Ronald Fisher’s Inventions, Early Life, Education and History
Ronald Fisher was a British polymath who made significant contributions to the fields of statistics, genetics, and evolutionary biology. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest statisticians and geneticists of the 20th century, and one of the most influential figures in the history of science. He pioneered the use of statistical methods to design and analyze scientific experiments, and he developed many concepts and techniques that are still widely used today. He also integrated Mendelian genetics with Darwinian natural selection, and helped to establish the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory.
Early Life and Education
Ronald Aylmer Fisher was born on February 17, 1890 in London, England. He was the second of seven children of George Fisher, a successful auctioneer, and Katie Heath, a music teacher. Fisher showed an early interest in mathematics and natural history, and he excelled at school. He attended Harrow School, where he won several prizes and scholarships. In 1909, he was awarded a scholarship to study mathematics at the University of Cambridge, from which he graduated in 1912 with a B.A. in astronomy. He remained at Cambridge for another year to study physics and the theory of errors.
Inventions and Discoveries
Fisher began his scientific career as a statistician and a geneticist. He applied his mathematical skills to analyze data from various fields, such as agriculture, medicine, psychology, and biology. He invented many statistical methods and concepts, such as:
- Analysis of variance (ANOVA), a technique to compare the means of different groups of data
- F-distribution and F-test, a probability distribution and a hypothesis test based on ANOVA
- Fisher’s exact test, a test for independence in contingency tables
- Fisher’s principle, an explanation for the equal sex ratio in most species
- Fisher’s geometric model, a model of adaptation and fitness landscapes
- Fisher information, a measure of the amount of information that an observable random variable carries about an unknown parameter
- Fisher’s method, a method to combine independent p-values
- Fisherian runaway, a theory of sexual selection and mate choice
- Fisher’s fundamental theorem of natural selection, a theorem relating the rate of increase in fitness to the genetic variance
- Fisher’s z-distribution and Fisher transformation, a probability distribution and a transformation related to the correlation coefficient
- Fisher’s noncentral hypergeometric distribution, a generalization of the hypergeometric distribution
- Fisher–Tippett distribution and Fisher–Tippett–Gnedenko theorem, a family of extreme value distributions and a theorem about their limit behavior
- Fisher–Yates shuffle, an algorithm for generating random permutations
- Fisher–Race blood group system, a classification of human blood groups based on three genes
- Behrens–Fisher problem, a problem of comparing the means of two populations with different variances
- Cornish–Fisher expansion, an expansion to approximate quantiles of a probability distribution
- von Mises–Fisher distribution, a distribution on the unit sphere
Fisher also made important contributions to genetics and evolutionary biology. He reconciled Mendelian genetics with Darwinian natural selection, and showed how genetic variation and inheritance can explain adaptation and evolution. He also worked on topics such as:
- Gene linkage and recombination
- Dominance and epistasis
- Mutation and selection balance
- Genetic drift and effective population size
- Inbreeding and outbreeding depression
- Mimicry and warning coloration
- Sex determination and sex chromosomes
- Sex ratios and sex allocation
- Reproductive value and age structure
- Speciation and phylogenetics
Career and Legacy
Fisher worked at various institutions throughout his life. From 1914 to 1919, he taught mathematics and physics at several schools while continuing his research in statistics and genetics. In 1919, he joined the Rothamsted Experimental Station as a statistician, where he stayed for 14 years. There he analyzed data from crop experiments dating back to the 1840s, and developed his analysis of variance. He also conducted plant-breeding experiments and studied gene dominance and fitness.
In 1933, he became the Galton Professor of Eugenics at University College London. There he founded the Department of Genetics (later renamed Department of Biometry) and continued his work on statistics and genetics. He also became involved in controversies over eugenics, race, intelligence, smoking, cancer, and religion.
In 1943, he moved to Cambridge as the Balfour Professor of Genetics. There he supervised many students who later became prominent geneticists (such as Mary Lyon , C.R. Rao , Walter Bodmer , D.J. Finney , Ebenezer Laing , etc.). He also worked on topics such as human evolution, animal behavior, and molecular genetics.
In 1957, he retired from Cambridge and emigrated to Australia. He worked as a research fellow at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the University of Adelaide until his death. He died on July 29, 1962 in Adelaide, Australia, from complications of colon surgery.
Fisher’s legacy is immense and lasting. He is widely recognized as one of the founders of modern statistics, genetics, and evolutionary biology. He received many honors and awards for his work, such as the Royal Medal (1938), the Guy Medal (1946), the Copley Medal (1955), and the Darwin Medal (1958). He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (1929) and a Knight Bachelor (1952). He has been described as “a genius who almost single-handedly created the foundations for modern statistical science” ¹, “the single most important figure in 20th century statistics” ², “the greatest of Darwin’s successors” ³, and “the greatest biologist since Darwin” ⁴. His ideas and methods have influenced many fields of science, such as agriculture, medicine, psychology, ecology, sociology, anthropology, economics, and computer science. His name is attached to many concepts, terms, tests, distributions, models, theorems, and algorithms in statistics and genetics. His books, such as Statistical Methods for Research Workers (1925), The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930), The Design of Experiments (1935), and Statistical Tables for Biological, Agricultural and Medical Research (1938), are classics in their fields. His papers, such as “The Correlation Between Relatives on the Supposition of Mendelian Inheritance” (1918), “On the Mathematical Foundations of Theoretical Statistics” (1922), “The Arrangement of Field Experiments” (1926), “The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. A Complete Variorum Edition” (1999), and “The Causes of Human Variability” (1939), are landmarks in the history of science. His life and work have been the subject of many biographies, memoirs, articles, books, documentaries, and films.