Born On: June 29, 1893
Born In: Calcutta
Died On: June 28, 1972
Career: Scientist and Statistician
Economic census, population census, agricultural surveys and various other large scale and in depth samples and surveys that have been admired the world over for their scope and accuracy owes its popularity and worldwide acceptance to the grit, determination and genius of one man, Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis. His knack and passion for graphs and numbers made him a leading light in the field of statistics. In India, his contribution to this field has been immense. From giving birth to the Indian Statistical Institute to guiding the newly independent nation of India on its first stride towards a glorious era, it is the contribution of Mahalanobis that brought the mapping of this diverse nation, which helped its leaders to formulate policies and schemes for the benefit of the people and propel the story of India on its growth trajectory. Indeed only a cursory glance at the formation era of this nation will show how the data collected through his organizations using his techniques has influenced the decision makers of India. And his works are still relevant and widely used in present times. And since brilliance, like a glowing light, cannot be confined so has the works of Mahalanobis been admired, used and influenced the policies of various other nations.
PC Mahalanobis was born into a family of social reformers and intellectuals. His father, Prabodh Chandra Mahalanobis, was a professor of Presidency College and was much respected as an educationist. Mahalanobis spent his early childhood in Cornwallis Street at the house of his grandfather, Gurucharan Mahalanobis who was an active member of the Brahmo Samaj. As such, since childhood, young Mahalanobis was in the thick of social and political activity.
Mahalanobis received his schooling from the Brahmo Boys School, from which he graduated in 1908. He then completed his B. Sc from the Presidency College after which he joined Cambridge, England. Other than pursing his honors in physics he also took an avid interest in punting on the river and cross-country walking. It was also at Cambridge that Mahalanobis met the famous mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. In 1915, he completed his 'Tripos’ in physics. Mahalanobis also worked for a short duration at the Cavendish Laboratory with C. T. R. Wilson. It was during this time that he took a short break and went to India, where he was introduced to the Principal of Presidency College and was invited to take classes in physics. Upon returning to England, he was introduced to the journal Biometrika. The journal interested him so much that he purchased the complete set and took them to India. On his way back to India, he discovered the utility of statistics to problems in meteorology, anthropology and began working on the same. Statistics later became his lifelong love and passion and he pursued statistical work in India mentored by Acharya Brajendranath Seal.
Work In Statistics
Mahalanobis is remembered for the Mahalanobis distance, a statistical measure which is independent of measurement scale introduced by him. Mahalanobis’s work in statistics started by analyzing university exam results, anthropometric measurements on Anglo-Indians of Calcutta and also, meteorological problems. He also contributed significantly in developing schemes to prevent floods but his most important contributions came with the large scale sample surveys. He is recognized as the first statistician to introduce pilot surveys and advocating the usability of sampling methods. Early surveys were conducted from 1937 to 1944 and included topics such as consumer expenditure, tea-drinking habits, public opinion, crop acreage and plant disease. Additionally, Mahalanobis also introduced a a method for estimating crop yields which involved statisticians sampling in the fields by cutting crops in a circle of diameter 4 feet. However, difference in opinion with P. V. Sukhatme and V. G. Panse, who began to work on crop surveys with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the Indian Agricultural Statistics Research Institute, upon the usage of the existing administrative framework, caused bitterness.
Indian Statistical Institute
At Presidency College, Mahalanobis formed a group of academics interested in statistics. This group met at his room in the college. At a significant meeting of the group, held on December 17, 1931, the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) was born, and was formally registered on April 28, 1932. Mahalanobis served as its secretary and director. Initially headquartered in the Physics Department of the Presidency College, it gradually grew. Contribution from S. S. Bose, J. M. Sengupta, R. C. Bose, S. N. Roy, K. R. Nair, R. R. Bahadur, G. Kallianpur, D. B. Lahiri and C. R. Rao helped ISI to make significant progress. Assistance from Pitamber Pant, who was a secretary to the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, further propelled the success. Founded along the lines of Karl Pearson's Biometrika, the Institute started a training section in 1938. ISI was conferred upon with a deemed university status and was declared as an institute of national importance in 1959.
After the independence of India, Mahalabonis established the Central Statistical Unit, and under his guidance and supervision it later became the Central Statistical Organization (CSO). This organization was set up to facilitate the coordination among different ministries engaged in statistical activities and also to provide statistical inputs. He also chaired the National Income Committee which recommended the formation of the National Sample Survey to fill up the data gaps in socio-economic progress. This organization came into being in 1950 and in 1970 it was established as the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO). Later in life, Mahalanobis was appointed as the member of the planning commission and greatly influenced the development of the five-year plans, starting from the second. His Mahalanobis model, a variant of Wassily Leontief's Input-output model, worked towards the rapid industrialization of India. Apart from this, Mahalanobis was also deeply inspired by culture and thus, served as a secretary to Rabindranath Tagore. This solved dual purpose as his cultural pursuits also were satisfied. Mahalanbis also served a stint at the Viswa-Bharati University. Till his death, he was also the Honorary Statistical Advisor to the Cabinet of the Government of India. It was in recognition of his contributions to science and national service that Mahalanobis was conferred upon with India’s highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan. The Government of India declared 29th June, the day he was born, as National Statistical Day.
Awards & Honors
Weldon Medal from Oxford University (1944)
Fellow of the Royal Society, London (1945)
President of Indian Science Congress (1950)
Fellow of the Econometric Society, U.S.A. (1951)
Fellow of the Pakistan Statistical Association (1952)
Honorary Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, U.K. (1954)
Sir Deviprasad Sarvadhikari Gold Medal (1957)
Foreign member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (1958)
Honorary Fellow of King's College, Cambridge (1959)
Fellow of the American Statistical Association (1961)
Durgaprasad Khaitan Gold Medal (1961)
Padma Vibhushan (1968)
Srinivasa Ramanujam Gold Medal (1968)
Mahalanobis married Nirmalkumari, daughter of Herambhachandra Maitra, a leading educationist and member of the Brahmo Samaj, on February 27, 1923.
Mahalanobis passed away on 28th June, 1972 just a day short of his seventy-ninth birthday.
1893: Mahalanobis was born to Prabodh Chandra Mahalanobis and Nirodbasini.
1908: Completed his schooling from Brahmo Boys School.
1912: Graduated in Physics from Presidency College.
1913: Mahalanobis left for England to pursue higher education from Cambridge.
1915: Returned to India and joined Presidency College.
1922: Started working as a meteorologist and published his first scientific statistical research paper.
1923: Mahalanobis married Nirmalkumari.
1931: Established the Indian Statistical institute.
1944: Received the Weldon medal from Oxford.
1945: Was elected the Fellow of Royal Society of London.
1947: Was appointed Chairman of the United Nations Sub-Commission on Statistical Sampling.
1948: He retired as principal of Presidency College.
1949: Mahalanobis was appointed the Honorary Statistical Advisor by the Government of India
1950: Was elected as the president of the Indian Science Congress.
1951: Established the Central Statistical Institute.
1951: Became a Fellow of Econometric Society of America.
1952: Became a fellow of Pakistan Statistical Association.
1953: Was inducted as a member of the Planning Commission.
1954: Was elected as Honorary Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society of England.
1959: Became a Foreign Member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
1961: Fellow of the American Statistical Association.
1968: Conferred upon with the Padma Vibhushan by the Government of India.
1972: Professor Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis breathed his last.