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Alice Lee: the groundbreaking statistician from Essex

Alice Lee was a talented mathematician. <i>(Image: Wikipedia)</i>
Alice Lee was a talented mathematician. (Image: Wikipedia)

Alice Lee was a child of Dedham. She was born there in 1858, attended the local school, and her father ran a coach building business in the High Street. Her discoveries were to fundamentally change understanding of the female intellect, leading to the present day participation of women in all walks of life.

For centuries it had been accepted that women were intellectually inferior to men. The argument was that the female frame was physically small, including the head, so it was self-evident that a woman’s similarly petite brain couldn’t possibly have the same mental capacity as the larger male. As the psychologist Gustave Le Bon wrote:

‘There are a large number of women whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to the most developed male brains… This inferiority is so obvious that no-one can contest it for a moment.’

This is what Alice faced when she enrolled at Bedford College, London, in 1876; the first institution in Britain to provide higher education for women. Her arrival was timely as it coincided with Mathematics being taught to degree level, although Bedford didn’t have award giving status. Nonetheless, Alice sat the University of London B.Sc. exam and became the first woman from her college to graduate on equal terms as a man.

Great British Life:  Alice Lee was born in Dedham in 1858 Credit: Getty Images Alice Lee was born in Dedham in 1858 Credit: Getty Images

With few options open to her, it’s unsurprising that she stayed on at Bedford College and taught Maths, Physics, Greek, and Latin. This outraged the statistician Karl Pearson who wrote an irate letter to the Pall Mall Gazette criticising standards at “Ladies Colleges” with a not too subtle dig at Alice herself:

‘… the work is not academic as is sufficiently indicated when we say that a teacher has been known to lecture on mathematics, and on physics, and on classics at or about the same time.’

She responded to Pearson defending herself and, rather than the expected dismissal, there was an astonishing change of mind that completely changed Alice’s life. He was impressed by her knowledge, invited her to attend his lectures, and she eventually became part of his research team. It was Karl Pearson who encouraged her to write a thesis and submit it for a D.Sc.

Great British Life: Alice's father ran a coach building business from Dedham High Street Credit: Getty ImagesAlice's father ran a coach building business from Dedham High Street Credit: Getty Images

Studying for her doctorate, Lee devised a method of accurately calculating the volume of the skull through external measurements and applied statistical analysis to the relationship between cranial capacity and intelligence. For her case studies she compared the brain sizes of men from the University of London, women attending Bedford College and, in a bold move, measured the heads of 35 members of the all-male Anatomical Society, who propagated the size/gender theory. The results of the latter experiment are amusing but were not without repercussions for Alice. Many of these eminent men had skulls that were much smaller than female students at Bedford College including Sir William Turner who came 82nd out of the 90 people examined. The smallest of all was Julius Kollman, the noted anthropologist. To Alice the conclusions were obvious:

‘It would be impossible to assert any marked degree of correlation between the skull capacities of these individuals and the current appreciation of their intellectual capacities.’

This ought to have ended the argument but when Alice defended her thesis (usually an academic formality) one of the examiners she faced was Sir William Turner. The degree was refused on the grounds that it was plagiarised from the work of Karl Pearson despite him clearly stating that it was not. A revision was successfully submitted with a long introduction from Pearson who was keen to stress it ‘… was substantially her work. My task has been that of an editor.’

Great British Life: Alice studied the relationship between cranial capacity and intelligence Credit: Getty ImagesAlice studied the relationship between cranial capacity and intelligence Credit: Getty Images

The now Dr Lee continued her researches for the rest of her life and during WW1 her expertise was called upon at the Munitions Inventions Department studying gun trajectories and then as a computer for the Admiralty. Dr Alice Lee died on 5th October 1939. She doesn’t appear to have been politically active but her research was seismic. Science had proved that there was no difference whatsoever between the male and female brain and therefore no reason for social exclusion on the basis of gender.

Caption: Alice Lee was a talented mathematician

Caption: Alice studied the relationship between cranial capacity and intelligence

Caption: Alice was born in Dedham in 1858

Caption: Alice’s father ran a coach building business from Dedham High Street



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