bertrand Russell who had read it when he was fifteen.
Karl Pearson (ed.) (1886/93) A History of the Theory of Elasticity and of the Strength of Materials from Galilei to the Present Time by I. Todhunter, Vols I & II (II in two parts). Cambridge: University Press.
Pearson wrote more than half of this enormous work. He kept to Todhunter’s plan of summarising each contribution and the result is an encyclopedic treatise on the literature of elasticity organised chronologically rather than a history of science work of the modern kind. For discussion see Porter (2004, ch. 3) and E. S. Pearson (1936, p. 209 )
The first papers “endeavour to formulate the opinions which a rational being of to-day may hold with regard to the physical and intellectual worlds.” A second group “regards one or two phases of past thought and life from the Freethinker’s standpoint.” The final group “deals with great race problems”—socialism and the woman’s question. For discussion see Porter (2004, ch. 3) and E. S. Pearson (1936, pp. 198-206)
This positivist account of science was widely read in English and in translations. The second edition was enlarged to take account of Pearson’s mathematical studies in evolution. The third edition was conceived on an even larger scale but only the first (Physical) volume appeared. For the 1937 reissue in the Everyman series E. S. Pearson returned to the chapter plan of 1892 but kept the wording of 1900; he also wrote an introduction. In 1991 Thoemmes published a reprint of the first edition with an introduction by Andrew Pyle. For discussion see Porter (2004, ch. 3) and E. S. Pearson (1936, pp. 214-7) and (1938, pp. 185-6).
This contains both statistical and historical studies of evolution. The latter include reconstructions of prehistoric society based on the “fossils” of language and customs. Behind the long study of the “German Passion-Play” is the thought that the mediæval philosophy of life contained “social, economic, and æsthetic elements wanting in the civilisation of today.” For discussion see Porter (2004, ch. 3) and E. S. Pearson (1936, p. 225) .
Karl Pearson (1901) National Life from the Standpoint of Science, with a second edition in 1905. London: A. & C. Black.
This gives Pearson’s views on nations, socialism and eugenics: “We find that the law of survival of the fitter is true of mankind, but that the struggle is that of the gregarious animal. A community not knit together by strong social instincts by sympathy between man and man, and class and class cannot face the external contest…” In the second edition the original lecture was supplemented by data appendices
Karl Pearson (1914) Tables for Statisticians and Biometricians, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
The main purpose of these first tables was to assist in the fitting of the Pearson curves. More specialised volumes came later as well as a Part II in 1931. Much effort went into table-making and it was an activity Pearson rated highly: “What the true statistician, the true physicist demands” is “the conversion of algebraical results into tables;” an “all-round mathematician” needs to be a “computer.” (Lectures on the History of Statistics, p. 245.) See E. S. Pearson (1938, p. 195)
Karl Pearson (1914/24/30) The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton, Vols. I, II, IIIA & IIIB, Cambridge: University Press
E. S. Pearson (ed) (1978) The History of Statistics in the 17th and 18th Centuries against the Changing Background of Intellectual, Scientific and Religious Thought: Lectures by Karl Pearson given at University College, 1921-1933. London: Griffin.
Here, unlike in the Todhunter Elasticity volumes, the “changing background” is essential to the picture. There is a useful review: I. Hacking (1981) Karl Pearson’s History of Statistics, British Journal of the Philosophy of Science, 32, 177-183 JSTOR.
The articles listed here contain the core of Pearson’s contribution to statistics. Stigler (1986) and Hald are good general guides but additional references are noted after each article. Links are given to the Bibliothèque Nationale for the Phil. Trans. papers.
