UCL Division of Biosciences


Ronald A Fisher

Ronald Aylmer Fisher (1890-1962)

  • 17 February 1890 -  Born in East Finchley, London
  • 1912 - Graduated, Caius College, Cambridge
  • 1919-1933 - Rothamsted Agricultural Station
  • 1929 - Fellow of the Royal Society
  • 1933-1943 - Galton Professor of Eugenics and head of the Galton Laboratory, UCL
  • 1943 - Arthur Balfour Professor of Genetics and head of Department of Genetics, Cambridge
  • 1957 - Retired
  • 29 July 1962 - Died in Adelaide, Australia
Ronal Aylmer Fisher

Ronald Aylmer Fisher was born in East Finchley, London on 17 February 1890. He studied mathematics in Cambridge, graduating in 1912 with a first. His interests in both statistics and evolution developed during this time. He envisaged a resolution to the controversy between the Biometricians (Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, and W.F.R. Weldon in London) and the Mendelians (William Bateson in Cambridge), which came to dominate evolutionary thinking after the rediscovery of Mendel’s work on heredity in 1900. Fisher published his first paper (1912) while still an undergraduate student, which introduced the method of maximum likelihood, although the term “likelihood” was not coined by him until later.

During the seven years after graduation Fisher had several jobs, including teaching in schools. His poor eyesight prevented him from service in WWI.  His 1915 paper Frequency distribution of the values of the correlation coefficient in samples from an indefinitely large population established the distribution of the correlation coefficient, emphasizing the importance of small samples.  His 1918 paper The Correlation between relatives on the supposition of Mendelian inheritance reconciled Pearson’s biometric results with Mendelian particulate heredity.

In 1919 Fisher took up a job in Rothamsted Experimental Station. There he continued his genetic research to integrate Mendelian heredity with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, culminating in Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930).  In statistics, Fisher laid the foundation of statistical inference, invented experimental design, randomization, ANOVA, etc. The first edition of Statistical Methods for Research Workers appeared in 1925. Many editions of this classic followed, including a posthumous 14th edition in 1970.
In 1933 Fisher succeeded Karl Pearson as Galton Professor of Eugenics and head of the Galton Laboratory at UCL.

Pearson’s statistical laboratory became Department of Applied Statistics, headed by Karl Pearson’s son, Egon S. Pearson. The animosity between Fisher and Jerzy Neyman created friction between the two departments, which were in the same building. Design of Experiments appeared in 1935, followed by many editions and translations. In 1943 Fisher returned to Cambridge as Arthur Balfour Professor of Genetics and the head of Department of Genetics. His Statistical Methods and Scientific Inference appeared in 1956. He retired officially from Cambridge in 1957 but stayed there until 1959.  He spent his last three years in Adelaide and died in 1962. Fisher’s contributions to statistics and to evolution/genetics are so immense and ground-breaking that it is difficult for scientists in one field to imagine he did anything substantial in the other.

In statistics, most of what is commonly taught in a standard statistics or biostatistics course is due to Fisher, including significance test, analysis of variance, t distribution, F distribution, design of experiments (randomization, Latin squares), Fisher information, estimation theory, maximum likelihood, and so on. Hald (1998) described Fisher as “a genius who almost single-handedly created the foundations for modern statistical science”. In genetics, Fisher is recognized as one of the three founders of theoretical population genetics, together with J.B.S. Haldane (also in UCL) and Sewall Wright. By about 1930, these three completed the Great Synthesis or Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. Richard Dawkins (1995) wrote “Sir Ronald Fisher … could be regarded as Darwin’s greatest twentieth-century successor.”

Although written nearly a century ago, Fisher’s papers in evolutionary genetics are read today when population geneticists develop statistical models and methods to make inference using the ever-growing genomic sequence data. This may be unique in biology where advances are often made in a breakneck pace, and indicates the fundamental nature of Fisher’s contributions.

Fisher, eugenics and race

Fisher is known for his eugenic views. While still an undergraduate, he joined the Eugenics Society (UK) at University of Cambridge. During World War I, Fisher wrote book reviews for the journal 'Eugenic Review' and undertook its reviewing work. He was a steward at the 'First International Eugenics Conference' in 1912. Throughout his lifetime, he was a prominent supporter of eugenics.

Fisher held views that would be judged as racist by today’s standards. He objected to UNESCO's statement on The Race Question in 1950, and the revised statement of 1951 was accompanied by Fisher’s dissenting commentary. Fisher believed that human groups differ profoundly “in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development” and that the “practical international problem is that of learning to share the resources of this planet amicably with persons of materially different nature”.

Sources, and further information

Box, J.F. (1978) R. A. Fisher: The Life of a Scientist, New York: Wiley, New York

Edwards, A. W. 1990. R. A. Fisher. Twice professor of genetics: London and Cambridge or "a fairly well-known geneticist". Biometrics 46:897-904.

Hald , A. 1998. A History of Mathematical Statistics from 1750 to 1930. Wiley, New York.

Provine W. 1971. The Origin of Theoretical Population Genetics. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

A guide to R.A. Fisher by John Aldrich: http://www.economics.soton.ac.uk/staff/aldrich/fisherguide/rafframe.htm

RA Fisher Digital Archive at University of Adelaide: https://digital.library.adelaide.edu.au/dspace/handle/2440/3860