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Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis

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Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis was born on 29 June 1893, in Calcutta, Bengal, British India to Prabodh Chandra and Nirodbashini. He 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.


He received his schooling at the Brahmo Boys School in Calcutta, graduating in 1908. He then enrolled at the Presidency College, Calcutta, where his teachers included Jagadish Chandra Bose and Prafulla Chandra Ray. Meghnad Saha and Subhas Chandra Bose were his juniors at college. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree with honors in physics in 1912.

Wishing to study abroad, he went to England in 1913 and joined King's College Chapel. He had an interesting life in England—along with his studies, he also explored cross-country walking and punting on the river. He soon received his Tripos in physics.





After completing his education he worked for a while at the Cavendish Laboratory with C. T. R. Wilson. The he took a break to go to India where he was asked by the Principal of Presidency College to take classes in physics. He returned to England after a short stay in India. During this time he discovered the ‘Biometrika’, a journal published by Oxford University Press for the Biometrika Trust which primarily focuses on theoretical statistics. He became fascinated with the subject and was intrigued by the utility of statistics in understanding problems in meteorology and anthropology. He returned to India and was appointed as Professor of Physics at Presidency College in 1922; he taught physics at the college for the next three decades. But being a Professor of Physics did not deter him from pursuing his new found interest in statistics. He found a mentor in Acharya Brajendra Nath Seal who encouraged his pursuits in statistics. Initially Mahalanobis began working on analyzing university exam results, anthropometric measurements on Anglo-Indians of Calcutta and some meteorological problems. He also had many colleagues who were equally passionate about statistical studies. With them, he first set up a Statistical Laboratory in his room at the Presidency College, Calcutta. The formation of this group eventually led to the establishment of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) which was formally registered in 1932. Initially housed in the Physics Department of the Presidency College, the institute grew with the assistance received through Pitamber Pant, who was a secretary to the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Several of Mahalanobis’ colleagues, including S. S. Bose, J. M. Sengupta, R. C. Bose, S. N. Roy, K. R. Nair, R. R. Bahadur, and Gopinath Kallianpur made pioneering contributions to the institute. The 1930s saw the institute expand vastly. In 1933, the journal ‘Sankhya’ was founded, and in 1938, a training section was started. He was also very influential in developments related to large-scale sample surveys. He is credited with the introduction of the concept of pilot surveys, and his early surveys which began between 1937 and 1944 included topics such as consumer expenditure, tea-drinking habits, public opinion, crop acreage and plant disease. In 1948, the ISI received a major grant from the Indian government which allowed them to set up a separate Research and Training School. The institute continued to flourish under Mahalanobis’ leadership. Renowned for his statistical achievements all over the world, he also held several prestigious international positions, including a stint as the chairman of the United Nations Sub-Commission on Sampling from 1947 to 1951. He established the National Sample Survey in 1950 and also set up the Central Statistical Organization to coordinate statistical activities in India. He became a member of the Planning Commission of India in 1955 and remained a member till 1967. In this position, he helped to formulate strategies to aid the development of heavy industry in India as a part of the Second Five-Year Plan.


Personal Life

Mahalanobis married Nirmalkumari, daughter of Herambhachandra Maitra, a leading educationist and member of the Brahmo Samaj, on February 27, 1923.  


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Mahalanobis passed away on 28th June, 1972 just a day short of his seventy-ninth birthday.


Awards & Honors

1944:- Weldon Medal from Oxford University

1945:- Fellow of the Royal Society, London

1950:- President of Indian Science Congress

1951:- Fellow of the Econometric Society, U.S.A.

1952:- Fellow of the Pakistan Statistical Association

1954:- Honorary Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, U.K.

1957:- Sir Deviprasad Sarvadhikari Gold Medal

1958:- Foreign member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences

1959:- Honorary Fellow of King's College, Cambridge

1961:- Fellow of the American Statistical Association

1961:- Durgaprasad Khaitan Gold Medal

1968:- Padma Vibhushan

1968:- Srinivasa Ramanujam Gold Medal


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