Karl Pearson (1894) Contributions to the Mathematical Theory of Evolution, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 185, 71-110. JSTOR
Karl Pearson (1895) Mathematical Contributions to the Theory of Evolution. II. Skew Variation in Homogeneous Material, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 186, 343-414. JSTOR
Karl Pearson (1896) Mathematical Contributions to the Theory of Evolution. III. Regression, Heredity and Panmixia, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 187, 253-318. JSTOR
Karl Pearson & L. N. G. Filon (1898) Mathematical Contributions to the Theory of Evolution IV. On the Probable Errors of Frequency Constants and on the Influence of Random Selection on Variation and Correlation, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 191, 229-311. JSTOR
Karl Pearson (1900) On the Criterion that a Given System of Deviations from the Probable in the Case of Correlated System of Variables is such that it can be Reasonably Supposed to have Arisen from Random Sampling, Philosophical Magazine, 50, 157-175. here
These articles were all written before Biometrika was founded. With some other non-Biometrika pieces they were reprinted (without editorial additions) in
E. S. Pearson (editor) (1948) Karl Pearson’s Early Statistical Papers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pearson’s technical publications usually involve unfamiliar mathematics and unfamiliar science and, while his volumes of essays were addressed to the educated reader, both the issues and the way they are treated are now remote.
Pearson did not make a book out of his Gresham lectures on statistics and probability but the following general essay on probability was published after his death
The Laws of Chance, in Relation to Thought and Conduct: Introductory, Definitions and Fundamental Conceptions Being: the First of a Series of Lectures Delivered by Karl Pearson at Gresham College in 1892, Biometrika, 32, (1941), 89-100. JSTOR
Two papers of considerable autobiographical interest should be mentioned. The memoir Pearson wrote on the death of Weldon, his friend and most important colleague, recalls the beginnings of biometry
Karl Pearson (1906) Walter Frank Raphael Weldon.1860-1906, Biometrika, 5,1-52. JSTOR
In old age Pearson wrote affectionately of his student days in the 1870s
In fact, his experience at the time, as described in Andrew Warwick’s Masters of Theory: Cambridge and the Rise of Mathematical Physics, Chicago UP (2003) and based on letters to his family, seems to have been rather unhappy.
Two anthologies of “fin de siècle” writing have snippets of Pearson: Ledger & Luckhurst have extracts from National Life and the Grammar of Science, Jay & Neve have extracts from National Life and the Scope and The Importance to the State of the Science of National Eugenics (1907).
Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst
(editors) (2000) Fin de Siècle A Reader in Cultural History, C. 1880-1900,
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Mike Jay and Michael Neve (editors) (2000) 1900: A Fin-De-Siècle Reader, Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Much of Pearson’s most important statistical work appeared in conjunction with biological ideas which are now obsolete—e.g. his fundamental work on correlation is in the 1896 paper on “Regression, Heredity and Panmixia”. However his first chi-squared paper, Pearson (1900), does not contain difficult biological matter. It appears with notes by G. A. Barnard in
S. Kotz & N. L. Johnson (ed.) (1992) Breakthroughs in Statistics Volume 1, New York, Springer-Verlag.
Pearson wrote no textbook but the chapters on evolution in the 2nd edition (1900) of the Grammar of Science make a good introduction to his way of doing statistics. A “statistical methods for research workers” could be compiled from the introductions he wrote for his books of tables, especially Tables for Statisticians and Biometricians. Elderton’s Pearsonian textbook covers fitting the Pearson curves and correlation:
Writing about Pearson
The following selection from the secondary literature is organised under four headings: philosophy, statistics, biology and society. Pearson’s work does not divide so neatly and several items could as well appear elsewhere; this polyvalence is probably one of the appeals of Pearson research. Here I mention some works spanning the categories.
The new biography by Porter has a different emphasis from most of the literature on Pearson for it focuses on the formation of the statistician
T. M. Porter (2004) Karl Pearson: the Scientific Life in a Statistical Age. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
The book makes impressive use of the abundant archival material to give a very full account of Pearson’s life and thoughts in the period before 1900, treating his later career in more cursory fashion. The treatment of Pearson’s work in literature, history and physics and his first efforts in statistics is much fuller than that available elsewhere. The first part of E. S. Pearson’s biography had covered similar territory but in much less detail and with less discussion of the subject’s motivation. Porter’s book has been widely and favourably reviewed. See here for a list of the reviews. Two are available on-line: Lee in Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 59, (2005) pp. 92-3 and Aldrich in American Scientist.
The inter-connectedness of Pearson’s work was taken for granted by his contemporaries. More recently it has been emphasised by the sociologist MacKenzie and historian Magnello.
MacKenzie’s sociology of scientific knowledge approach has been criticised by Sullivan (see also Olby)
P. Sullivan (1998) An Engineer Dissects Two Case Studies: Hayes on Fluid Mechanics and MacKenzie on Statistics in N. Koertge (ed.) A Home Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science, New York: Oxford University Press.
