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Adolphe Quetelet

BIOGRAPHY 4.2 Adolphe Quetelet (1796 -1874)

Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet (1796-1874) was born in Ghent, Belgium. He had an early interest in the fine arts (he painted, wrote poems, and even produced an opera), but this interest was soon overshadowed by his attraction to mathematics. His was the first doctoral dissertation at the newly established University of Ghent and it was widely acclaimed as an original contribution to analytic geometry. The dissertation resulted in his election, at age 24, to the Brussels Académie Royale des Sciences et des Belles-Lettres (in which he soon became the dominant spirit) and to a position of teaching mathematics, physics, and astronomy at the Brussels Athenaeum. He was a great teacher (students and visitors from all of Europe crowded his lectures), and he was a prodigious writer, producing a vast array of essays and books and editing a leading journal. Yet the seemingly indefatigable energy that he poured into his career also changed its orientation. His enthusiasm for astronomy that led, eventually, to the building of an observatory in Brussels, and his directorship of it, also brought him into contact with illustrious French mathematicians, such as Fourier, Laplace (Biography 8.1) and Poisson (Biography 9.3). Their interest in probability theory and its applications to social phenomena excited Quetelet.

His subsequent active encouragement of the collection of empirical social data led to the first national census in Belgium and Holland (in 1829), the formation (in 1834) of the Statistical Society of London (now named the Royal Statistical Society), and the organization (in 1841) of the Belgian Central Statistical Commission, a central agency responsible for collecting statistics. As president of the latter, Quetelet did much to inspire the creation of statistical bureaus all over Europe and labored unstintingly to promote internationally uniform methods and terminology in data collection and presentation. Under his leadership, the first of a long series of International Statistical Congresses was held in Brussels in 1853.

Although there had been forerunners in England, France, and Germany, Quetelet earned the honor of being called the "father of modern statistics" by the publication of his Sur l'Homme et le Développement de Ses Facultés in 1835. In this book, Quetelet noted how social phenomena (such as crime or suicides) reproduced themselves with amazing regularity. He argued that such regularities were discoverable only by statistical techniques and, even more important, could also be linked to causes with the help of such techniques. Unlike earlier writers who had given a theological interpretation to social regularities (seeing in them evidence of a divine presence), Quetelet pointed to social conditions as causes. He suggested that legislation could also ameliorate their effects (such as crime or suicides). As he put it:

The constancy with which the same crimes repeat themselves every year with the same frequency and provoke the same punishment in the same ratios is one of the most curious facts we learn from the statistics of the courts. … And every year the numbers have confirmed my prevision in a way that I can even say: there is a tribute man pays more regularly than those owed to nature or to the Treasury; the tribute paid to crime! Sad condition of human race! We can tell beforehand how many will stain their hands with the blood of their fellow-creatures, how many will be forgers, how many poisoners, almost as one can foretell the number of births and deaths.1

Quetelet believed, however, that masses of numbers had to be studied before one could reach any reliable conclusions about causes:

It seems to me that that which relates to the human species, considered en masse, is of the order of physical facts: the greater the number of individuals, the more the influence of the individual will is effaced, being replaced by the series of general facts that depend on the general causes according to which society exists and maintains itself. These are the causes we seek to grasp, and when we do know them, we shall be able to ascertain their effects in social matters, just as we ascertain effects from causes in the physical sciences.2

For additional reading see Hankins, Frank H. "Adolphe Quetelet as Statistician." In Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law, vol. 31. New York: Columbia University, 1908, pp. 443-576.
1From Sur I'Homme.,. as cited in Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. XI (New York: Charles Scribner's, 1975), p. 237. 2Recherches sur le Penchant au Crime aux Différens Âges, 2nd ed. (Brussels: Hayez, 1833), pp. 80-81.


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