“Statistics must have a clearly defined purpose, one aspect of which is scientific advancement and the other human welfare and national development.”
As a student, Prof. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis never confined himself in his subject books. He was very interested in various subjects like amateur astronomy, philosophy, architecture, and psychology. Around this time, Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis met with pioneer of Mathematics Srinivasa Ramanujan in Cambridge. He had his initiation in Statistics in 1915 through Biometrika, the journal founded by Karl Pearson.
When Prof. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis expressed his interest to work on Statistics, he approached Rabindranath Tagore for his kind opinion. Tagore sent him to meet with Dr. Brajendranath Seal (B.N.Seal). He was further encouraged to engage in statistical research by B. N. Seal who asked him to take up a certain statistical exercise with respect to the examination result of Calcutta University.
In 1932, the Institute was located in a small portion of the Physics Department of the Presidency College but by 1972 the Institute had several large building of its own to provide working space for research and training in diverse subjects such as: anthropometry, biochemistry, botany, computer science, crop science, economics, human genetics, precensus, psychometry, sociology, and statistics. The Institute's activities were not confined within Calcutta but spread all over the India.
While Prof. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis struggled against many odds in his bid to develop statistics as a science in India, he was lucky to receive whole hearted cooperation and help from a number of people. He had a special ability for locating talents.
From the very beginning of the Institute he was assisted by a number of young and talented researchers, namely Harish Chandra Sinha, Raj Chandra Bose, Samarendra Nath Roy, and Keshvan Raghavan Nair. In 1941 came Calyampudi Radhakrishna Rao. That Mahalanobis was not wrong in his selection of comrades-in-arms was evident from the fact that many of his early associates earned international fame for themselves and the Institute for their outstanding contributions to statistics.
The First Convocation of the Indian Statistical Institute was held in the mango-grove of the Institute on 12 February 1962.
The event of first convocation was marked with the conferment of Honorary Doctor of Science to five eminent people: Professor Satyendra Nath Bose, Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher, Sri Jawaharlal Nehru, Academician Andrey Nikolaevich Kolmogorov and Dr. Walter Andrew Shewhart.
During the first convocation, the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy was conferred to two students, Kalyanapuram Ranga Parthasarathy and Jayaram Sethuraman, and Master of Statistics Degree to Narasimha Sreenivasa Iyengar, Vasant Tukaram Korde, Tares Maitra, Manjula Mukhopadhyay, Ganesan Parthasarathy, Kadiyala Koteswara Rao, and Paras Nath Singh.
Prof. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis was again called upon to tackle the problem of flooding after two devastating floods, one in North Bengal in 1922 and the other in Orissa in 1926. This led him to undertake extensive statistical studies of rainfall and floods in Bengal and Orissa covering a span of about sixty years. The studies yielded some of the basic calculations that were later used for the two hydro-electric and irrigation projects in Hirakud and Damodar Valley.
Prof. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis’ first systematic work was on a statistical study of the anthropometric measurements of Anglo-Indians in Calcutta and his first paper was on “Anthropological Observations on the Anglo-Indian of Calcutta Part-I Analysis of Male Stature’urt”, which was published in the records of the Indian Museum in 1922.
Sankhya, The Indian Journal of Statistics, founded by Prof. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis in 1933 is the official publication of Indian Statistical Institute. Prof. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis explained his reasons for choosing the name Sankhya. In his words: "We believe that the idea underlying this integral concept of statistics finds adequate expression in the ancient Indian word Sankhya. In Sanskrit the usual meaning is ‘number’, but the original root meaning was ‘determinate knowledge"
He was the editor of Sankhya from 1933 to 1972.
Then came the epoch-making investigation on the technique of large scale sample surveys, with which Prof. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis’ name will always be associated. Systematic work on the surveying of agriculture crops began in 1937, which culminated in a large scale sample survey of the acreage and yield of jute crop in 1941. It covered the whole province of Bengal and was extended to all important crops in both Bengal and Bihar in 1943.
This was followed by sample surveys for collecting socio-economic data, such as public preference. A large number of surveys were conducted from 1937-1950 in Bengal for collecting information on crops and socio-economic data, which gave opportunities for improving the design of sample surveys and for gaining experience in the collection of data from the field.
During the sample census on jute crop in Bengal, Prof. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis insisted on the use of sampling methodology. But the Government officials had no idea about sampling and the survey was on the verge of being abandoned altogether.
At this juncture, R. A. Fisher came to India in 1938 and in a memorandum submitted to the Viceroy, he strongly recommended the use of sampling methodology in India. At last a large scale sample survey of the area under jute for the whole province of Bengal was undertaken in 1940.
