Department History

The Statistical Science Department at University College has a long and distinguished history. It was founded in 1911 by Karl Pearson, and was the first university statistics department in the world. Since then, many famous names in statistics have been associated with the department. This page gives a brief overview of the history of the department, and its links with the development of statistics as a serious scientific discipline. Additionally, the department has some memorabilia dating back to the time of Pearson (senior) and before; in due course, pictures of some of these items will be available to view online.

Key dates in the early history of the department

The early history of the Statistical Science Department is inextricably linked with the development of modern statistical methods at the beginning of the 20th century. Some notable dates are as follows:

  • 1884: Karl Pearson (KP) appointed to a chair in Applied Mathematics at UCL.
  • 1890 onwards: KP develops statistical methods for studying "natural inheritance" (e.g. correlation, regression and the Pearson family of frequency curves).
  • 1894: First lectures in statistics at UCL.
  • 1900: The "birth of chi-squared". KP derived the chi-squared distribution for the purpose of testing for association in a contingency table. The distribution itself was known to Helmert in 1876: however, KP is generally credited with laying the foundations for its widespread use in applied statistics today.
  • 1901: Foundation of the journal Biometrika by KP, Francis Galton and W.F.R. Weldon.
  • 1903: KP sets up a Biometric Laboratory at UCL.
  • 1906-7: W.S. Gosset (alias "Student") comes to UCL to study with KP.
  • 1907: KP takes on Francis Galton's Eugenics Laboratory.
  • 1911: The Biometric and Eugenics laboratories merge to form the Department of Applied Statistics - this is the first university statistics department in the world.
  • 1919: The department of Applied Statistics moves to new premises in the Bartlett Building (subsequently renamed the Pearson Building). This is to be the department's home for the remainder of the century.
  • 1921: Egon S. Pearson (EP), son of KP, appointed as Assistant Lecturer in the department.
  • 1933: KP retires. The department splits into the Department of Eugenics (headed by R.A. Fisher) and the Department of Statistics (headed by EP).
  • 1934-38: Jerzy Neyman works with EP in the department to lay the foundations for what is now regarded as "classical" statistical inference.
  • 1939-45: The department is evacuated to Aberystwyth as a result of the Second World War. Fisher leaves.

The latest chapter in the history of the department began in January 2000, when we moved out of the Pearson Building (home to the department since 1919) into our current premises at 1-19 Torrington Place.

Centenary Celebrations

The Department of Statistical Science centenary celebrations took place on Tuesday 18 January 2011.

The schedule that day was:

  • Introduction, Professor Valerie Isham, Head of UCL-Statistical Science, President of the Royal Statistical Society
  • Pearson Lecture, Professor Stephen Stigler (University of Chicago) "Karl Pearson and the Rule of Three"
  • Discussion and vote of thanks, Dr. Eileen Magnello (UCL)
  • Professor Anthony O'Hagan (University of Sheffield) "O computer, do we love you not wisely but too well?"
  • Professor Denise Lievesley (King's College London) "Technology in the capture and liberation of official data"
  • Professor David Spiegelhalter (University of Cambridge & MRC) "Graphical models and Bayesian analysis"

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