Alice Elizabeth Lee

Quick Info

28 June 1858
Dedham, Essex, England
5 October 1939
Rustington, Sussex, England

Alice Lee was awarded a D.Sc. in 1899, and had an outstanding career as a statistician working in both Bedford College and University College in London. Her work was important in disproving the belief that skull size was related to intelligence, the argument that was being used at that time to "prove" women were intellectually inferior to men.


Alice Lee was the daughter of William Lee (1821-1887), born in Sudbury, Suffolk, and Matilda Wren Baker (1822-1903), born in London. William Lee was a master coach builder and he had married Matilda Baker on 29 July 1846 in St Mary the Virgin church in Dedham, Essex. At the time of the 1861 census William and Matilda Lee were living in Dedham with their first five children, George (aged 12), Catherine (aged 10), and Mary A (aged 9), Alice E, the subject of this biography, (aged 2), and Anna G (aged 9 months). Ten years later, as recorded in the 1871 census, the family were living in a home attached to William's coach building premises in Dedham High Street. Their youngest child Caroline A (aged 7 at the time of the 1871 census) had been born, George had left home but Catherine and Mary A were still living at home but working as governesses. Alice and her two younger sisters were studying at school in Dedham. Matilda's sister Frances was also living with them at the time of the census.

In 1876 Lee became a student 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, just before Lee began her studies there, 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 Lee attended the first higher mathematics classes that Bedford College had just started up due to increased demand. In that [17]:-
... year there were 9 Matriculation entrants [to the University of London] and Miss Alice Elizabeth Lee, a student of the College [Bedford College], headed the list and gained a prize of £5 for so doing.
At the time of the 1881 census Lee was living at 9 York Place, one of the two Bedford College houses, where she was one of fifteen undergraduate girls in the house. At this stage Bedford College did not have university status but Lee sat the University of London B.Sc. examinations in 1884, becoming the first Bedford student to be awarded this degree. In fact women had only been allowed to sit the University of London degree examinations since 1877. Lee, however, was not only interested in science and, in 1885, she sat the University of London B.A. examinations and was awarded an arts degree. Margaret Tuke was principal of Bedford College and she explained how important Lee's success was [17]:-
To us now these successes seem everyday and unimportant or of importance only to the individual. To believers in higher education of women in the early 80's intent on showing what women could do, each success was a matter for enthusiasm. The friends of the College were duly encouraged.
After graduating with her two degrees, Lee was appointed as an assistant lecturer in mathematics and physics at Bedford College. She received little in the way of wages, these being given by the professor whom she was assisting. At the time of the 1881 census she was living with her mother (her father having died four years earlier) in Lower Street, Stratford St Mary, just north of Dedham. Her sister Caroline, now a school teacher, is also living there. In addition to teaching mathematics and physics, Lee also tutored students in Greek and Latin. From 1892 to 1894 she was also a resident helper at the College meaning that she was given free accommodation and board in exchange for unofficially helping students.

In 1892 Karl Pearson attacked the academic standards at Bedford College in a letter published in the Pall Mall Gazette. He wrote [11]:-
Ladies' colleges ... are doing, no doubt, good work; but the work is not academic as is sufficiently indicated when we say that a teacher at one of the latter has been known to lecture on mathematics, and on physics, and on classics at or about the same time.
Although he did not name Lee, she was the only person to fit Pearson's description and she took it upon herself to respond writing a letter to Pearson defending the academic standards of the College. Pearson was impressed by Lee's response and encouraged her to further her studies. In particular she attended the first course of lectures on advanced statistics he gave in 1895. She wrote to Pearson on 26 September 1895 saying that she was fascinated by what she was learning about biometry. One of the others attending these lectures was George Udny Yule who later achieved fame as a statistician. Lee continued to teach mathematics and physics at Bedford College, holding a lectureship in mathematics and physics until 1916, but from 1895 she began to contribute to Pearson's research team. At first she carried out laborious calculating tasks that were assigned to her but Pearson quickly saw the importance of her contributions and wanted to add her name to papers resulting from her work. At this stage Lee, writing to Pearson on 1 December 1895, felt her name should not be included [9]:-
... for I have done nothing but the arithmetic, and I suppose a machine could do most of that.
The first paper on which her name appears is Mathematical Contributions to the Theory of Evolution. On Telegony in Man, &c. which was received by the Royal Society of London on 27 August 1896 and read on 26 November 1896. The authors are given as Karl Pearson, F.R.S., University College, with the assistance of Miss Alice Lee, Bedford College, London. Pearson writes in the paper [14]:-
The reduction from the family measurement-cards, the formation of the eight correlation tables, and the calculation of both variation and correlation coefficients have been undertaken by Miss Alice Lee of Bedford College, - a task requiring much labour and persistency.
For details about the contents of this paper and many other papers by Lee, see THIS LINK.

