P.C. Mahalanobis’ years of work is regarded as the golden period of statistics in India by his students and peers.
Google, on Friday, honoured Indian scientist, mathematician and statistician Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis with a colourful doodle on the 125th anniversary of his birth. The doodle reflected what the scientist is best known for – the ‘Mahalanobis Distance’ — a measure of comparison between two different data sets.
However, the Mahalanobis Distance — his D2-statistic — is just the tip of the iceberg. Widely regarded as the father of statistics in India, Mahalanobis founded the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), was handpicked by former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to shape the Planning Commission and basically pioneered methodologies for large-scale surveys. His years of work is regarded as the golden period of statistics in India by his students and peers.
P.C. Mahalanobis, as he is often to referred to as, was born in Calcutta on June 29, 1893. He was educated at the Brahmo Boys School, founded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and went on to receive a B.Sc in Physics from Presidency College, Kolkata. He followed this by going to the University of Cambridge where he studied both Physics and Mathematics.
On his return to India, Mahalanobis took up a teaching position in the physics department at Presidency College, and eventually became the Principal of the college till his retirement in 1948.
Mahalanobis’ interest in anthropology started when he was at Cambridge, where he was introduced to the concepts of anthropometry (the study of measurements and proportions of the human body) and anthropological data through Biometrika, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. From there, it was just a hop, skip and jump into the world of statistics and the application of the science in anthropology.
“The papers in Biometrika dealing with biological and anthropological data had an immediate influence on Mahalanobis,” writes Somesh Dasgupta, in an edition of Sankhya: the Indian Journal of Statistics that was begun by Mahalanobis himself. “Besides being actively interested in statistical problems relating to agriculture, meteorology, and education, Mahalanobis was also deeply involved in questions relating to racial mixture, racial origins and the assessment of group differences,” Mr. Dasgupta writes.
Prof. P. C. Mahalanobis, President of the National Institute of Sciences of India, admitting PM Jawaharlal Nehru as a Fellow of the Institute, at its general meeting held in Delhi on Tuesday, January 20, 1959.
Prof. P. C. Mahalanobis, President of the National Institute of Sciences of India, admitting PM Jawaharlal Nehru as a Fellow of the Institute, at its general meeting held in Delhi on Tuesday, January 20, 1959. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives
In the 1920s, Mahalanobis was asked to analyse the anthropometric measurements of Anglo-Indians in Calcutta. “This was the first time that data relating to a true biologically mixed population were studied by statistical methods,” Mr. Dasgupta writes.
According to the ISI, nearly all the major statistical work done in India till the 1930s was done single-handedly by Mahalanobis. “Some of the findings of these early studies were of great impact on the control of floods.