Pearson, Egon Sharpe

(1895-1980), statistician

by M. S. Bartlett, rev.

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Pearson, Egon Sharpe (1895-1980), statistician, was born on 11 August 1895 at 7 Well Road, Hampstead, London, the only son and second of the three children of Karl Pearson (1857-1936), mathematician and university teacher, and his wife, Maria (1853-1928), fifth daughter and sixth child of William Sharpe, solicitor, of Islington. He was educated at the Dragon School, Oxford, and Winchester College, and was then accepted in June 1914 as an entrance scholar to Trinity College, Cambridge. In spite of ill health, he obtained a first class in part one of the mathematical tripos. After a period of war service at the Admiralty and Ministry of Shipping, he returned to Cambridge where he graduated BA in 1920 (and MA in 1924).

After leaving Cambridge, Pearson joined his father's department at University College, London, as a statistics lecturer. He obtained his London DSc in 1926. He helped with the editing of the journal Biometrika, founded in 1901 by Karl Pearson and W. F. R. Weldon with the support of Sir Francis Galton, who had also on his death endowed the chair held by Karl Pearson at University College from 1911. By 1924 Pearson was assistant editor of Biometrika and he became managing editor in 1936 after his father's death. Three years earlier Karl Pearson had retired from the Galton chair, and his department was split into two, the eugenics (later human genetics) department with which the Galton chair was associated, and a statistics department, of which Pearson was made head with promotion to reader, becoming a professor in 1935.

An animosity between Karl Pearson and the new Galton professor, R. A. Fisher, neither of whom had approved the separation of the statistics department, did not augur well for its development. Moreover, Egon Sharpe Pearson was to have an important professional collaboration with Jerzy Neyman, a Polish mathematician whose interest in mathematical statistics had been stimulated both by his friendly association with Pearson while studying at University College, and indirectly by the work of Fisher, but whose theoretical approach appeared to Fisher to be of little relevance. Nevertheles, the Neyman-Pearson theory of testing statistical hypotheses, resulting from a collaboration extending over eight or nine years, secured a recognized place in textbooks on statistical inference, introducing such useful concepts as the 'power' of statistical tests against alternative hypotheses.

A less controversial development was Pearson's encouragement of statistical methods in industry in the United Kingdom, arising from a contact established with W. H. Shewhart of the Bell Telephone Laboratories during a visit to North America in 1931. This utilitarian approach to statistical methodology contributed also after 1939 to Pearson's war work, when he, with some of his staff, was seconded to the Ordnance board, where they were involved in such problems as assessing the effectiveness of patterns of fragmentation of anti-aircraft shells. After the war Pearson returned to University College, retiring in 1960 from his chair, but continuing with his editorial work for Biometrika. Honours and awards included the Weldon prize and medal in 1935, appointment as CBE in 1946, and in 1955 the gold medal of the Royal Statistical Society, of which he was president in 1955-6. He was elected FRS in 1966.

On 31 August 1934 Pearson had married (Dorothy) Eileen (1901/2-1949), younger daughter of Russell Jolly, solicitor; they had two daughters. It was a great personal loss when his wife died from pneumonia in 1949, though he kept on their Hampstead house with the aid of a housekeeper, until 1967 when he moved to Cambridge after marrying (on 11 January) Margaret Theodosia (1896/7-1975), widow of Laurence Beddome Turner, reader emeritus in engineering, Cambridge, and second daughter of George Frederick Ebenezer Scott, architect, and Mrs Bernard Turner, of Godstowe School, High Wycombe. In 1975, after her death, he finally severed his remaining links with Biometrika, and moved to West Lavington, near Midhurst in Sussex.

Pearson had a quiet disposition, but his shy and rather diffident manner hid an independent and pertinacious spirit which had enabled him to surmount both the controversies surrounding his father and contemporaries such as Fisher and Neyman, and some health problems, such as his delicate health when an undergraduate, a heart condition of long standing, and occasional back trouble due to his considerable height. He died at the Pendean Home, West Lavington, on 12 June 1980.

M. S. BARTLETT, rev.

M. S. Bartlett, Memoirs FRS, 27 (1981), 425-43
The Times (20 June 1980), 16f
M. S. Bartlett, Biometrika, 68 (1981), 1-12
N. L. Johnson, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: series A, 144 (1981), 270-71
private information (1986)
personal knowledge (1986)
b. cert.
m. certs.
d. cert.

UCL, corresp. and papers |  UCL, corresp. with David John Finney

photograph, repro. in Bartlett, Biometrika

Wealth at death  
£26,066: probate, 29 Aug 1980, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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