Academic journal article Genetics

R. A. Fisher: An Appreciation

Academic journal article Genetics

R. A. Fisher: An Appreciation

Article excerpt

Anecdotal, Historical and Critical Commentaries on Genetics

Shortly after R. A. Fisher's death in 1962, his long-time friend E. B. Ford prepared an informal appreciation, which fortunately was taped. The tape was lost for many years and only recently has come to light. It seems highly appropriate for publication in the Perspectives series. I thank George P. Box for bringing this tape to my attention.

R. A. Fisher was the greatest statistician of his time, perhaps of all time. He was one of the great trio that included himself, Sewall Wright, andj. B. S. Haldane, who laid the mathematical foundations for evolutionary theory. His book, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (FlSHER 1930), has been called the deepest book on evolution since Darwin.

Fisher's name has appeared repeatedly in Perspectives, two of which have been devoted primarily to him (CROW 1988,1990). Fisher's collected papers are a gold mine, for Fisher often put down his most profound and original ideas in "throw-away" articles, which were published in a five-volume set edited by Henry Bennett (FlSHER 19711974). FISHER'S great book (1930) has been reissued in a variorum edition (FlSHER 1999). This is particularly useful because, in addition to an introduction by Bennett, it contains additions and amendments. Many of these provide much-needed clarification of some difficult points as Fisher's elegant obscurity was a source of both wonder and bewilderment to his readers. Finally, Fisher's daughter, Joan Box, has written a biography of her father (Box 1978). It is a scholarly account by a loving daughter, who nevertheless did not smooth over his rough spots.

Fisher visited Wisconsin regularly to see his daughter, thereby providing occasions for me to visit with him. These were always pleasant meetings, for Fisher would discourse on anything, but especially on genetics. He was at his charming best. He enjoyed meeting people, the sole exception being Sewall Wright, with whom he had had a falling out in the 1930s; neither of them got over it.

Edmund B. Ford (1901-1988) was a well-known British ecological geneticist, specializing in butterflies. He was a member of the Royal Society and a recipient of the Darwin Medal. His book on ecological genetics went through several editions and his monographs on moths and butterflies are still used. Ford, a strong selectionist, was especially interested in polymorphism and, with Fisher, strongly opposed Sewall Wright's evolutionary theory. He was also associated with H. B. D. Kettlewell in the study of industrial melanism in the peppered moth. His deepest admiration went to his friend Fisher, who preferred to call him Henry.

Ford's tape-recorded tribute to R. A. Fisher follows. To preserve Ford's original speech as much as possible, we have made only minimal editorial changes. Here is a chance to view Fisher the man through the eyes of his closest and equally eccentric friend.


SIR Ronald Fisher's great achievements as a statistician and geneticist are well known and available for study in the literature. It is not my purpose, therefore, to discuss them now but to speak as an old friend about his personality.

I think I should start by going back beyond my own knowledge of him to his school days. I was once talking with Arthur Vassal, for many years a schoolmaster at Harrow. He was no more than an acquaintance of mine and certainly was not aware of my friendship with Fisher. I asked if it were possible for him to name the 10 or 12 cleverest boys who had been through his hands. He said it would be difficult to do so but added that on sheer brilliance he could divide all those he had taught into two groups: one contained a single outstanding boy, R. A. Fisher; the other all the rest. It is of that one boy, grown up, that I now speak.

Our meeting, which took place in 1923, was typical of Fisher. Like so many good things in my life, it was due to Julian Huxley. Though I was only an undergraduate at Oxford at the time, Huxley and I were researching genetic physiology together in the earliest days of that subject. …

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