ASQ - Statistics Division

Statistical Pioneers

Gertrude Cox studied at Perry High School in Perry, Iowa, graduating in 1918. At this time she decided to become a deaconess in the Methodist Church and worked towards that end. However, in 1925, she decided to continue her education at Iowa State College in Ames where she studied mathematics and statistics and was awarded a B.S. in 1929 and a Master's degree in statistics in 1931.

From 1931 to 1933 Cox undertook graduate studies in statistics at the University of California at Berkeley, then returned to Iowa State College as assistant in the Statistical Laboratory. Here she worked on the design of experiments. In 1939 she was appointed assistant professor of statistics at Iowa State.

In 1940 Cox was appointed professor of statistics at North Carolina State University at Raleigh. There she headed the new department of Experimental Statistics.

In 1945 she became director of the Institute of Statistics of the Consolidated University of North Carolina, and the Statistics Research Division of the North Carolina State College which was run by Cochran. In the same year of 1945 Cox became the editor of Biometrics Bulletin and of Biometrics and she held this editorship for 10 years. In 1947 she was a founder member of the Biometrics Society.

In 1950 she published a joint work with Cochran Experimental Design which quickly became a classic text.

In 1960 she took up her final post as Director of Statistics at the Research Triangle Institute in Durham, North Carolina. She held this post until she retired in 1964.

Cox received many honours. In 1949 she became the first woman elected into the International Statistical Institute. In 1956 she was elected President of the American Statistical Association while in 1975 she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.


Ronald Fisher received a B.A. in astronomy from Cambridge in 1912. There he studied the theory of errors under Stratton using Airy's manual on the Theory of Errors . It was Fisher's interest in the theory of errors in astronomical observations that eventually led him to investigate statistical problems.

Fisher gave up being a mathematics teacher in 1919 to work at the Rothamsted Agricultural Experiment Station where he worked as a biologist and made many contributions to both statistics and genetics. He had a long dispute with Pearson and he turned down a post under him, choosing to go to Rothamsted instead. There he studied the design of experiments by introducing the concept of randomisation and the analysis of variance, procedures now used throughout the world.

In 1921 he introduced the concept of likelihood. The likelihood of a parameter is proportional to the probability of the data and it gives a function which usually has a single maximum value, which he called the maximum likelihood.

In 1922 he gave a new definition of statistics. Its purpose was the reduction of data and he identified three fundamental problems. These are (i) specification of the kind of population that the data came from (ii) estimation and (iii) distribution.

The contributions Fisher made included the development of methods suitable for small samples, like those of Gosset, the discovery of the precise distributions of many sample statistics and the invention of analysis of variance. He introduced the term maximum likelihood and studied hypothesis testing.

Fisher is considered one of the founders of modern statistics because of his many important contributions.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1929, was awarded the Royal Medal of the Society in 1938 and he was awarded the Darwin Medal of the Society in 1948: in recognition of his distinguished contributions to the theory of natural selection, the concept of its gene complex and the evolution of dominance.

Then, in 1955, he was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society: in recognition of his numerous and distinguished contributions to developing the theory and application of statistics for making quantitative a vast field of biology.


Karl Pearson applied statistics to biological problems of heredity and evolution.

Pearson graduated from Cambridge University in 1879, then spent most of his career at University College, London. He was the first Galton professor of eugenics, holding the chair from 1911 to 1933.
His book The Grammar of Science (1892), was remarkable in that it anticipated some of the ideas of relativity theory. It was wide ranging and attempted to extend the influence of science into all aspects. Pearson then became interested in developing mathematical methods for studying the processes of heredity and evolution.

He applied statistics to biological problems of heredity and evolution. From 1893-1912 he wrote 18 papers entitled Mathematical Contribution to the Theory of Evolution which contain his most valuable work. These papers contain contributions to regression analysis, the correlation coefficient and includes the chi-square test of statistical significance (1900). His chi-square test was produced in an attempt to remove the normal distribution from its central position.

Pearson coined the term 'standard deviation' in 1893. His work was influenced by the work of Edgeworth and in turn influenced the work of Yule.

Pearson had a long dispute with Fisher. Pearson used large sample which he measured and tried to deduce correlations. Fisher, on the other hand, followed Gosset in trying to use small samples and, rather than deduce correlations, to find causes. The dispute was bad enough to have Fisher turn down the post of Chief Statistician at the Galton Laboratory in 1919 since it would have meant working under Pearson.

He was a co-founder, with Weldon and Galton, of the statistical journal Biometrika.

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