A tale of two statisticians

Thomas Bayes   Richard Price

At the moment my Wednesday schedule takes me through Bunhill Field, a cemetery used for Nonconformist and Dissenter burials until the mid-nineteenth century and now a public garden, an oasis of peace in this high-rise part of London.

It is widely known that one of the people buried there is Thomas Bayes (c.1702-1761), a Nonconformist preacher famous for his eponymous theorem which has become the basis of a philosophy, almost a cult: Bayesian statistics. His tomb (on the left in the pictures above) was restored recently, I think by the Royal Statistical Society, whose headquarters are very nearby.

When I went to see it, there was a gardener sweeping up leaves who let me in through the gate. He told me that, as part of the restoration, Bayes’ theorem had been engraved on the tomb. It was so covered in moss as to be quite illegible, but the gardener said that they clean the moss off every couple of years.

But I learned that another person with the perhaps unusual combination of Nonconformist preacher and statistician is buried there: Richard Price (1723-1791), whose tomb is on the right in the pictures above.

Now Richard Price is not an uncommon name, as a glance at the disambiguation page in Wikipedia will show. In fact, when I was a student I wrote a novel (unpublished, needless to say) whose protagonist was called Richard Price. But it seems that the person whose tomb is shown was indeed the one I am going to say a few words about.

I have been unable to discover exactly what his contribution to statistics was. But it seems that he compiled mortality tables, and also improved the methods used by actuaries at the time. Perhaps more important, he edited and wrote an introduction to Thomas Bayes’ essay Essay towards solving a problem in the doctrine of chances, in which his theorem was first published. I’ve seen a claim that Price covered the philosophy behind the theorem, which Bayes had avoided. So perhaps he was partly responsible for Bayesian statistics.

Price was better known as a liberal philosopher. He met with many of the leading liberals of his time, both British and North American. Mary Wollstonecraft, though Church of England, joined his congregation at Newington Green since she found his preaching more congenial; he encouraged and supported her in her work for the rights of women.

If anyone knows more, please comment: I would be interested to know.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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1 Response to A tale of two statisticians

  1. Indeed, the Royal Statistical Society’s offices are close by – about five minutes walk on the corner of Errol Street and Lamb’s Buildings.

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