Ethel Mary Elderton

Quick Info

31 December 1878
Fulham, London, England
5 May 1954
Stanborough Park, near Watford, Hertfordshire, England

Ethel Elderton was a statistician who worked for Francis Galton and Karl Pearson. Although her work was an important contribution applying statistics to social problems, much of it makes difficult reading today because it is written with a eugenic perspective.


Ethel Elderton was a daughter of William Alexander Elderton (1839-1890) and his wife  Sarah Isabella Lapidge (1852-1931). William Elderton had been born in Kendal, Westmorland, but had been brought up in Marylebone, London, where his father Charles Merrick Elderton was a practising barrister. William had studied the mathematical tripos at the University of Cambridge becoming a Wrangler, and was awarded a B.A. He was also a French scholar interested in history and English literature. He had then become a private tutor with a reputation as an outstanding teacher. He had married Sarah Lapidge on 14 October 1875 at the District Church in St Ann's, Lambeth, Surrey. Sarah Lapidge had been born in Ramsgate, Kent to Charles Horace Lapidge and his wife Eliza Caroline Lapidge. William and Sarah Elderton had eight children: Robert Lapidge Elderton (1876-1958); William Palin Elderton (1877-1962); Ethel Mary Elderton (1878-1954, the subject of this biography); Isabel Edith Elderton (1880-1975); Margaret Florence Elderton (1882-1972); Merrick Beaufoy Elderton (1884-1939); Thomas Howard Elderton (1886-1970); and Silvia Ruth Elderton (1888-1972).

Before was give details of Ethel Elderton's life, let us say a little about her siblings. Most of Ethel's brothers had careers involving mathematics: Robert Lapidge Elderton was for many years a member of the staff of the National Provident Institution and an Associate of the Institute of Actuaries; William Palin Elderton became an actuary and was the joint author of a statistics book with his sister Ethel; Thomas Howard Elderton, later Sir Thomas Elderton, K.C.I.E., became Chairman of the Calcutta Port Trust; and Merrick Beaufoy Elderton studied mathematics at Clare College Cambridge and was appointed a mathematics master at Sherborne School. He became a housemaster of Abbeylands House, Sherborne School, and was Dorset County cricket captain. Ethel's sisters all became schoolmistresses: Isabel did not marry; Margaret married Robert Kelsall, who had a military career, in December 1918; and Silvia married the schoolmaster Charles Arthur Freer Green in April 1915.

At the time of the 1881 census, Ethel Elderton is two years old and living at Parsons Green Rectory House, Fulham where her father was running a school with the help of a tutor. There were six pupils and several servants all living at the school. At the time of the 1891 census, Ethel Elderton is twelve years old and living at 32 Montrell Road, Streatham with her mother, her seven siblings, and two domestic servants. Her father had died on 17 March in 1890 at 2 Colville Square, Notting Hill, London and her mother had taken a job as a school teacher to support the family. Ethel was a pupil at Streatham High School, graduating in 1895 and later that year began her studies at Bedford College, London. This college had been founded in 1847 to provide higher education for women; in fact it was the first college in the UK to provide such an education for women. In 1874 the College moved from its first site in Bedford Square to two houses in York Place, close to Baker Street, in Marylebone. Percy John Harding taught mathematics at Bedford College, starting in 1870 when Olaus Henrici left to replace Thomas Hirst at University College. At first Harding, like all his predecessors, did not teach mathematics to degree level but in 1879-80 he taught the first higher mathematics classes that Bedford College had started up due to increased demand. Harding was still the professor of mathematics at Bedford College when Elderton studied there. Alice Lee was Harding's assistant, she taught Elderton and was impressed by her abilities.

Elderton passed the matriculation examination for the University of London in 1897. At this time Bedford College was not part of the University of London but many students took University of London degrees after studying at the College. In fact, three years later, Bedford College became a part of the University of London. Although Elderton, having matriculated, was in a position to take a degree she chose not to take a degree becoming a school teacher. She lived with her mother in Streatham and at the time of the 1901 census the family are living at 15 Telford Avenue, Streatham. Elderton's mother and the three oldest girls are all school mistresses, the girls assisting their mother run the school, while Silvia is still studying at school. William Palin Elderton is the only one of the children not to be living there.