But Lee had ideas of her own about the research she would like to undertake and Pearson encouraged her to write a thesis which could be submitted to the University of London for the degree of D.Sc. He wanted, however, Lee's help with other projects that he was undertaking so Lee began a period where she basically had three jobs, a lecturer in mathematics and physics at Bedford College, an assistant to Karl Pearson at University College London, and a research student undertaking research for a D.Sc.

The research Lee was undertaking was an attempt to disprove the theory, held by most experts at that time, that the capacity of a person's skull was closely related to their intellectual ability, i.e. the larger the head, the cleverer the person would be. This belief, of course, led to the immediate corollary that men were more intelligent than women since, on average, men had considerably larger heads. As an example, we need only look at the 1887 article Mental differences of man and women by the psychologist George J Romanes (1848-1894) published in Popular Science Monthly in which he states:-
Seeing that the average brain-weight of women is about five ounces less than that of men, on merely anatomical grounds we should be prepared to expect a marked inferiority of intellectual power in the former. ... In actual fact we find that the inferiority displays itself most conspicuously in a comparative absence of originality, and this more especially in the higher levels of intellectual work.
If Lee could show that there was no correlation between size of skull and intellectual ability, she would take away one of the strongest arguments used to "prove" men were cleverer than women. The first problem that Lee had to face was the size of a skull. She set out a number of measures of the head, the length, breadth, circumference etc devising a scheme which gave a value for the size of the skull by combining the various measures. In fact she produced a number of formulas for combining the measures of the head which gave different measures of capacity but all gave the same relative ordering of the subjects measured.

