People of Science: Alice Lee

People of Science with Brian Cox - Uta Frith (2018-02-12) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

Photograph of Alice Lee at a tea party, with Karl Pearson and others (1900) by AnonymousThe Royal Society

Alice Lee (1859-1939)

Second to left on the picture, Lee was a mathematician, and one of the first women to become Doctor of Science at University of London in 1901. She conducted most of her research in a laboratory dedicated to the statistical study of people's physical and behavioral characteristics headed by Pr. Karl Pearson (1857-1936). 

In 1884, Alice Lee was the first woman to obtain a Bachelor in Science from the newly founded Bedford College for Women. Set up at 47 Bedford Square in London, the college was the first higher education institution for women in the UK. Ironically, Lee met her mentor Karl Pearson, because he criticised the academic standards at Bedford College. 

Photograph of Karl Pearson (early 20th century) by UnknownThe Royal Society

Support of Karl Pearson FRS

Alice Lee's doctoral supervisor was a leading biostatistician who founded UCL 's Department of Applied Statistics and held the post of Galton Professor for over twenty years.. His statistical studies in support of the now debunked pseudo-science of eugenics are crucial to understand the context of her work. 

Letter from Karl Pearson to Robert Harrison, forwarding a paper by Alice Lee. Letter from Karl Pearson to Robert Harrison, forwarding a paper by Alice Lee. (1900) by Karl Pearson (1857-1936)The Royal Society

In this letter addressed to the Royal Society Assistant Secretary, Pearson submits a paper by Alice Lee. Pearson insists that Lee be recognised as sole author:

'I want the paper treated as hers, presented by me; for in the matter of editing I have hardly done more than any professor does for a research student working in his laboratory'.

In fact, his support of female researchers went far beyond that of any other contemporary professors.

Paper by Alice Lee. 'Data for the Problem of Evolution in Man. VI. A first study of the correlation of the human skull.' (1901) by Alice Lee (1859-1939)The Royal Society

In 1901, Lee published as first author 'A first study of the correlation of the human skull' in the Royal Society journal of Mathematical and Physical sciences (Philosophical Transactions A).

As noted by Pearson in the introduction, the study summarised her doctoral work on skull capacity.

Profile view of the skull of Robert the Bruce, Karl Pearson (1857-1936), 1924, From the collection of: The Royal Society
Show lessRead more

The traditional method used to determine skull capacity relied on pouring sand or shots into the skull. Before Lee, craniometry was therefore mainly conducted on skeletons - as with this famous skull of Robert the Bruce studied by Pearson and Galton which was recently digitally reconstructed by a team of scientists.

Measurements of Robert the Bruce's skull (1924) by Karl Pearson (1857-1936)The Royal Society

Alice Lee was instrumental in developing mathematical formulae to determine skull capacity of living individuals and perform statistical analysis, collecting skull measurements from her direct academic circle (from male professors and female students).

But her methods were controversially developed using skulls from archaeological collections obtained in Northern Africa to define the notion of ‘race’.

Photograph of Francis Galton (19th century) by UnknownThe Royal Society

Lee's doctoral work was examined by the leading Victorian statistician: Sir Francis Galton FRS (1822-1911).

A leading proponent of eugenics, holding lifelong (and completely discredited) racist views, Galton was particularly interested in hereditary traits and defined in statistical terms the concept of 'correlation'. Despite granting her the doctoral title, Galton disagreed with Lee's findings, considering that women's inferiority to men should be verified by skull capacity.

Table XXVII from 'A first study of the correlation of the human skull', Head Measurements and Estimated Skull Capacity of 30 Bedford College Women Students (1901) by Alice Lee (1859-1939)The Royal Society

The groundbreaking aspect of Lee's research was to demonstrate that there was no direct correlation between cranial capacity and intelligence. This was a first step towards proving scientifically the intellectual equality between genders and ethnicities, despite racist and sexist views remaining prevalent in Alice Lee’s eugenicist circle.

Photograph of Alice Lee at a tea party, with Karl Pearson and others (1900) by AnonymousThe Royal Society

During WW1, Alice Lee joined the Munitions Invention department of the Ministry of Munitions and performed computer work for the Admiralty.

As for many women workers, little is known of her contribution to the ministry, except that she mainly calculated bullet trajectories. In a petition to the Home Office to grant her a pension, Pearson (top right on the picture) wrote: 'few, if any, woman workers of her period have accomplished as large as bulk of first class research as Dr. Lee'.

Credits: Story

© Royal Society 2017

For more information about the Royal Society Library and Archive please visit our website:

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Google apps