After about seven years school teaching, Elderton was appointed to the Eugenics Record Office [10]:-
In January 1905 Edgar Schuster was chosen from ten applicants as the first Fellow in National Eugenics. Schuster was a student of Professor W F R Weldon, the prime mover in the foundation of the "biometric school." Miss E M Elderton was appointed as an assistant to Schuster and together they made up the staff of the Eugenics Record Office which was under Galton's general oversight. The office was situated in rooms belonging to University College.
In fact Elderton had been recommended by Alice Lee who had taught her at Bedford College. Karl Pearson writes [14]:-
Galton, when he returned to England, circularised many folk, issuing small finger-printing apparatus, and asking for the prints of the two forefingers of as many relatives to be taken as possible. To aid him in the reduction of these and other data Galton desired to find an assistant. On the advice of Dr Alice Lee, he selected Miss Ethel M Elderton - a most happy choice. She received her first training from Francis Galton, then became successively Secretary to the Eugenics Record Office, Galton Research Scholar in the Eugenics Laboratory, then Galton Fellow ... Perhaps this was the best result that flowed from the forefingers-print collection!
Elderton quickly impressed with her remarkable abilities to calculate and the amount of work she was able to process. In a letter to Galton, written on 25 October 1906, Pearson writes [14]:-
I would suggest that Miss Elderton be no longer spoken of as a clerk, but be made a Francis Galton Scholar. She is quite capable of doing original work. I should give her a little additional instruction in statistical methods, and set her on to research work either alone or in conjunction with Heron, so that her name would appear on the publication of it. I would further suggest that her stipend be raised. My reasons for this are as follows. ... She is very competent and is now fairly well trained, and it is very desirable that we should retain her services. She is keen on the work.
For many references to the outstanding work that Ethel Elderton was doing, see extracts from letters mainly between Pearson and Galton which we give at THIS LINK.

In 1907 Elderton co-authored with Edgar Schuster the paper The Inheritance of Psychical Characters, published in Biometrika. She published the single authored paper On the Association of Drawing with Other Capacities in School Children in Biometrika in 1909. For short extracts from these papers, and from other papers published by Elderton, see THIS LINK.

One of Elderton's most influential papers was A first study of the influence of parental alcoholism on the physique and ability of the offspring. This was written as a single author work "with the assistance of Karl Pearson" and appeared in 1910. This work was, however, much criticised, for example J M K [John Maynard Keynes] writes in the review [12]:-
The second investigation is concerned with a much more definite and important problem. It examines all the children, about 1,400 in number and drawn from nearly 700 families, who were attending a certain school; and it is claimed that they fairly represent a random sample of the population. The authors find that whether we take the height, the weight, the general health, the intelligence, or the eyesight of the children, there is little to choose between the offspring of drunken and of temperate parents ... there are two points of statistical method in which the memoir seems open to criticism. In the first place no adequate attempt is made to display to the reader the real character of the evidence upon which it is based. ... In the second place, it may be doubted whether, in several instances, anything has been gained by the calculation of coefficients of correlation. ... the tables in this memoir are not at all complex, and in most of them it can be easily seen with the naked eye that no significant degree of correlation is present. The elaborate calculations, upon which an immense amount of trouble must have been expended, and the careful corrections for age and so forth are, therefore, labour wasted. Miss Elderton has spent her time and her manifest skill on material which, it should have been obvious from the beginning, could not repay her. Trouble which might have been better spent on improving the original material has been needlessly expended on computations, which add little to our knowledge, and which confuse, though they may also impress, all readers outside a very restricted class.
Also in 1910 Pearson and Elderton replied to the criticism in A second study of the influence of parental alcoholism on the physique and ability of the offspring:-
A second study of the influence of parental alcoholism on the physique and ability of the offspring being a reply to certain medical critics of the first memoir and an examination of the rebutting evidence cited by them.
It is worth looking at the two different driving forces behind Elderton's work. There is no doubt that she firmly believed that good statistical evidence had to be produced before sensible solutions to social problems should be sought. There is also strong evidence that she was a talented statistician able to produce high quality statistical evidence. The other driving force, however, was the aims of those behind the ideas of eugenics, particularly Pearson and Galton. In would appear that Elderton accepted these aims. As Lyndsay Andrew Farrall writes in [10]:-
The phrases 'race progress,' 'national efficiency,' and 'national fitness' which occur in Elderton's writings as they do in those of the other research workers from the Eugenics Laboratory clearly indicate an ideological commitment of these eugenists to nationalism and racism.
There is, however, some evidence that Elderton may not have totally accepted the aims of eugenics but have been merely following the lead provided by Pearson and Galton. In 1907 Galton delivered the 'Herbert Spencer' lecture and in it he sketched out a proposal for an elementary statistics text. He later wrote in the Preface of the resulting text:-
I expressed the hope that some competent teacher would elaborate a course of instruction on these lines. I entertain a strong belief that such a course would be of great service to those who are interested in statistics, but who, from want of mathematical aptitude and special study, are unable to comprehend the results arrived at, even as regards their own subjects.
The suggestion was taken up by Ethel Elderton and her brother William Palin Elderton, who had also undertaken work for Pearson. By March 1909 the Eldertons had essentially completed the text but a title had to be decided on and a publisher found. Galton wrote to Pearson (22 March 1909):-
I write now about the Eldertons' little elementary book, for the cost of publication of which I am responsible. It never occurred to me before, but the Eugenics Education Society are just the people to publish it. ... I am writing to Miss Elderton.
Pearson replied:-
I have not yet seen the Eldertons' MS but I suppose I shall eventually. I shall be quite ready to publish it as a Laboratory publication if that seems desirable to those concerned. I am not at all sure, however, that it would not be well to try it with a good publisher first of all. It would save the expense of publication and get a reasonable amount of notice from the Press and advertisement. I think Mr Elderton is a little frightened of the idea of the Eugenics Education Society.
It may indeed be Palin Elderton who was against the eugenics connection, but we suggest that Ethel Elderton, with whom Galton and Pearson were corresponding about publishing the book, must also have taken that view. As to the title, Galton wrote to Pearson (16 June 1909):-
If, as you suggest, it is called a Primer, it ought to be of Biometry and Eugenics. The two latter words are important.
It must have been quite difficult for the Eldertons to argue against Galton, but clearly they did so since the book appeared with the title A Primer of Statistics.

