Mahalanabish, PC

Mahalanabish, PC (1893-1972) statistician, entrepreneur, social and cultural reformer, was born on 29 June 1893. Mahalanabish's grandfather founded, with others, an organisation called the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, which was to become a torch-bearer of the Bengal Renaissance. His father, Prabodh Chandra, was an active member of this organisation and his mother, Nirodbasini, belonged to a family of considerable academic fame.'

Prasanta Chandra Mahalanabish completed his schooling in Calcutta in 1908. In 1912, he graduated with honours in Physics from Presidency College, Calcutta. He went to England in 1915 and completed Tripos in Mathematics and Physics from King's College, Cambridge. In Part II of the Tripos, he was the only candidate to get a first class in Physics. King's College awarded him a senior research fellowship. Before starting his research, he came to Kolkata for a short vacation, but never returned to England. Meanwhile the First World War also intervened.Just before Mahalanabish left Cambridge, his tutor, WH Macaulay, drew his attention to Biometrika.

In this way a window was opened to a new area of science, permanently changing the direction of his life.

Among his mentors in Calcutta was Acharya Brojendranath Seal, a philosopher and an encyclopedist, who was also interested in Statistics. Seal was to have a lasting influence on Mahalanabish’s life and work. Later, Mahalanabish met Nelson Annadale, the then Director of Zoological and Anthropological Survey of India, who had collected anthropometric measurements on Anglo-Indians of Calcutta. Mahalanabish analysed the data and published his first paper on statistics entitled ‘Anthropological Observations on Anglo-Indians of Calcutta, Part I: Male Stature’, published in Records of the Indian Museum in 1922. This paper attracted the attention of Sir Gilbert Walker, Director General of Observatories, who requested Mahalanabish to undertake a systematic study of some meteorological problems.

PC Mahalanabish

This resulted in an important discovery by Mahalanabish that the region of highest control for changes in weather on the surface of the earth is located about 4 kilometres above sea level. Subsequently, he was appointed Meteorologist in the Alipore Observatory and he held this post from 1922 to 1926.

Mahalanabish and his students-among them Rajchandra Basu, Samerendranath Ray and CR Rao - made major contributions to the theory and methods of statistics as well as its application to other disciplines. The most notable are Mahalanabish's D-square statistics and RC Basu's work on the Design of Experiments and Coinbinatories. The drafting of India's Second Five-Year Plan was entrusted by Nehru to Mahalanabish and his Institute.

In 1927, Mahalanabish spent a few months in Karl Pearson's laboratory in London, during which period he performed extensive statistical analyses of anthropometric data and closely examined Pearson's Coefficient of Racial Likeness (CRL) for measurement of biological affinities. He noted several shortcomings of the CRL and in 1930 published his seminar paper on the D-square statistic entitled 'Tests and Measures of Group Divergence'. Mahalanabish's interest in anthropometry remained strong and two large-scale anthropometric surveys were carried out under his direction in the United Provinces and Bengal.

Mahalanabish's contributions to large scale sample surveys are among his most significant and lasting gifts to statistics. He started his work on sample surveys with estimation of area and yield of jute crop in Bengal in 1937. However, it took him over a decade to get these estimates accepted. He was elected Chairman of the United Nations Sub-commission on Statistical Sampling in 1947, and held the post till 1951. His tireless advocation of the usefulness of sample surveys resulted in the final recommendation of this sub-commission that sampling methods should be extended to all parts of the world. Mahalanabish received the Weldon Medal from Oxford University in 1944 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, London, in 1945, for his fundamental contributions to Statistics, particularly in the area of large-scale sample surveys.

Mahalanabish believed that statistics should be an integral part of the dynamics of national planning. He took a keen interest and played a key role in formulating India's second five-year plan based on the four-sector model developed by him. During the last decade of his life, he devised a statistical method, Fractile Graphical Analysis, for comparison of socio-economic conditions of groups of people. This technique has now been used in many other branches of science.

The year 1931 marks a watershed in the development of statistics in India. From the fledgling Statistical Laboratory formed in the early 1920s by Mahalanabish within the Physics department of Presidency College, he founded the indian statistical institute on 17 December 1931. In 1959, by an act of the Indian Parliament, the Institute was declared as an 'Institution of National Importance'.

Mahalanabish became the Honorary President of the International Statistical Institute in 1957, and was elected a fellow of the American Statistical Association in 1961. Throughout his career he received many other academic honours and awards. He received the highest national honour, Padma Vibhushan, from the President of India in 1968. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanabish passed away on 28 June 1972 in Calcutta. [Masud Hasan Chowdhury]