Where did Lee get her data from? The Anatomical Society met in Dublin on 10 June 1898 and 35 of them, all male, agreed to have their heads measured at the Anthropometric Laboratory at Trinity College, Dublin. The data was published in the Journal of Anatomy and used by Lee in the formulas she had developed. She also used data from members of the British Association, 30 female students from Bedford College, and 25 lecturers from University College London, including Karl Pearson himself. Her thesis contained [4]:-
... tables of the skull capacity of some sixty men, and also of some thirty women, whose relative intellectual ability can be more or less roughly appreciated. It would be impossible to assert any marked degree of correlation between the skull capacities of these individuals and the current appreciation of their intellectual capacities. One of the most distinguished of Continental anthropologists has less skull capacity than 50 per cent of the women students of Bedford College; one of our leading English anatomists less than 25 per cent of the same students. There will, of course, be errors in our probable determinations, but different methods of appreciation lead to sensibly like results, and although we are dealing with skull capacity, and not brain weight, there is, we hold, in our data material enough to cause those to pause who associate relative brain weight either in the individual or the sex with relative intellectual power. The correlation, if it exists, can hardly be large, and the true source of intellectual ability will, we are convinced, have to be sought elsewhere, in the complexity of the convolutions, in the variety and efficiency of the commissures, rather than in mere size or weight.
Lee submitted her thesis to the University of London for the degree of D.Sc. in March 1899 and examiners were appointed including the mathematician Joseph Larmor, the social scientist E B Hobson and anatomist Sir William Turner. Turner was perhaps an unfortunate choice since he had been one of the anatomists whose head had been measured and he had one of the smaller skulls. He should have been pleased with Lee's conclusion that skull size did not correlate with intellectual ability but instead he seemed annoyed. Larmor claimed that the thesis must be mostly Pearson's work and not Lee's, despite the fact that Pearson stated clearly that it was not. The examiners' reports were sent to Francis Galton for his comments, and again this was unfortunate in that Galton firmly believed that women's smaller skull size equated to intellectual inferiority. On 9 September 1899, Galton wrote to Pearson [12]:-
I have been back three weeks, and on my road northwards saw Weldon at Oxford, and heard of a hitch in the way of granting Miss Lee the doctor's degree. A few days later a batch of papers reached me from the Registrar. The Joint Report of Sir W Turner and myself had been referred to the original examiners and the whole matter on receiving their report was discussed by the Senate, who sent all the material to myself and I presume to Sir W Turner also, asking certain questions. (They don't want to hear in reply before October.) I thereupon drafted what I had to say and, on returning to town last night (on the way to Dover), posted it to Sir W Turner.
Galton again wrote to Pearson, this time on 27 October 1899 [12]:-
Sir H Roscoe told me last night that Miss Alice Lee had got her degree. The mathematicians were however troublesome.
Pearson claimed that the problems with Lee's thesis were caused by the fact that she did not write very well [9]:-
I am here as on other occasions apt to be vexed by her want of power of expression ...
A revised version of Lee's thesis was submitted to the Royal Society on 13 July 1900 and read on 15 November 1900. It starts with a Note by Pearson:-
The substance of this paper was presented by Miss Lee as a thesis for the London D.Sc. in March, 1899. After its presentation Miss Lee asked me to criticise and revise it with a view to publication. Illness in the spring of 1899 and later pressure of other work prevented my completing this revision until now. When Miss Lee started her work practically nothing had been published on the correlation of the parts of the skull; since then an interesting paper has appeared by Dr Franz Boas. To this reference is made in the footnotes at points where there is agreement or disagreement with his conclusions. The subject is of such great scientific interest, and anthropologically of such importance, that I urged Miss Lee to somewhat enlarge her original thesis by a series of additional investigations now incorporated in this paper. I have further rearranged a good deal of her material and reworded some of her conclusions, but the reduction of the material and the inferences drawn from it are substantially her work. My task has been that of an editor, who wished to mould the author's researches into a component part of a wider series dealing generally with the quantitative data for the problem of evolution in man. Such is the limit of my revision. I have passed of course nothing which did not seem to me valid, and have suggested to the author some lacunae which could be filled up by a consideration of additional data.
For the Introduction to the paper, see THIS LINK.

To emphasise the difficulties that Lee encountered we quote from a letter Pearson wrote to Galton on 26 December 1901 [12]:-
I have always felt we must go into the point more fully, since you laid stress on the view that ability was correlated with the size of the head in your criticism of Dr Lee's paper. There is still a chance that extreme genius may exhibit something abnormal in the size of head, but I think it is now pretty clear, if we are to look upon ability as normally distributed in the population, there is only a very small, practically negligible correlation between it and either the size or shape of the head. We propose next to find out whether there is a higher relationship between ability and health, strength and general physique, and then to test its relation to temper and moral characters, from the school data schedules.
Lee continued to be an author on papers with several authors such as On the Correlation of the Mental and Physical Characters in Man. Part II (1902), and On Inheritance of Coat-Colour in The Greyhound (1904). She also published single author papers such as Dr Ludwig on Variation and Correlation in Plants (1902) and On the Relation Between Rates, Expenditure on Remunerative Works, and Rate of Increase of Population in Fifty-Eight British Municipalities (1903).