For more details of the correspondence of Galton and Pearson about the book, see THIS LINK.

For more information about A Primer of Statistics including extracts from reviews, see THIS LINK.

In 1925 Pearson founded the Annals of Eugenics which he edited with Ethel Elderton's help. The foreword to the first part of the first volume, written jointly by Pearson and Elderton, begins:-
The time seems fully ripe for the issue of a journal which shall devote its pages wholly to the scientific treatment of racial problems in man. Several journals allot some of their space to original memoirs dealing with eugenics and the general problems of race hygiene. Others of a minor character spend their main energies in popular articles, book-reviews and accounts of matter published elsewhere. Our journal will differ from existing journals in that bibliographical matter will be reduced to a minimum, that no other topics than the problems of race in man will be dealt with, and that the papers published will be the work of trained scientists rather than of propagandists and dilettanti. Naturally a journal issued by the Galton Laboratory will be sympathetic to the methods of its founder summed up in the title of his Herbert Spencer Lecture "Probability the Foundation of Eugenics." But this does not signify that contributions dealing with heredity in man from any scientific standpoint will not be acceptable.
The journal still exists today but, with eugenics coming under increasing criticism, it changed its name to the Annals of Human Genetics in 1954.

Farrall gives this overview of Elderton's contributions [10]:-
The work of Ethel Elderton was in three main areas. Most of it was concerned with the question of determining the relative importance of the contributions of heredity and environment to the fashioning of physical and mental characteristics in man. A second area of research for her was the measurement of resemblance between different sets of relatives she also carried out some work analysing vital statistics of the British population
Rosaleen Love writes [13]:-
It was Ethel Elderton of all the women at the Eugenics Laboratory who did most to wear down Francis Galton's prejudice that women were intuitive unintellectual creatures incapable of sound academic work. One of her first tasks with Galton was to help him with the collection and collation of data on 'large and thriving families'. Most of this work came to nothing. The projected Golden book of noteworthy families, a kind of eugenist Who's who, never appeared. At the Galton Laboratory she moved on to collect information on the resemblances between different sets of relatives, as part of a larger study of the inheritance of ability. Much of her work examined important social issues of the day from the eugenist viewpoint that social problems were to be related to factors inherent in the individual.
Let us quote the first paragraph of Love's description of one of Elderton's research papers [13]:-
Ethel Elderton's "Report on the English birthrate. Part I: England north of the Humber" (1914) is perhaps the most revealing example of a eugenist research programme which is given an extra dimension by being related to the actual lives of individual women. The dry title of the paper conceals a wealth of fascinating social detail on the lives of working men and women of the time, and in particular her account of abortion practices given in the words of the Northern women as reported by their chemists and physicians is horrifying. In this respect here was a pioneering work, the first population study to give extensive references to the prevalence of induced abortion in England at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century,
It would hardly be expected that a eugenist would endorse the practice of family limitation to one or two children in the worthy artisan ranks of society, and the Report concluded with a gloomy picture of the future of the British people and their Empire if the trend continued. Similarly, contraception was disapprovingly seen as a factor in the growing trend towards promiscuity. What the Report does do is to illustrate that by and large it was the women who were taking decisions on the control of fertility, and the contribution women could make was one factor that the eugenist programme often completely overlooked.
We should note the high regard that both Pearson and Galton had for Elderton. She was awarded the Weldon Memorial Prize by the University of Oxford in 1919. This was awarded to the person who "in the ten years next preceding the date of the award, published the most noteworthy contribution to the development of mathematical or statistical methods applied to problems in Biology." In 1931 Elderton was awarded a D.Sc. by the University of London and, in the same year, was promoted to a readership in the University of London. She retired in 1933 and in 1939 she was living at Yew Tree Cottage, Northchapel, Sussex. She died in 1954 in Stanboroughs Hydro Nursing Home, Stanborough Park, Garston, Hertfordshire.

