Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher, FRS (February 17, 1890 – July 29, 1962) was an extraordinarily talented evolutionary biologist, geneticist and statistician. He has been described by Richard Dawkins as "The greatest of Darwin’s successors," and the historian of statistics Anders Hald said "Fisher was a genius who almost single-handedly created the foundations for modern statistical science."
Fisher was born in East Finchley, London and obtained a B.A. degree in mathematics, not astronomy as is often said, from Cambridge University in 1912. In 1911 he was involved in the formation of the Cambridge University Eugenics Society. His studies of errors in astronomical calculations, together with his interests in genetics and natural selection, led to involvement in statistics.
From 1919 he worked at Rothamsted Experimental Station making contributions in statistics and genetics. In 1933 he became a professor of eugenics at University College London moving in 1943 to the Balfour chair of genetics at Cambridge.
He received various awards for his work and was made a Knight Bachelor by Queen Elizabeth II in 1952. He had a long running feud with Karl Pearson (he declined a post at the University of London), and later with Pearson's son E.S. Pearson. After retiring from Cambridge he spent some time as a research fellow at the CSIRO in Adelaide, Australia where he died in 1962.
Fisher's important contributions to both genetics and statistics are emphasized by the remark of L.J. Savage,
“I occasionally meet geneticists who ask me whether it is true that the great geneticist R.A. Fisher was also an important statistician” (Annals of Statistics, 1976).
Contributions to statistics
Fisher invented the techniques of maximum likelihood and analysis of variance, was a pioneer in the design of experiments, and originated the concepts of sufficiency, ancillarity, and Fisher information, making him a major figure in 20th century statistics. His article "On a distribution yielding the error functions of several well known statistics" presented Karl Pearson's chi-squared and Student's t in the same framework as the normal distribution and his own analysis of variance distribution z. Fisher's book Statistical methods for research workers showed how to use these distributions. See also Fisher's linear discriminator.
Contributions to biology
Much of Fisher's contributions to statistics were based on biological data from Rothamsted.
His work on the theory of population genetics also made him one of the three great figures of that field, together with Sewall Wright and J. B. S. Haldane, and as such was one of the founders of the neo-Darwinian modern evolutionary synthesis.
His 1918 paper The Correlation Between Relatives on the Supposition of Mendelian Inheritance was the start of the modern evolutionary synthesis — a synthesis which he would later contribute much to in his 1930 book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection.
Fisher introduced the concept of Fisher information in 1925, many years before Shannon's notion of entropy. Fisher information has been the subject of renewed interest in the last few years, both due to the growth of Bayesian inference in AI, and due to B. Roy Frieden's book Physics from Fisher Information, which attempts to derive the laws of physics from a Fisherian starting point.
A selection from Fisher's 395 articles
(The following are all available on the University of Adelaide website)
- "Frequency distribution of the values of the correlation coefficient in samples from an indefinitely large population." Biometrika, 10: 507-521. (1915)
- "The correlation between relatives on the supposition of Mendelian inheritance" Trans. Roy. Soc. Edinb., 52: 399-433. (1918). It was in this paper that the word variance was first introduced into probability theory and statistics.
- "On the mathematical foundations of theoretical statistics" Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, A, 222: 309-368. (1922)
- "On the dominance ratio. Proc. Roy. Soc. Edinb., 42: 321-341. (1922)
- "On a distribution yielding the error functions of several well known statistics" Proc. Int. Cong. Math., Toronto, 2: 805-813. (1924)
- "Theory of statistical estimation" Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 22: 700-725 (1925)
- "Applications of Student's distribution" Metron, 5: 90-104 (1925)
- "The arrangement of field experiments" J. Min. Agric. G. Br., 33: 503-513. (1926)
- "The general sampling distribution of the multiple correlation coefficient" Proceedings of Royal Society, A, 121: 654-673 (1928)
- "Two new properties of mathematical likelihood" Proceedings of Royal Society, A, 144: 285-307 (1934)
Books by Fisher
(Full publication details are available on the University of Adelaide website)
Biographies of Fisher