Until 1907 Lee continued to work for Karl Pearson and to lecture at Bedford College. Her health, however, began worry her and in 1907 she resigned her role assisting Pearson at the Eugenics Laboratory although she continued to work at Bedford College. Pearson wrote in a letter to Galton on 23 November 1907 [12]:-
Miss Elderton has been away with a bad cold. The radiators in the rooms have proved incapable of doing their work and we have had great difficulties. So bad indeed that Dr Alice Lee has resigned, which will be a great loss to me, although she had recently been a little difficult to work with. I know only one person her equal in rapid and correct calculation and that is Miss Elderton; we must keep the latter at the Eugenics Laboratory, if we can.
Despite resigning, Lee continued to occasionally work at the Eugenics Laboratory and to publish joint papers such as On the Correlation of Death-Rates (1910) and On the distributions of the correlation coefficient in small samples. Appendix II to the papers of "Student" and R A Fisher (1917). She also published several single author papers, for example On the Manner in Which the Percentage of Employed Workmen in this Country is Related to the Import of Articles Wholly or Mainly Manufactured (1908), Table of the Gaussian "Tail" Functions; When the "Tail" is Larger than the Body (1914), Tuberculosis and Segregation (1917), Further Supplementary Tables for Determining High Correlations from Tetrachoric Groupings (1917), and Supplementary table for determining correlation from tetrachoric groupings (1927).

During World War I, Lee wanted to use her talents to support the war effort and worked first at the Munitions Inventions Department, where she contributed to a study on gun trajectories, and then as a computer for the Admiralty. A university career of considerable distinction did not, at this time, mean that a woman would have a comfortable retirement [15]:-
Despite her distinctions as a scholar and long years of work, she was not entitled to a pension, having missed out on University College London's occupational scheme and earned relatively little when she was in full-time employment. Pearson and Margaret Tuke, principal of Bedford College, pleaded her case to government, which led to a civil list pension of £70 per year, giving her a meagre, albeit welcome, income during old age. In retirement Lee, who never married, settled in Woodlands Avenue, Rustington, Sussex, and died at the Peter Pan nursing home, Rustington, on 5 October 1939. She was buried in Littlehampton cemetery.

References (show)

  1. M R S Creese and T M Creese, Ladies in the laboratory?: American and British women in science, 1800-1900: a survey of their contributions to research (Scarecrow Press, 1998).
  2. D A Grier, When Computers Were Human (Princeton University Press, 2013).
  3. K A Hamlin, From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women's Rights in Gilded Age America (University of Chicago Press, 2014).
  4. A Lee and K Pearson, Data for the Problem of Evolution in Man. VI. - A First Study of the Correlation of the Human Skull [Abstract], Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 67 (1900), 333-337.
  5. A Lee and K Pearson, Data for the Problem of Evolution in Man. VI. A First Study of the Correlation of the Human Skull, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A 196 (1901), 225-264.
  6. A Lee, M A Lewenz and K Pearson, On the Correlation of the Mental and Physical Characters in Man. Part II, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 71 (1902-1903), 106-114.
  7. A Lee, On the Manner in Which the Percentage of Employed Workmen in this Country is Related to the Import of Articles Wholly or Mainly Manufactured, The Economic Journal 18 (69) (1908), 96-101.
  8. A Lee and K Pearson, Table of the First Twenty Tetrachoric Functions to Seven Decimal Places, Biometrika 17 (3/4) (1925), 343-354.
  9. 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.
  10. D MacKenzie, Statistics in Britain, 1865-1930: the social construction of scientific knowledge (Edinburgh University Press, 1981).
  11. L McNeill, The Statistician Who Debunked Sexist Myths About Skull Size and Intelligence, Smithsonian Magazine (14 January 2019).
  12. K Pearson, The life, letters and labours of Francis Galton (Volume 3) (Cambridge University Press, 1930).
  13. K Pearson, A Lee and E M Elderton, On the Correlation of Death-Rates, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 73 (5) (1910), 534-539.
  14. K Pearson and A Lee, Mathematical Contributions to the Theory of Evolution. On Telegony in Man, &c., Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 60 (1896-1897), 273-283.
  15. C Renwick, Lee, Alice Elizabeth, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (12 July 2018).
  16. G Steinem, Passion, Politics, and Everyday Activism: Collected Essays (Open Road Media, 2017).
  17. M J Tuke, A history of Bedford College for Women 1849-1937 (Oxford University Press, 1939).

Additional Resources (show)

Other pages about Alice Lee:

  1. Extracts from Alice Lee's papers

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