D. A. MacKenzie (1999) The Science Wars and the Past’s Quiet Voices, (with response by P. Sullivan and reply by Mackenzie), Social Studies of Science, 29, 199-234.
The danger of over-simplifying Pearson’s activities is emphasised by
M. E. Magnello (1999) The Non-correlation of Biometrics and Eugenics: Rival Forms of Laboratory Work in Karl Pearson’s Career at University College London, (In two Parts), History of Science, 37, 79-106, 123-150.
Galton had an important influence on both Pearson’s statistical work and his genetical work. Two new biographies discuss Pearson and his relationship with Galton
N. W. Gillham (2001) A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics, New York: Oxford University Press.
M. Bulmer (2003) Francis Galton: Pioneer of Heredity and Biometry, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.
Pearson’s quarrel with R. A. Fisher encompassed both statistics and genetics. Fisher’s side is described by
J. F. Box (1978) R. A. Fisher: The Life of a Scientist, New York: Wiley.
The relationship between Pearson’s philosophy of science and his genetics is discussed by
B. Norton (1975) Metaphysics and Population Genetics: Karl Pearson and the Background to Fisher’s Multi-factorial Theory of Inheritance, Annals of Science, 32, 537-553.
P. R. Sloan (2000) Mach’s Phenomenalism and the British Reception of Mendelism, Comptes Rendus de l'Academie des Sciences Series III Sciences de la Vie, 323, no. 12, pp. 1069-1079(11).
J. Gayon (2007) Karl Pearson: les enjeux du phénoménalisme dans les sciences biologiques, pp. 305–324 of J. Gayon and R. Burian (eds.) Conceptions de la science, hier, aujourd'hui, demain, Brussels: Ousia. 2007.
The philosophies of Pearson and Weldon are distinguished by
C. H. Pence (2011) “Describing our whole experience”: The Statistical Philosophies of W. F. R. Weldon and Karl Pearson,
Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 42, (4), 475-485.
The relationship between Pearson’s philosophy of science and his thinking about correlation is discussed by Hilts and by
Pearson’s position on spurious correlation is treated in the Earliest Known Uses entries on “spurious correlation” and “Simpson’s paradox”.
The most thorough biographical account of Pearson’s work in physics and the philosophy of science is in chapter 3 of Porter (2004). Modern textbooks seldom mention Pearson’s contributions to applied mathematics/physics, though the Pearson-Todhunter History is still referred to. Nor is there much historical literature; there are a few remarks in
M. Jammer (1961) Concepts of Mass in Classical and Modern Physics, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
L. A. Godoy (2006) Historical Sense in the Historians of the Theory of Elasticity, Meccanica, 41, Number 5, October, 2006.
Pearson’s philosophy of science has received more attention. Passmore and Porter discuss it in relation to the ideas of other late 19th century physicists. Skagestad focusses on Peirce and Piovani on the Vienna Circle.
J. Passmore (1968) A Hundred Years of Philosophy, 2nd edition, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
T. M. Porter (1994) The Death of the Object: Fin-de-Siècle Philosophy of Physics, in D. M. Ross (ed.) Modernist Impulses in the Human Sciences, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
P. Skagestad (1983) Peirce and Pearson: Pragmatism vs. Instrumentalism, R. S. Cohen & M. W. Wartofsky (eds.) Language, Logic and Method, Reidel
J. I. Piovani (2004) L’epistemologia di Karl Pearson, Sociologia e Ricerca Sociale, Fascicola 75, 5-28.
Thiele has published correspondence between Mach and Pearson
Joachim Thiele (1969) Karl Pearson, Ernst Mach, John B. Stallo: Briefe aus den Jahren 1897 bis 1904, Isis, 60, 535-542. JSTOR
Porter draws on Pearson’s novel and passion play to discuss his philosophy taken more broadly—including his attitudes to religion and socialism—in
T. M. Porter (1999) Reason, Faith, and Alienation in the Victorian Fin-de-Siècle in H. E. Bodecker (ed.) Wissenschaft als Kulturelle Praxis. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
In this essay Porter compares Pearson with John Henry Newman. Levine compares him with Walter Pater:
George Levine (2000) Two Ways Not To Be a Solipsist: Art and Science, Pater and Pearson, Victorian Studies, 43, 7-42.
