Robert Charles Geary


Born: 11 April 1896 in Drumcondra, Dublin, Ireland
Died: 8 February 1983 in Dublin, Ireland


Robert Geary was known to his friends and colleagues as Roy. His parents were Edmond Geary and Jennie O'Sullivan. Edmond Geary was from Cork and, after working in the Customs Service in Gravesend, he returned to Ireland to work in the General Registrar's Office in Charlemont House. We note that the London Gazette of 24 June 1892 records [11]:-
The following candidates have been certified by the Civil Service Commissioners after open competition: Clerks: Edmond Geary.
Also the London Gazette of 4 July 1905 records [12]:-
General Register Office, Dublin: Minor staff officer, Edmond Geary.
Jennie O'Sullivan (born 1870) was from Kerry and she married Edmond Geary (born 1867) in 1895. They had four children, Robert Charles Geary (the subject of this biography) known as Roy, Kathleen Patricia Geary (born 1897) known as Kathna, John Peter Geary (born 1900) known as Jack, and Clare Emilia Geary (born 1902). We note that these dates of birth are approximate since they are computed from their ages at the time of the 1911 census. We note that Edmond Geary was in charge of this 1911 census, having been a clerk for the earlier 1901 census. He also was an advisor to the 1926 census. We do know exact dates of death for Roy's parents: Jennie died on 7 August 1929, and Edmond on 29 August 1936 at his home at 2 Iona Park, Glasnevin, Dublin. Jack Geary became a medical doctor with a practice in London. As youngsters both Jack and Roy were renowned as excellent footballers.

Jennie Geary was a talented musician who played the piano. She taught her children to appreciate music and play various instruments. Roy played the cello, Clare played the piano, while Jack and Kathna were violinists. The four children occasionally formed a quartet. The love of music that Roy discovered as he grew up stayed with him throughout his life and remained important to him.

Geary was a primary pupil at the Glasnevin Model Training School and then a secondary pupil at O'Connell School before entering University College Dublin in 1913. The O'Connell School was a Christian Brothers school in North Richmond Street in Dublin. It had been established in 1829 and had some notable pupils such as the novelist James Joyce. At the O'Connell School Geary was influenced by Brother Walsh who taught him mathematics. From this school he won a Dublin Corporation scholarship, and he held this and a College Scholarship during his three years at University College Dublin. He graduated with a First Class degree in Mathematics and Mathematical Physics in 1916. After graduating with his first degree, Geary remained at University College Dublin for two further years studying for his Master's Degree. He was awarded an M.Sc. in 1918 and won a Travelling Scholarship which enabled him to continue to study at the Sorbonne in Paris beginning in 1919.

At the Sorbonne, Geary attended lectures by Émile Borel, who held the chair of Theory of Functions, Élie Cartan, who held the Chair of Differential and Integral Calculus, Édouard Goursat, an expert on differential equations, and Henri Lebesgue who was Professor of the Application of Geometry to Analysis. He also attended lectures by Paul Langevin who was professor of physics at the Collège de France. Geary fell in love with France during these two years and became fluent in French. For the rest of his life he read French books and newspapers to maintain his fluency. In 1921 he returned to Dublin where he did some teaching and continued to undertake research.

We should, at this point, say a little about Geary's political views since these play an important part in his future career. The complications of the Irish bid for home rule are too complicated to go into in detail here but let us record that there was a movement for an independent all-Ireland and one that would retain parts of the north within the United Kingdom. A Protestant paramilitary force, the Ulster Volunteer Force, was organised in 1912 to fight Irish Home Rule. On 25 November 1913, a meeting in the Rotunda Hall, Dublin, set up the Irish Volunteers to counter the Ulster Volunteer Force. Geary, who was still a school pupil, was present at this meeting. We should not infer from this that Geary favoured violence as a means of gaining Irish independence - he certainly did not. The Irish Volunteers led the Easter Rising of 1916 when they took Dublin by force and declared the establishment of the Irish Republic. Geary was, by this time, in his final year as an undergraduate at University College Dublin and certainly did not support the Easter Rising. The majority of people in Ireland also opposed the armed coup d'état but the reaction of the British government following the Rising soon changed opinions. Executions and the introduction of conscription turned people in favour of the Rising. Geary supported Arthur Griffith who founded Sinn Fein:-

Sinn Fein aims at securing the international recognition of Ireland as an independent Irish Republic.
Sinn Fein was declared illegal in August 1919 and throughout the next couple of years the Irish rebellion developed. In 1921 Ireland was still represented by a football team which supposedly represented the whole country, both north and south. This team, which contained 10 players from the north and one from the south, played France in Paris in that year. Geary was studying in Paris at this time and, along with three fellow students, they stationed themselves one on each of the four sides of the pitch carrying a tri-colour, the flag symbolising Irish nationalism. The Irish team refused to take the field until the flags were removed and Geary and his three companions were removed by the police.

