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Behind the picture: Major Greenwood and the measure of medicine

by Guest Author on 30 Oct 2014

Major Greenwood (Image credit: MRC Biostatistics Unit)

Major Greenwood (Image credit: MRC Biostatistics Unit)

The introduction of measurement into medicine established the foundations of the modern discipline of biostatistics, crucial to all aspects of medicine, epidemiology and public health. But how did statistics become so embedded? Isabel Baker looks back at Professor Major Greenwood, an eminent statistician of the 20th century, who developed and encouraged some of the first uses of modern statistical methods in medical science.

This 1920s photo of Major Greenwood ― whose forename was Major, rather than reflecting military rank ― pictures him smiling cheerily on a wooden bench. But it gives little away about the nature of this distinguished and imposing man who dedicated his life’s work to statistics.

“There can be no doubt that to many people he was rather formidable,” reads a tribute to Greenwood in the London Hospital Gazette’s obituary. “But those who knew him best realised that he was just as critical of himself as of others, and that much of his ungenial manner was really due to shyness.” [1]

Greenwood started his career by following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both well-respected doctors. But in 1904, while working part-time as a GP, he attended a course on statistics at University College and found a new interest.

During this time he used the post-mortem records of the London Hospital to analyse the weight of human internal organs, which resulted in his first research paper, published in the same year. Interestingly he didn’t include any of his methods, calculations that would have taken a considerable time, even if he’d used a mechanical calculator.

With an obvious flair for mathematical reasoning, Greenwood decided general practice was not for him. He instead went into research, becoming a demonstrator of physiology in Leonard Hill’s Department of Physiology at the London Hospital in 1905. The pair went on to investigate the effects of increased barometric pressure experienced by divers, often by experimenting on themselves.

Over the next few years, at a time when very few people were involved with statistics in medical science, Greenwood changed the focus of his work from clinical and lab research to statistical investigations and methods. In an anonymous paper, which he supposedly wrote in 1907, he states with remarkable accuracy, “It is probable that these methods [of statistics] will soon be applied on a large scale to medical problems”. [2]

His method for calculating the accuracy ― or standard error ― of calculations made using life tables, which are used to estimate cumulative survival from initial event to a future time point, is still used today. [3,4]

In 1927 Greenwood became Director of the MRC Statistical Department in London (the MRC Biostatistics Unit today), established in 1914. He was well qualified for the job, having founded the first ever departments of statistics, at the London Hospital and at the Lister Institute in London, and having been director of both simultaneously! [2] With his close colleague John Brownlee*, who headed the MRC Statistical Department from 1914 until his death in 1927, they governed the MRC’s statistical programme for more than 30 years.

Influential not only in establishing the discipline of biostatistics but in creating the first departments and courses devoted to it, Greenwood’s thinking displayed considerable foresight. And remarkably, his ideas continue to reflect the modern practice of biostatistics as we know it.

Isabel Baker

The MRC Biostatistics Unit celebrates its centenary this year. To find out how scientists at the unit are using statistics today, read the autumn 2014 Network article.

*A biography about John Brownlee has recently been published in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: www.oxforddnb.com/index/107/101107215


  1. Obituary: Professor Major Greenwood, DSc (Lond), FRCP, FRS. The London Hospital Gazette.
  2. Major Greenwood’s early career and the first departments of medical statistics
  3. Greenwood M. Value of life-tables in statistical research. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 1922; 85: 537-560.
  4. 1926 Greenwood M. A report on the natural duration of cancer. {Reports on Public Health and Medical Subjects, No 33, 1926}


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