Statistical Science


Our Early History

The Early History of the Department of Statistics

The department that now bears the name of Statistical Science was founded in 1911 by Karl Pearson as the Department of Applied Statistics.  It was the first university department of Statistics in the world.  Pearson and his collaborators and successors laid the foundations of 20th century statistics, with ideas like correlation, regression, and p-values that are common currency today.  These are things to be proud of.  However there is a darker side to this history, and this too deserves to be known about.

The two key figures in this story are Francis Galton and Karl Pearson. 

Photograph of Francis Galton

Francis Galton (1822-1911) was a half cousin of Charles Darwin and a Victorian gentleman scientist.  He never held an academic post, but made important contributions to statistics, sociology, psychology and meteorology amongst other sciences.  He invented weather maps and questionnaires and was influential in the development of the forensic use of fingerprints.  His big idea though, and one which drove some of the other interests, was eugenics, a term he coined in 1883.  There are many definitions of eugenics, but here is one that Galton himself used at the start of a paper delivered to the Sociological Society in London in 1904.

"EUGENICS is the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage."

The background to this is the publication by Darwin of On The Origin of the Species in 1859.  This included a discussion of how animal breeders had improved species by selective breeding, and set Galton and others thinking about the possibility of improving the human stock by similar means.  Galton's ideas included "positive eugenics" – encouraging the right people to breed - and "negative eugenics" – discouraging the wrong people from breeding.

These ideas, and especially those of negative eugenics were to lead to policies such as the compulsory sterilisation in many countries of people with disabilities, the "feeble minded", and other groups considered to be unsuitable breeding material.   There were many thousands of such sterilisations in the USA for example.  The culmination was the systematic extermination of millions in the Nazi death camps.  One might be forgiven for thinking that this should have finished these ideas once and for all, and indeed they did become unfashionable, but they did not die.  For an account of modern "scientific racism" see, for example, the book by Angela Saini referenced at the end of this article.

Drawing of Karl Pearson

Karl Pearson was born in London in 1857, studied mathematics at Cambridge, German literature in Berlin and Heidelberg, and law in London.  He was Professor of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics at UCL when he became interested in statistics as applied to biology and evolution through his collaborations with the zoologist W.F.R. Weldon.  Weldon introduced Pearson to Galton in the 1890s, and Pearson became an enthusiastic supporter of Galton's ideas on eugenics.  The three of them founded the journal Biometrika in 1901 as a vehicle for publishing the important developments in statistical theory they were making as they attempted to lay a scientific foundation for quantitative biology in general and eugenics in particular.  When Galton died in 1911 he left money in his will to the University of London to found a Chair in Eugenics, with the recommendation that Karl Pearson should be the first holder of the chair.  Pearson was duly appointed and founded the Department of Applied Statistics at UCL.  Galton's death did not diminish Pearson's enthusiasm for eugenics.  For example in 1925 he founded the Annals of Eugenics and published in it many articles whose racist content would shock most modern readers.  Pearson retired in 1933, handing over the headship of the Statistics Department to his son, Egon Pearson, who also made major contributions to statistical methodology, most notably in his work with Jerzy Neyman on hypothesis testing.  Karl Pearson died in 1936, so we will never know what he would have thought of the Nazis' final solution, but he is on record as expressing enthusiasm for Germany's "great experiment" as late as 1933.

The historical context

At the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century, in a climate where racism was ingrained, eugenic ideas had supporters from all shades of the political spectrum.  Galton and Pearson were not by any means alone in their support for eugenics, but it is fair to say that they were among its most enthusiastic proponents.  Galton in particular regarded his efforts to get eugenic ideas accepted and implemented as a quasi-religious crusade.


Commission of Enquiry

In 2019 UCL set up a commission of enquiry into the history of eugenics at UCL.  The commission, of which the author of this article was a member, reported in early 2020, making a number of recommendations.  These were all accepted by the Provost, Michael Arthur, but their implementation has been delayed by the need to focus on keeping the university running during a global pandemic.  However, one recommendation that was implemented in June of 2020 was the de-naming of buildings and spaces named after Galton and Pearson.  The Pearson Building, which was home to the Statistics Department from 1917 until 2000, is temporarily nameless.  The Statistics department, now in 1-19 Torrington Place, did have a Galton Lecture Theatre.  This is now Room 115.


Some suggestions for further reading or listening

1.  The link below will take you to a podcast by Subhadra Das that explains more about UCL's historical links to eugenics.  You can combine it with a tour of Bloomsbury, or simply listen in an armchair.

Bricks and Mortals

2.  This link will take you to the webpage of the inquiry in to the history of eugenics at UCL.

UCL Eugenics Inquiry

3.  The following book, written by a highly respected science journalist, discusses eugenics and race science both in the past and the present. 

Angela Saini, Superior, 4th Estate, London, 2019.


Tom Fearn

October 2020