George Levine (2008) Realism, Ethics and Secularism: Essays on Victorian Literature and Science, Cambridge University Press.
Herbert detects Feuerbach’s influence in the Grammar of Science
Christopher Herbert (1996) Science and Narcissism, Modernism/Modernity, 3, 129-135.
Christopher Herbert (2001) Victorian Relativity: Radical Thought and Scientific Discovery, University of Chicago Press.
The Grammar made little impression on professional philosophers but it was inspiring to a number of scientifically-minded youngsters including Harold Jeffreys and Jerzy Neyman. Raymond Pearl testified to this influence on his generation.
Pearson’s name appears in statistics textbooks in connection with chi-squared, correlation, goodness of fit, method of moments and the Pearson system of curves. However these books rarely contain much information about the man or about the context of his work.
There is a good account of Pearson’s earliest statistical work in chapters 8 and 9 of Porter (2004). Another useful account containing much biographical information is
M. Eileen Magnello (2005) Karl Pearson and the Origins of Modern Statistics: An Elastician becomes a Statistician, Rutherford Journal, 1 (1) here
For accounts on Pearson’s place in the history of statistics see (besides MacKenzie (1981))
H. M. Walker (1929) Studies in the History of Statistical Method, Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.
V. L. Hilts (1967) Statist and Statistician: Three Studies in the History of Nineteenth Century English Statistical Thought. Thesis, Harvard University, Cambridge MA. Reprinted by Arno Press, New York 1981.
J. W. Tankard (1984) The Statistical Pioneers, Cambridge, MA: Schenkman.
S. M. Stigler (2012) Karl Pearson and the Rule of Three, Biometrika, 99, (1), 1-14.
Walker’s history looks back from the Pearsonian present of 1929. Hilts presents a rounded picture of “the first mathematical statistician in England”. Tankard’s introductory textbook has a chapter on Pearson plus ones on Galton, Gosset and Fisher. Porter has written a wide-ranging essay in the history of ideas. Hald and Stigler have written complementary volumes on ‘technical’ statistics: Hald emphasises the mathematical theory while Stigler is as concerned with the use of the theory. Apart from Hald the coverage tends to stop at 1900. By that date Pearson had done his most influential work but he still had hundreds of publications in front of him. Stigler’s 2012 article (written for the centenary of the University College Statistics Department) provides an overview of Pearson’s work.
The International Statistical Review marked the Pearson sesquicentenary with a special issue. Appropriately enough, the articles emphasise Pearson’s international influence.
E. Seneta, I. H. Stamhuis (2009) Preface to Karl Pearson Issue, International Statistical Review, 77, 1-2.
M. E. Magnello Karl Pearson and the Establishment of Mathematical Statistics, International Statistical Review, 77, 3-29.
H. A. David (2009) Karl Pearson—The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age by Theodore M. Porter: A Review, International Statistical Review, 77, 30-39.
A. M. Fiori andM. Zenga (2009) Karl Pearson and the Origin of Kurtosis, International Statistical Review, 77, 40-50.
P. Guttorp and G. Lindgren (2009) Karl Pearson and the Scandinavian School of Statistics, International Statistical Review, 77, 64-71.
T. K. Nayak (2009) Impact of Karl Pearson’s Work on Statistical Developments in India, International Statistical Review, 77, 72-80.
C. G. Borroni (2009) Understanding Karl Pearson's Influence on Italian Statistics in the Early 20th Century International Statistical Review, 77, 81-95.
I. H. Stamhuis and E. Seneta (2009) Pearson's Statistics in the Netherlands and the Astronomer Kapteyn, International Statistical Review, 77, 96-117.
E. Seneta (2009) Karl Pearson in Russian Contexts International Statistical Review, 77, 118-146.
The issue has no paper on Pearson’s influence in France. Pearson’s influence there was limited but Lucien March felt it.
M. Armatte (2005) Lucien March (1859-1933): Une statistique mathématique sans probabilité? Journal Electronique d'Histoire des Probabilités et de la Statistique, 1, (1), pp. 19.
