Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis OBE, FNA, FASc FRS (29June 1893 –28 June 1972)

Today, being 125th birth anniversary of a great teacher as well as a nation builder, which is rarely seen in recent times, I thought it fit to commemorate this great person in this page.

Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis belonged to a family of Bengali landed gentry who lived in Bikrampur (now in Bangladesh). His grandfather Gurucharan (1833–1916) moved to Calcutta in 1854 and built up a business, starting a chemist shop in 1860. Gurucharan was influenced by Debendranath Tagore (1817–1905), father of Rabindranath Tagore. Gurucharan was actively involved in social movements such as the Brahmo Samaj, acting as its Treasurer and President. His house on 210 Cornwallis Street was the center of the Brahmo Samaj.

Gurucharan’s elder son, Subodhchandra (1867–1953), became a distinguished educator after studying physiology at Edinburgh University. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 1900, Subodhchandra returned to India, founding the Dept. of Physiology in the Presidency College, Calcutta and thereafter in Calcutta University. Gurucharan’s younger son, Prabodh Chandra (1869-1942), was the father of P. C. Mahalanobis.

Born in the house at 210 Cornwallis Street, PC Mahalanobis grew up in a socially active family surrounded by intellectuals and reformers. Mahalanobis joined Presidency College, Calcutta where he was taught by teachers that included Jagadish Chandra Bose, and Prafulla Chandra Ray. Mahalanobis received a Bachelor of Science degree with honours in physics in 1912 and left for England in 1913 to join the University of London.After returning to England, Mahalanobis was introduced to the journal Biometrika. This interested him so much that he bought a complete set and took them to India. He discovered the utility of statistics to problems in meteorology and anthropology, beginning to work on problems on his journey back to India. It was this study, that shifted his course in academics from Physics to Statistics.

In Calcutta, Mahalanobis met Nirmalkumari, daughter of Herambhachandra Maitra, a leading educationist and member of the Brahmo Samaj. They married on 27 February 1923, although her father did not completely approve of the union. He was concerned about Mahalanobis’s opposition to various clauses in the membership of the student wing of the Brahmo Samaj, including prohibitions against members’ drinking alcohol and smoking. Sir Nilratan Sircar, P. C. Mahalanobis’ maternal uncle, took part in the wedding ceremony in place of the father of the bride. Tagore too joined the wedding and a poem with the following lines was written:

তোমাদের এই মিলন বসন্তে
দিলেন কবি বসন্তের গান আনি
সুন্দর প্রেম জাগুক আনন্দে
পড়ুক গলায় সুরের মালাখানি

In the spring of your union
The poet evokes the songs of Spring
Let your love dress in joy
With the garland of music

He founded the Indian Statistical Institute, the only research institute till date on Statistics. This institute produced the best academics in this area who also contributed to population studies, anthropometry and lastly the National Sample Survey of India which does all large scale sample surveys related to our country.. The first electronic computer in India, HEC-2M, was installed in the institute in 1956, and one of the foremost formal courses for computer science in the country started here in 1962.

He will be best remembered for the Mahalanobis model. In 1955 by appointment of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, PC Mahalanobis was put as head of Planning Commission as it was felt there was a need to introduce a formal plan model after the First Five Year Plan (1951–1956). The First Five Year Plan stressed investment for capital accumulation and that capital can be accumulated through investment; the faster one accumulates, the higher the growth rate will be. The most fundamental criticisms came from PC Mahalanobis, who himself was working with a variant of it in 1951 and 1952. That was the basis of the Second Five year plan, the fundamentals being made by Grigory Feldman, the Soviet economist.

He was honoured with Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian honour of Government of India for his contribution to science and services to the country. He is regarded as the “Father of Statistical Science in India”.

More can be written on PC Mahalanobis, who was a towering personality with exceptional talent and commitment.

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