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Heritage: The Hampstead years of Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher - most significant British statistician of the 20th century

PUBLISHED: 09:00 15 June 2013

Portrait of the English statistician and geneticist, Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher (1890- 1962). Picture: Science Photo Library

Portrait of the English statistician and geneticist, Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher (1890- 1962). Picture: Science Photo Library

SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

In the latest of our series commemorating the life and work of people honoured with blue plaques, Adam Sonin explores the early years and burgeoning career of Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher, the most significant British statistician of the 20th century.

The Fisher family at the unveiling of the blue plaque to Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher at Inverforth House in 2002. Picture: Nigel Sutton The Fisher family at the unveiling of the blue plaque to Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher at Inverforth House in 2002. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher was far ahead of his contemporaries, so far ahead that, when his epoch-making book, Statistical Methods for Research Workers, was published in 1925, it did not receive one favourable review.

By the time of his death in 1962, the work was in its 14th edition, with reprints, and had been translated into six languages.

One of Fisher’s 1920s academic papers was turned down by the assessors of a highly regarded society. Two years later it was published elsewhere and proved to be one of the fundamental works of evolutionary biology.

He was a lifelong devotee of pipe-smoking, incredibly untidy and in his professional life coined the terms and phrases ‘variance’ and ‘test of significance’.

He was friendly with the biologist Sir Julian Huxley, brother of novelist Aldous. In retirement, he became an advocate for the tobacco industry.

A small messy man with red hair, a beard and glasses boasting near inch-thick lenses, Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher (1890–1962), statistician and geneticist, was born on February 17 at his parents’ home in East Finchley.

He was the last of seven surviving children born to George Fisher, a dealer in fine arts, and his wife, Katie, daughter of Samuel Heath, a London solicitor.

There were four boys and three girls in total and, after the birth of Geoffrey in 1876 and Evelyn in 1877, they named their third child, who was born the following year, Alan. He died young and Katie, being superstitious, decided that all their children from that time on would have a “y” in their name. Ronald Aylmer Fisher was the second born of twins, but the older twin was still-born.

His father was partner in Robinson and Fisher of King Street, St James, a firm of auctioneers whose reputation at the time rivalled Sotheby’s and Christie’s. As a result of his commercial success and increased wealth, he moved the family to a stunning Hampstead residence.

In 1896 George Fisher moved from his home in Finchley to Heath House, a mansion he had built near the top of Hampstead hill, set in five acres of parkland and gardens. There were ponies for the children and a goat-chaise they drove round the grounds and a carriage and pair for the parents.

As a young boy Fisher was precocious at mathematics and after a spell at Stanmore Park School attended Harrow School. An old biology master at Harrow, Arthur Vassal, later commented: “For sheer brilliance I could divide all those whom I have taught into two groups: one contained a single outstanding boy, R. A. Fisher; the other, all the rest.”

Fisher’s eyesight was always terrible. As a pupil he often worked ‘off-paper’ and in his head, using his mind alone to gauge and solve whatever problem he faced. As a result, all his life, he was able to “leap over intermediate stages in calculation”. His peers would gape, murmuring: “He has evidently solved the problem, correctly, but I don’t see how he has done it!”

In 1904, at the age of 14, Fisher lost his mother to acute peritonitis and within 18 months his father lost ‘the lot’.

The grand Inverforth House [Heath House], overlooking Hampstead Heath, was promptly sold to the soap magnate William Lever (1851–1925) and the Fisher family was forced to move to unfashionable Streatham. The house’s gate-piers sport two English Heritage plaques, both erected in 2002. One to Fisher and one to Lever.

Fisher relied on scholarships to keep him at Harrow and, despite his family situation, excelled. In 1906 he won the Neeld Medal in a mathematical essay competition which was open to the whole school.

Later he was awarded an £80 scholarship from Caius and Gonville College, Cambridge, which offered him the opportunity to really blossom.

At university he studied mathematics and astronomy but was also interested in biology. In his second year as an undergraduate he began consulting senior members of the university about the possibility of forming a Cambridge University Eugenics Society, which was created in 1911.

In 1912, Major Leonard Darwin, Charles Darwin’s fourth son and president of the London-based Eugenics Education Society, spoke to the Cambridge group.

Fisher was to form a strong friendship with Darwin, who encouraged Fisher’s early scientific career both financially and as a mentor.

Later that year Fisher completed his degree with distinction, and won a postgraduate scholarship in physics for a further year at Cambridge. A tutor said: “If he had stuck to the ropes he would have made a first class mathematician, but he would not.”

The ecologist, geneticist and winner of the Royal Society’s Darwin Medal, Edmund B. Ford (1901–1988), who Fisher dubbed Henry after the car manufacturer, reflected on their first meeting.

“Our meeting, which took place in 1923, was typical of Fisher,” he said. “Like so many good things in my life, it was due to Julian Huxley. Though I was only an undergraduate at Oxford at the time, Huxley and I were researching genetic physiology together in the earliest days of that subject. Meeting Fisher somewhere, Huxley mentioned that he knew an undergraduate [myself] who had interesting ideas on genetics and evolution.

“Fisher was a Fellow of Caius; he was only 33 but was already becoming famous. Other people in his position might possibly have asked briefly about me; a few might even have invited me to go to see them. Fisher’s reaction was different.

“The Fellow of Caius took a train to Oxford to call on the undergraduate!

“Characteristically, it did not occur to him to let me know that he was coming, so I was out when he arrived and he settled down in my rooms in college to wait for me.

“On opening the door of the sitting room on my return, I was surprised to find it full of smoke from pipe tobacco, a thing which disgusts me, and to see a stranger there, a smallish man with red hair, a rather fierce, pointed red beard, and a very white face.

“The cast of his countenance slightly resembled that of King George V. As he got up and came toward me, I noticed his eyes, hard and glittering like a snake’s and seen through spectacles with lenses so thick that they resembled transparent pebbles.

“He took my hand in a firm, bony grip and, bending slightly forward, he gave me a momentary but most searching inspection. Then his face relaxed into a charming smile, the beginning of nearly 40 years of friendship.”

Ford fondly remembered: “He would take part in anything that was going on. I was present when we all had rounds of pistol shooting after a most excellent picnic lunch party.

“Fisher with poor sight, his finger on the trigger, waved the gun uncertainly while his friends dived for cover.”

When war broke out in 1914, Fisher tried to enlist in the army, having already trained in the Officers’ Training Corps while at Cambridge.

His medical test showed him A1 on all aspects except his eyesight, which was rated C5. He was rejected and perhaps best left unarmed.

In 1917, Fisher married the daughter of a preacher and the couple had two boys and seven girls.

Knighted in 1952, Fisher is remembered as the most significant British statistician of the 20th century.

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