J. Aldrich (2010) Tales of two Societies - Paris, London 1860-1940, Journal Electronique d'Histoire des Probabilités et de la Statistique, 6, (2), pp. 41.
Hald’s book has a comprehensive bibliography. A few items from it are worth highlighting: E. S. Pearson on the interaction of Pearson, Galton, Weldon, Edgeworth, ‘Student’ and Fisher and Plackett on Pearson (1900)
E. S. Pearson (1965) Some Incidents in the Early History of Biometry and Statistics 1890-94, Biometrika, 52, 3-18. JSTOR
E. S. Pearson (1967) Some Reflections on Continuity in the Development of Mathematical Statistics 1885-1920, Biometrika, 54, 341-355. JSTOR
E. S. Pearson (1968) Some Early Correspondence Between W. S. Gosset, R. A. Fisher and Karl Pearson, with Notes and Comments, Biometrika, 55, 445-457. JSTOR.
More recent papers include
S. M. Stigler (1999) Karl Pearson and Degrees of Freedom. In the collection of essays, S. M. Stigler, Statistics on the Table, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
Eileen Magnello, Karl Pearson, Paper on the Chi-Squared Goodness of Fit Test. In Ivor Grattan-Guinness (ed.) Landmark Writings in Western Mathematics: Case Studies, 1640-1940, pp. 724-731, Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2005.
S. M. Stigler (2008) Karl Pearson’s Theoretical Errors and the Advances They Inspired, Statistical Science, 23 (2), 261-271. Euclid.
Lancaster and Dale treat more specialised theoretical topics
H. O. Lancaster (1969) The Chi-squared Distribution, New York: Wiley.
There is a volume marking the centenary of Pearson’s chi-squared paper
C. Huber-Caro, N. Balakrishnan, M. Nikulin, M. Mesbah (Eds.) (2002) Goodness-of-Fit Tests and Model Validity, Boston: Birkhäuser. This includes a chapter by D. R. Cox on “Karl Pearson and the Chi-squared Test.”
Pearson’s time series analysis as well as other aspects of his work are discussed by
J. L. Klein (1997) Statistical Visions in Time: A History of Time Series Analysis, 1662-1938, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Pearson’s relations with Gosset (‘Student’) are covered by
E. S. Pearson (1990) ‘Student’, A Statistical Biography of William Sealy Gosset, Edited and Augmented by R. L. Plackett with the Assistance of G. A. Barnard, Oxford: University Press.
The origins of Fisher’s quarrel with Pearson (see above) are described in
S. E. Fienberg (1980) Fisher’s Contribution to Categorical Data, pp. 75-84 of Fienberg, S. E. & D. V. Hinkley (1980) (eds.) R. A. Fisher: An Appreciation, New York, Springer.
R. Mensch (1980) Fisher and the Method of Moments, pp. 67-74, of Fienberg & Hinkley.
D. Baird (1983) The Fisher/Pearson Chi-Squared Controversy: A Turning Point for Inductive Inference, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 34, 105-118. JSTOR
H. F. Inman (1994) Karl Pearson and R. A. Fisher on Statistical Tests: A 1935 Exchange from Nature, American Statistician, 48, 2-11. JSTOR
J. Aldrich (1997) R. A. Fisher and the Making of Maximum Likelihood 1912-22, Statistical Science, 12, 162-176. Project Euclid.
S. M. Stigler (2005) Fisher in 1921, Statistical Science, 20, 32-49. Project Euclid.
J. Aldrich (2005) Fisher and Regression, Statistical Science, 20, 401-417. pdf.
Pearson did not only apply statistics to biometrics; for his work in medical statistics see
M. E. Magnello (2002) The Introduction of Mathematical Statistics into Medical Research: The Roles of Karl Pearson, Major Greenwood and Austin Bradford Hill, in Eileen Magnello and Anne Hardy (ed.) The Road to Medical Statistics, Amsterdam: Rodopi.
K. O’Rourke (2006). Reducing the Play of Chance using Meta-analysis. James Lind Library. This refers to the following
Pearson’s research into the effects of parental alcoholism was criticised by doctors and by the economists J. M. Keynes, Alfred Marshall and A. C. Pigou. The controversy is discussed in the standard biographies of Keynes (by Harrod, Skidelsky and Moggridge) and in accounts of Keynes’s attitude towards statistics: see e.g.