We have looked at Geary's involvement in the political situation to try to understand his actions in 1922. After returning from Paris, he was offered a lectureship in mathematics and mathematical physics at the University of Southampton. He accepted this position. However the Irish Treaty of December 1922 led to the division of Ireland with the creation of the Irish Free State with Ulster remaining part of the United Kingdom. British troops left the Irish Free State but a civil war now raged between those who supported the division of Ireland and those who wanted to continue to fight for a united Ireland. It is unclear whether Geary ever took up his position in the University of Southampton in the autumn of 1922 but he certainly resigned quickly and by 1923 he was in Ireland (in fact he may never have left Ireland). Certainly by November 1922 he was seeking a position in the Statistics Branch in the Department of Industry and Commerce. At this time, John Hooper, the head of the Statistics Branch, wrote to George Campbell, secretary to the Department of Industry and Commerce, about Geary (see [5]):-

I think you should warn him that, if he is to do your work in the manner you will expect, he will have little energy left for any ambitious research in higher mathematics ... he is anxious to make a name for himself. His ordinary work will of course be much more prosaic but he will find it interesting.
Geary's political position was certainly in favour of the Irish Treaty and he got as far as attempting to join the pro-Treaty army in the civil war but when he tried to enlist the recruiting office was closed and he never returned. By the middle of 1923 the civil war was over but Geary had decided before that that his duty was to remain in Ireland and give the new country his full support. He took up a position in the Civil Service on 1 January 1923, joining the staff of the Statistics Branch in the Department of Industry and Commerce as a Junior Administrative Officer. Of course this major change of direction meant that in fact he followed a career similar to that of his father. Initially his post was a temporary non-established one but on 13 January 1926 the post became a permanent established one.

Geary had undertaken research in mathematics up to 1922 without publishing anything. When he became a statistician in 1923 he began to undertake research in statistics and published his first paper in 1925, namely Methods of sampling applied to Irish statistics published in the Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland [29]:-

Fisher was in the early stages of his fundamental work and the celebrated collaboration of Neyman and Pearson had not begun. Roy took no part in the major controversies on fiducial probability and inference which were soon to come but followed the struggles with keen interest. The greatest influence on him was Fisher. He admitted in a letter of 1976: "The luckiest thing that happened to me was that my research lifetime coincided with most of that of Fisher's. Everything is in Fisher. One only had to dig it out a bit." He was obviously greatly attracted to the Neyman and Pearson approach, however, and used it consistently.
Geary's career now progressed rapidly. Continuing to work in the Department of Industry and Commerce, he was appointed as Senior Technical Assistant on 1 October 1926 becoming Assistant Principal on 6 January 1932. He married Mida Maura O'Brien in 1927; they had one son and one daughter, Colm and Clodagh. Mida was very musical and sang beautifully. She was an active member of the Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society and also worked at the Gate Theatre in Dublin.

Some papers Geary published between 1927 and 1936 are: Some properties of correlation and regression in a limited universe (1927), The frequency distribution of the quotient of two normal variates (1930), The future population of Saorstat Eireann and some observations on population statistics (1935), The ratio of the mean deviation to the standard deviation as a test of normality (1935), Note on the correlation of b2 and w (1935), The distribution of 'Student's' Ratio for non-normal samples (1936) and Moments of the ratio of the mean deviation to the standard deviation for normal samples (1936).

Geary's work on estimating and comparing national incomes made an international impression and in August 1946 Richard Stone (1913-1991) invited him to spend a year in the Department of Applied Economics of Cambridge University. The work that Stone and Geary did at Cambridge in the years 1946-47 led to what today is known as the Stone-Geary Utility Function. Geary did not return to his position in Dublin at the end of his year at Cambridge, for the following year he spent at the National Accounts Branch in the United Nations Statistical Office in New York. Returning to Dublin, Geary was appointed as head of the newly created Central Statistics Office in 1948. He held this position until 1957 when he returned to New York to take up the position of Chief of the National Accounts Branch of the Statistical Office of the United Nations. He spent three years in New York and during that time he was a Visiting Professor at the New School, New York during 1958-59. Leaving New York in 1960, he returned to Ireland to take up the position of Director of the Economic Research Institute. We note that Geary had now moved from statistics to an economics post. Peter Neary writes [24]:-