Several hurdles had to be crossed in convincing the administrators that gaps in national income statistics could be filled through data obtained by sampling, and that there would be a need for continuous collection of information to assess the progress of economic development and to make policy decisions.
Prof. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis won the battle and the National Sample Survey was established in 1950. It is a continuing survey in which information is collected year by year with the help of a whole time field organization, spread all over India, and which provides periodic estimates on social and economic factors affecting the nation economy.
A Central Statistical Unit was established by the Government of India in 1949 to work under the technical guidance of Prof.Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis as Honorary Statistical Adviser to the cabinet. For more than two years this unit was entirely staffed from and run by ISI. After two years the Central Statistical Organizations was formed for coordinating all statistical activities of the Government.
After meeting with Dr. Walter Shewart, who was known as the 'Father of Statistical Quality Control', Prof. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis wrote to the Government of India in 1942 pointing out the advantages of using statistical quality control methods, particularly in the industries. As a consequence, the Indian Statistical Institute took initiative in spreading the use of quality control methods in industry by establishing Statistical Quality Control units in different parts of India since 1953.
During 1955, the USSR Government had offered the Institute a big electronic digital computer called URAL through the UNTAA (United Nations Technical Aid Administration). The URAL computer was received in March 1958 and installed on 20 December 1958 in the Institute for the processing of statistical data by the Soviet engineers who handed it over for use in February 1959.
By 1959-60, the Indian Statistical Institute became, for all practical purposes, a National Computer Centre for the country. It met the computational requirements for scientific problems in organizations like the Ministry of Defense, The Atomic Energy Commission, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and the Meteorology Department.
From 1937 to 1967 about six hundred leading scientists and economists of the world came to the Institute, among them were J.B.S. Haldane, Abraham Wald, J.K. Galbraith, Frederic Joliot-Curie, Madame Irene Joliot-Curie, Norbert Weiner, Chou-en-Lai, Prime Minister of China, Ho-chi-minh, and President of the People's Republic of Vietnam to name a few.
Prof. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis started going abroad from 1946 in connection with the work at the United Nations Statistical Commission in various capacities: as member; Vice-Chairman and Chairman; as its representative on the Population Commission in 1948; and as a member of drafting committee at the Regional Meeting of Statisticians.
He was elected as fellow of the:
- Royal Society of London in 1945,
- Chairman of the United Nations Sub- Commission on Statistical Sampling (five sessions- 1947-1951)
- Fellow of International Econometric Society (1951)
- Chairman of United Nations Statistical Commission (1954-1958)
- President of National Institute of Sciences of India (1957 and 1958)
- Fellow of American Statistical Association (1961)
- Fellow of World Academy of Art and Science (1963).
Prof. Prasanta Chandra Mahalaonbis was honored with several awards:
-The Weldon Medal from Oxford University (1944),
- Sir Devaprasad Sarbadhikari Gold Medal from Calcutta University (1957),
- Gold Medal from Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (1964),
- Durga Prasad Khaitan Memorial Gold Medal from Asiatic Society (1968),
- Srinivasa Ramanujam Gold Medal (1968),
- Honorary Deshikottama from Visva Bharati University (1961).
In 1968, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award by the Republic of India for his contribution to science and services to the country.
He also received honorary doctorates from Calcutta University (1957), Sofi University (1961), Delhi University (1964) and Stockholm University (1966).
Prof. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis viewed statistics not as a branch of mathematics but as a technology. Mathematics and probability theory are only the means to promote the use of statistical methods in the world of reality. He shaped Indian Statistical Institute as a beacon of knowledge with commitment for national development and social welfare. He is still being remembered for the Mahalanobis Distance, a statistical measure, and for his great contribution in the large scale sample survey. He continues to inspire statisticians in India and around the world.
P.C.Mahalanobis Memorial Museum & Archives; Reprography and Photography Unit;
Library, Documentation and Information Science Division
Co-ordinator: Dr. Kishor Chandra Satpathy
Photo Design & Restoration: Mr.Tapas Basu
Research & Compilation: Ms. Keya Das &
Ms. Kasturi Basu
Special thanks to Dr. Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay,Director and Dr. Dipti Prasad Mukherjee,Deputy Director of Indian Statistical Institute in making this online exhibit possible.
1. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of The Royal Society,Volume 19,London,The Royal Society.
2. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis
by A. Mahalanobis, National Book Trust India,
3. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis A Biography by Ashok Rudra by Oxford University Press,1996