R. M. O’Donnell (1989) Keynes: Philosophy, Economics and Politics, London: Macmillan.
B. W. Bateman (1990) Keynes, Induction and Econometrics, History of Political Economy, 22, 359-379.
J. Aldrich (2008) Keynes among the Statisticians. History of Political Economy, 40, 265-316. pdf
The most thorough treatment of the statistical issues involved is
S. M. Stigler (1999) Karl Pearson and the Cambridge Economists. In the collection of essays, S. M. Stigler Statistics on the Table, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Pearson’s more positive relationships with the American statistical economists H. L. Moore and Irving Fisher are discussed in
J. Aldrich (2010) The Econometricians’ Statisticians 1895-1945, History of Political Economy, 42, 111-154. pdf
See also Bellhouse (2011).
Biometrika celebrated its centenary in 2001 and several of the articles in the commemorative issue (February 2001) discuss Pearson’s contributions to the journal. The material is available in book form as
Biometrika: One Hundred Years edited by D. M. Titterington & D. R. Cox. Amazon.
Biometrika celebrated its one hundredth volume in 2013 and commissioned an article on KP’s editorship
J. Aldrich (2013) Karl Pearson's Biometrika: 1901-36, Biometrika, March 2013, 100, 2-15. pdf
H. A. David, First (?) Occurrence of Common Terms in Statistics and Probability, Appendix B and pp. 219-228 of H. A. David & A. W. F. Edwards (ed.) (2001) Annotated Readings in the History of Statistics, Springer New York. (updating articles in 1995 and 1998 in American Statistician, 49, 121-133 and 52, 36-40.)
There is a large literature touching on Pearson in this area—and the following is only a selection. Pearson’s work has not only attracted attention from regular historians of science but from students of the sociology of scientific knowledge (see above) and the philosophy of science.
Pearson’s biology is put in various historical contexts by
P. J. Bowler (1989) The Mendelian Revolution: The Emergence of Hereditarian Concepts in Modern Science and Society, London: Athlone Press.
W. B. Provine (1971) The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics, Chicago: University Press.
K.-M. Kim (1994) Explaining Scientific Consensus: the Case of Mendelian Genetics, New York: Guilford Press
J. Gayon (1998) Darwinism’s Struggle for Survival: Heredity and the Hypothesis of Natural Selection, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
P. R. Sloan (2005/8) Evolution in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Bowler is very brief. The other works have much more to say.
For a recent detailed account of Pearson’s efforts see
The controversy with the Mendelian, William Bateson, is examined more specifically in
P. Froggatt & N. C. Nevin (1971) The “Law of Ancestral Heredity” and the Mendelian-Ancestrian Controversy in England 1889-1906, Journal of Medical Genetics, 8, 1-36.
D. A. MacKenzie & B. Barnes (1979) Scientific Judgement: the Biometry-Mendelism Controversy, pp. 191-210 of Natural Order: Historical Studies of Scientific Culture, edited by B. Barnes and S. Shapin, Beverly-Hills: Sage.
N. Roll-Hansen (1983): The Death of Spontaneous Generation and the Birth of the Gene: Two Case Studies of Relativism. Social Studies of Science, 13, 481-519.
A. Nordmann (1992) Darwinians at War: Bateson’s Place in Histories of Darwinism, Synthese, 91, 53-72.
A. R. Rushton (2000) Nettleship, Pearson and Bateson: The Biometric-Mendelian Debate in a Medical Context, Journal of the History of Medicine, 55, 134-157.
M. E. Magnello (2004) “The Reception of Mendelism by the Biometricians and the Early Mendelians (1899-1909, in M. Keynes, A. W. F. Edwards, R. Peel (eds.) (2004) A Century of Mendelism in Human Genetics, London: Taylor & Francis.
Olby also reviews the secondary literature. For Bateson see Donald Forsdyke’s website. A major biography of Bateson has recently appeared
Alan G. Cock & Donald R. Forsdyke “Treasure Your Exceptions”: The Science and Life of William Bateson, Springer (June 2008) Amazon
An important point of contention between Pearson and Fisher (see also the references under Statistics above) is treated by
B. Norton and E. S. Pearson (1976) A Note on the Background to and Refereeing of R. A. Fisher’s 1918 Paper ‘The Correlation between Relatives on the Supposition of Mendelian inheritance’, Notes & Records of the Royal Society of London, 31, 151-62. JSTOR
Fisher 1918 reconciled Mendelism and Biometry. Morrison tries to identify the assumptions behind Fisher’s reconciliation and Pearson’s rejection of reconciliation.