Roy Geary was not an economist by training or inclination. His jousts with "literary" economists have been well documented and he seems to have had little time for pure theory either. Of course he worked with economic statistics for most of his life and in his later years published extensively on applied economics topics. But he appears to have had little appreciation of the deductive as opposed to the inductive side of economics. So it is all the more remarkable that, in addition to his seminal work in statistics and econometrics, he made a number of important contributions to economic theory.
Neary describes three major contributions by Geary to economics. There is (i) the Stone-Geary Utility Function which we mentioned above, (ii) his algorithm to determine international comparisons of real income, and (iii) his work on measuring the increase in the real income of a country coming about from changes in its terms of trade. Geary continued as Director of the Economic Research Institute until he retired in 1966. At this time the Institute honoured him by establishing the annual Geary Lecture. Geary continued to work as a consultant for the Institute and attended the annual lecture named after him, right up until his death.

Although Geary's statistical work received the highest praise, the books that he wrote were somewhat less well received and had mixed reviews.

We note that Elements of Linear Programming with Economic Applications has a second edition which appeared in 1973 but with authors R C Geary and J E Spencer. Geary also wrote the book (with M Palekar) A short manual on sampling.

As an example of Geary's style we quote from [4]:-

Dr Geary's editorial survey begins with a characteristically entertaining commentary on the present state of quantitative economics, and is followed by penetrating comments on several technical features of the individual contributions.
Here is an extract from that "characteristically entertaining" editorial:-
The object of economics is to improve the material welfare of mankind. To this end, the only topic in economics worthy of serious consideration is economic programming at all levels. Economics must therefore be converted with all due speed into an experimental science and the essence of science is measurement. Literary economics is outmoded; its gimcrack edifice would have collapsed long ago if it were not kept up by the wallpaper of style; let's have done with it. Because of its survival, economics, regarded as a science, is at the phlogiston stage of chemistry before the advent of Lavoisier and Priestley. The littérateurs don't seem to know this; we could, in Charity, forgive them anything but their complacency
Not surprisingly, Geary corresponded with William Sealy Gosset, better known as "Student". Some details of their correspondence are given at THIS LINK.

Geary received many honours for his statistical contributions. These included: election to the International Statistical Institute in 1935 and serving as its Vice President from 1951 to 1957; being elected Vice President of the Royal Irish Academy; being elected an Honorary Fellow of the Econometric Society in 1951 and serving on its Council from 1962 to 1964; being elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society; being elected an Honorary Fellow of the American Statistical Association; and serving as Chairman of the Council of the International Association for Research in Income and Wealth from 1961 to 1967 (he was a Member from 1951 to 1969). In 1981, he was awarded the Boyle Medal of the Royal Dublin Society. He was also awarded an honorary DEconSc from the National University of Ireland in 1962, an honorary DSc(Econ) from Queen's University Belfast in 1968, and an honorary ScD from Trinity College Dublin in 1973.

Maurice Kendall gave the Sixth Geary Lecture in 1973 and spoke about the man the series honoured:-

My distinguished predecessor in contributing to this series of lectures, Jan Tinbergen, included in the title of his lecture the word 'interdisciplinary'. I follow him in spirit, for the problem of forecasting is truly interdisciplinary, calling as it does on the combined skills of the economist, the statistician and the mathematician as well as the commonsense of the practitioner. And I cannot think of any more suitable name in whose honour a lecture of this kind should be given than that of Roy Geary, himself an interdisciplinarian if ever there was one, equally at home in all these subjects, and among his many distinctions possessing one which I think is unique, that of being the only former head of a Government Central Statistical Office whose name is attached to a mathematical theorem, has acted at the Abbey Theatre and has been offered a job as a professional footballer.
To see a little of Geary's character we quote from [9]:-
Roy Geary was a man of great courtesy and charm inspiring devotion from his friends and colleagues. He was totally unselfish in sharing his ideas and encouraging others to develop them. He was wonderful company and had an impish humour which he often directed at himself, and even at his sacred statistics. A story he never tired of citing was the devastating reply, allegedly given by his beloved wife Mida, when he dismissed her complaints about rising prices by referring to a fall in the official Cost of Living Index for which he was responsible. "My dear man", she said (according to Roy), "I'm talking about facts, not statistics".
Geary's wife Mida died on 19 February 1978 aged 75 years. She was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in the same grave as Geary's parents. Five years later, after a brief illness, Geary died and was buried in the grave with his wife and parents.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

February 2016
MacTutor History of Mathematics
[http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Geary.html]