Statisticians in World War II

One of them was George Box, a young sergeant from Gravesend who had left school aged 16 in 1936 to work as an assistant to a chemist in a sewage plant. This background brought him to Porton Down, where the army was studying the effects of poisons such as mustard gas. Sergeant Box knew enough to tell his superiors that they needed a statistician—and that he had once tried to read a book by someone called Fisher, though he had not understood it.

“Well, you read the book so you’d better do it,” came the reply. In his engaging memoir, “An Accidental Statistician”, Box describes testing treatments for poison-gas victims. He wrote to Fisher, by then at Cambridge, to ask for help. Fisher invited him to visit. “The Army, however, did not have a procedure to send a sergeant to see a professor at Cambridge, so they made out a railway warrant that said I was taking a horse there.”

Volunteers at Porton Down would receive six drops of mustard-gas liquid on different parts of their arms. The challenge was to unpick variations in healing time caused by treatments from those caused by natural variation between individuals. Different substances were tested as ointments, adopting Fisher’s approach to crop trials; Box found that they all made matters worse and established what is still the correct treatment for mustard-gas blisters: clean them, dress them and leave them alone.

Stephen By Stephen

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Professor and quant guy. Libertarian turned populist Republican. Trying to learn Japanese and play Spanish Baroque music on the ukulele.

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