M. Morrison (2002) Modelling Populations: Pearson and Fisher on Mendelism and Biometry, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 53, 39-698. JSTOR
Pearson’s criticism of some Mendelian work on the inheritance of mental defect is treated by
H. G. Spencer and D. B. Paul (1998) The Failure of a Scientific Critic: David Heron, Karl Pearson and Mendelian Eugenics, British Journal of the History of Science, 31, 441-452.
Pearson is perhaps best known to the general reader as an advocate of eugenics. For an introduction and guide to this literature see MacKenzie and
G. R. Searle (1976) Eugenics and Politics in Britain 1900-1914. Leyden: Noordhoff.
D. J. Kevles (1985) In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Use of Human Heredity, New York: Knopf.
P. M. H. Mazumdar (1992) Eugenics, Human Genetics and Human Failings. London: Routledge.
Kevles has a valuable bibliographical essay.
There are 2 short extracts from Pearson’s writings on eugenics in
Lucy Bland & Laura Doan (eds) (1998) Sexology Uncensored: The Documents of Sexual Science, Chicago: Chicago University Press. Amazon.
Carolyn Burdett “From the New Werther to Numbers and Arguments: Karl Pearson’s Eugenics” in Roger Luckhurst & Josephine McDonagh (eds.) (2002) Transactions and Encounters: Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century, Manchester: Manchester University Press. Amazon
L. Bland (1995) Banishing the Beast: English Feminism and Sexual Morality 1885-1914, London: Penguin.
The Club is also discussed in
Judith R. Walkowitz, (1986) Science, Feminism and Romance: The Men and Women's Club, 1885-1889, History Workshop, no. 21 (Spring), 37-59.
Judith R. Walkowitz (1992) City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London, London: Virago. (review by Lesley A. Hall)
Elaine Showalter (1990) Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siecle, New York: Viking.
Olive Schreiner was the Club’s best-known woman member. There are accounts of her relationship with Pearson in
Ruth First & Ann Scott (1980) Olive Schreiner, London: Deutsch.
Carolyn Burdett (2001) Olive Schreiner and the Progress of Feminism: Evolution, Gender, Empire, Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Christine Pullen (2010) The Woman Who Dared: A Biography of Amy Levy, Kingston University Press.
The careers of two of KP’s female colleagues are described by
R. Love (1979) Alice in Eugenics Land: Feminism and Eugenics in the Scientific Careers of Alice Lee and Ethel Elderton, Annals of Science, 36, 145-158.
Semmel pioneered the study of Pearson’s social ideology in its historical context
B. Semmel (1960) Imperialism and Social Reform: English Social-Imperial Thought 1895-1914, London: George Allen & Unwin.
Pearson also appears in Jones’s more sociologically oriented study
Greta Jones (1980) Social Darwinism and English Thought: the Interaction between Biological and Social Theory, Brighton, Sussex, Harvester Press.
In statistics and biology there has long been a sense that Pearson’s work had been absorbed and that nothing new can be learnt from it. Yet occasionally one of his ideas is picked up and developed as e.g. the correlation curve
S. Blyth (1994) Karl Pearson and the Correlation Curve, International Statistical Review, 62, 393-403.
but more often they are re-invigorated without reference to the original as in
L. P. Hansen (1982) Large Sample Properties of Generalized Methods of Moments Estimators, Econometrica, 50, 1029-1054. JSTOR
The secondary works listed above have further references and the Science, Social Science and Art & Humanities citation indexes will generate more. The Current Index to Statistics, Isis and Historia Mathematica index papers in statistics, history of science and the history of mathematics.
For a sketch of the history of probability and statistics and notes on some of the key people see my
For the history of statistics see Peter Lee’s
For the history of mathematics see David Wilkins’s
MedHist the Wellcome Library’s gateway to internet resources for the history of medicine has sections on genetics and eugenics.