Prasantha Chandra Mahalanobis was born in Calcutta, India on June 29, 1893. As a young boy, Mahalanobis received his education at the Brahmo Boys School in Calcutta. He then went on to the presidency College in Calcutta where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in the field of physics. He then went to England, where he originally intended to study in London, but became so impressed with Cambridge that he decided to join Cambridge University. There he studied mathematics and physics. Because of World War I, his departure was delayed, leading to the meeting that began Mahalanobis' interest in statistics.
Mahalanobis was looking around the library at King's College when he was approached by a fellow named Macaulay for his opinion on some volumes of Biometrika, edited by Karl Pearson. Mahalanobis' interest was peaked so much that he bought the entire set of Biometrika that was then published and brought them along with him to India. This was the beginning of a wonderful interest in statistics.
The short vacation Mahalanobis thought he was taking in India turned into a permanent stay. He was offered a position to teach at the Presidency College which he could not turn down since it allowed him to pursue his increasing interest in statistical problems. Statistics ended up overtaking his first love of physics, and so, even though he continued to teach physics until 1948, he was devoting his free time and career studies to statistics.
Mahalanobis was the founder of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in 1931, which was actually started in a room of the Baker Laboratory of the physics department at the Presidency College. He also started a new journal in statistics called Sankhya. He established a division within the ISI called the National Sample Survey (NSS). The NSS grew quickly into an agency noted for its use of continuing sample surveys for the collection of socioeconomic and demographic data that covered the whole country. This division, along with Mahalanobis, played such an incredibly vital role in the creation of the second five-year economic plan in India that the government took over NSS and now it functions as a necessary part of the Ministry of Planning.
Mahalanobis' contributions to statistics are quite numerous. His work could always be associated with some field of application. The Mahalanobis distance, called the D statistic, which is used extensively in classification problems, rose out of his work on anthropometric problems. The Mahalanobis distance is used not to find the physical distance from one object to another, but to find the distance in terms of related characteristics and likelihood of occurrence of the two objects. The Mahalanobis in multivariate analysis, along with the interpenetrating network of samples (IPNS) in sample surveys and fractile graphical analysis have now become part of standard statistical methodology. Other areas where he made contributions are meteorological statistics, operations research, and errors in field experimentation. In fact, Mahalanobis' work in field experimentation brought him into contact with R.A. Fisher and led to a close professional and personal friendship that lasted until Fisher's death in 1962.
Mahalanobis received many awards for his work in India and his work on statistics, but some say that his most prized awards would be the Fellowship of the Royal Society and one of the highest civilian awards in India, the Padma Vibhushan. Mahalanobis was always a very active man and he held many positions of importance throughout his life, many of them simultaneously. Yet he never grew tired of his work.
Mahalanobis had many other interests besides statistics and physical science. He enjoyed studying ancient Indian philosophy and he loved to read Bengali literature.
Professor Mahalanobis had over 200 published scientific articles along with many non-technical articles in Bengali and English.
P.C. Mahalanobis died on June 28, 1972, on the eve of his seventy-ninth birthday.