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.
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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