Richmond Mayo-Smith

The American statistician and sociologist Richmond Mayo-Smith (1854-1901) pioneered in teaching statistics and applying it to the social sciences. He was one of the founders of the American Economic Association.

Born in Troy, Ohio, the third son of Preserved and Lucy Smith, Richmond Mayo-Smith was the direct descendant of a famous Puritan family of clergymen. He did his undergraduate work at Amherst College. There he came under the influence of John W. Burgess, who interested him in economics and allied subjects. After receiving his bachelor's degree, he spent 2 years in graduate study at the universities of Heidelberg and Berlin at the suggestion of Burgess, who offered him the chair in economics and statistics in the soon to be established faculty of political science at Columbia College if he would complete his studies abroad. In 1877 he received his appointment at Columbia as an instructor in history and political science, beginning an association with that institution which terminated only with his death.

From 1878 to 1883 Mayo-Smith was assistant and adjunct professor of political economy and social science, becoming a full professor in 1883. In 1880 he became one of the five original members of the graduate faculty of political science, although he continued to teach undergraduates. In the same year he developed and gave the first course on statistics in an American college. This course, which he continued to give for 20 years, and his textbooks in statistics, prototypes in the field, were the chief reasons for his extraordinary influence in the United States on the development and use of the quantitative approach in the social sciences and on the teaching of statistics in American universities.

With newly developed and more highly sophisticated methods of gathering statistics on social phenomena, statistics was now seen as a quantitative instrument to solve social problems. Mayo-Smith believed that earlier sociologists had overemphasized the complexity of social phenomena as compared to natural phenomena. They had also, he felt, added to the problem by gathering useless data, by collecting it without any rational scheme or method of investigation, and by using a terminology which was artificial in that it was based on biological categories. He proposed instead a more simplified method of collecting data, based on cause and effect, and of coexistence and sequence, in social phenomena. To propagate these views he published many influential papers in learned journals. In 1889 he helped revive the American Statistical Association, becoming one of its vice presidents, a position he held until his death. In 1890 he became a member of the National Academy of Sciences, which prior to this had usually selected only scholars in the pure and natural sciences. He was also an active member of the International Statistical Institute and was elected an honorary fellow of the Royal Statistical Society.

Mayo-Smith's most definitive work on statistics is the two-volume Science of Statistics, with volume 1 appearing in 1895 as Statistics and Sociology, and volume 2 in 1899 as Statistics and Economics. Basically, the first volume was intended to demonstrate that social problems could be solved by statistics, and the second volume to show that economic problems could also be thus solved.

Although his writings on economics were also quite extensive, Mayo-Smith published only one book in this field, Emigration and Immigration (1890). It dealt mainly with the effects of population movements on ethnic and ethical standards of communities. The work had a great influence. He advocated strict control of immigration to exclude defectives, delinquents, and others who possessed traits incompatible with the American standard of civilization. He believed that the enormous number of immigrants with disparate sociocultural habits then entering America threatened to overwhelm the political institutions of the United States and would generate economic disturbances.

With the beginning of the Political Science Quarterly at Columbia in 1886, Mayo-Smith became a member of the editorial board and was a frequent contributor. In 1895 he read a paper, "The Desirability of a Permanent Census Bureau," to the American Economic Association. With its and the Statistical Association's joint sponsorship, a book was ultimately published, in 1899, under Mayo-Smith's chairmanship, The Federal Census: Critical Essays by Members of the American Economic Association.

Following a crippling boating accident, Mayo-Smith sustained a nervous breakdown and committed suicide a few months later in New York City.


Further Reading on Richmond Mayo-Smith

No definitive biography of Mayo-Smith has yet been published. There is a biographical memoir by E. R. Seligman in National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs, vol. 17 (1924).