Fisher, Sir Ronald Aylmer, 1890-1962 (Knight, statistician and geneticist)
- Existence: 1890 - 1962
Fisher, Sir Ronald Aylmer (1890–1962), statistician and geneticist. A scholarship student of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he studied mathematics. It was here that an interest in eugenics was kindled, and he helped found the Cambridge University Eugenic Society in 1911. Fisher completed his degree as a wrangler with distinction, and won a postgraduate scholarship in physics for a further year at Cambridge.
After leaving Cambridge, Fisher worked as a statistician for the London-based Mercantile and General Investment Company before volunteering for army duty when the First World War broke out.
Fisher's first major contribution to genetics appeared in 1918. Fisher's paper showed that the inheritance of continuous traits (such as height) studied by biometricians could be fully explained by a Mendelian model of several genes acting simultaneously. The paper was also important for statistics: it brought the word ‘variance’ into statistics and laid the foundations of what later became possibly the most widely used statistical test, the analysis of variance. Fisher's paper came to be regarded as an essential part of the foundation of the science of population genetics, the study of the genetic constitution of populations of plants and animals, including humans. The synthesis of Darwinian evolution and Mendelian population genetic theory gave rise to neo-Darwinism, the prevailing view of evolution from the 1930s onwards. For the next twenty years Fisher, together with J. B. S. Haldane and the American Sewall Wright, established the mathematical basis of population genetics.
In 1919 Fisher turned down a job under Pearson at University College, London, instead taking up what was to have been a temporary appointment as statistician at the Rothamsted Experimental Station in Harpenden, Hertfordshire. In the event, Fisher spent fourteen years at Rothamsted and his work there established him as arguably the most important statistician of the twentieth century. During his tenure he placed much of modern statistics on a firm theoretical footing and invented numerous now ubiquitous statistical tests: he ended the confusion about the number of degrees of freedom associated with Pearson's chi-square test, described the analysis of variance test and the concept of maximum likelihood estimation, and founded the principles of experimental design. Every modern statistician uses Fisher's work, most every day of their careers. In recognition of his statistical advances Fisher was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1929.
Fisher's genetical work culminated in his 1930 book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, which he dedicated to Leonard Darwin. Much of the book was motivated by Fisher's eugenic concerns about the decline of civilization; the last five chapters were on human populations. In 1936 he developed an important multivariate statistical tool, the discriminant function.
Fisher was appointed Arthur Balfour professor of genetics at Cambridge in 1943. He had now succeeded both referees who had rejected his 1918 genetics paper for the Royal Society. He continued his blood group, mouse, and Lythrum work, but the genetics department was not well supported. Resigning the Galton chair also meant losing editorship of the Annals of Eugenics and, together with the cytogeneticist C. D. Darlington, he founded Heredity, which they jointly edited. The first issue appeared in 1947 and it quickly became the leading British genetics journal.
Fisher retired in 1957 and became an advocate for the tobacco industry. A pipe smoker since his student days, he claimed that the link between smoking and lung cancer was not causal. Fisher died unexpectedly on 29 July 1962.