References (show)

  1. Anon, Review: Report On The English Birth-Rate. Part I. England North Of The Humber by Ethel M Elderton, The British Medical Journal 2 (2817) (1914), 1103-1104.
  2. Anon, Review: Annals Of Eugenics V, by Karl Pearson and Ethel M Elderton, The British Medical Journal 1 (3819) (1934), 485-486.
  3. Anon, Review: Primer of Statistics by W P Elderton and E M Elderton, The Mathematical Gazette 6 (92) (1911), 101.
  4. Anon, Review: Primer of Statistics by W P Elderton and E M Elderton, Nature 82 (426) (1910), 426.
  5. Anon, Review: The Relative Strength Of Nurture And Nature, by Ethel M Elderton, The British Medical Journal 2 (2553) (1909), 1620.
  6. W B B, Review: Primer of Statistics by W P Elderton and E M Elderton, The Economic Bulletin 3 (4) (1910), 423-424.
  7. E Brabrook, Review: University of London. Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics. Eugenics Laboratory Lecture Series, III., The Relative Strength of Nurture and Nature. Part I. Second Edition Revised, Galton Research Fellow. Part II. Some Recent Misinterpretations of the Problem, by Ethel M Elderton and Karl Pearson, Charity Organisation Review, New Series 38 (228) (1915), 462-465.
  8. Elderton, Ethel Mary, The Galton Papers, Wellcome Collection.
  9. Ethel Mary Elderton (1878-1954), statistician and eugenicist, The Streatham Society (31 December 2020).
  10. L A Farrall, The Origins and Growth of the English Eugenics Movement, 1865-1925, Department of Science and Technology Studies, Occasional Paper Number 9 (University College London, 2019).
  11. M G, Review: Report on the English Birth-rate. Part I. England north of the Humber, by Ethel M Elderton, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 78 (2) (1915), 307.
  12. J M K, Review: A First Study of the Influence of Parental Alcoholism on the Physique and Ability of the Offspring, by Ethel M Elderton and Karl Pearson, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 73 (6/7) (1910), 769-773.
  13. R Love, Alice in eugenics land: feminism and eugenics in the scientific careers of Alice Lee and Ethel Elderton, Annals of Science 36 (1979), 145-158.
  14. K Pearson, The life, letters and labours of Francis Galton (Volume 3) (Cambridge University Press, 1930).
  15. C Renwick, Elderton, Ethel Mary, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (12 July 2018).
  16. F S, Review: Annals of Eugenics, by Karl Pearson, Ethel M Elderton, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 89 (1) (1926), 147-151.
  17. W S, Review: On the Nest and Eggs of the Common Tern (S fluviatilis). A Comparative Study, by W Rowan, E Wolf, P L Sulman, Karl Pearson, E Isaacs, E M Elderton and M Tildesley, The Auk 37 (3) (1920)
  18. A G Thacker, Review: Report on the English Birth-rate. Part I. England north of the Humber, by Ethel M Elderton, Science Progress in the Twentieth Century (1906-1916) 9 (36) (1915), 726-727.
  19. A D W, Review: Primer of Statistics by W P Elderton and E M Elderton, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 73 (2) (1910), 170-171.
  20. G U Y, Review: A Second Study of the Statistics of Pulmonary Tuberculosis: Marital Infection, by E G Pope, Karl Pearson and Ethel M Elderton, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 71 (3) (1908), 564.
  21. A A Young, Review: Primer of Statistics by W P Elderton and E M Elderton, Publications of the American Statistical Association 12 (92) (1910), 385-386.

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Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update September 2021