Our History

Our History

By the mid 1940s, there was growing awareness of the importance of statistics in the biological sciences.  The American Statistical Association (ASA) had established a biometrics section, and the International Statistics Institute (ISI) had drawn up a new constitution to expand its purview beyond government and official statistics to include biometry and biostatistics. Chester Bliss, a Yale biologist with a keen interest in statistics, was frustrated by the lack of offerings involving biological applications when previewing the scientific program of the ISI meetings that were to be held in Washington DC in 1947.  Bliss galvanized some of his colleagues and wrote to the ASA advocating for the establishment of an international biometric society. With support from ASA and ISI, a committee was formed to plan, and funds were raised to support an International Biometrics Conference (IBC) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.  More detail about the founding of the society can be found in articles by Bliss (1958), Cox (1972), Wilson (1999) and Billard (2014). Below is a picture of the attendees at this very first conference.  It was at this conference that the new International Biometric Society was established.

The annotation of those in the picture reveals some very familiar names, though few if any are still alive today. Gertrude Cox (9th from the left in the back row), one of the very few women in the photo, played a key role in setting up the new society.  She served as the Editor of the Biometrics Bulletin[1] which was established in 1945 and then renamed as the journal Biometrics in 1947.  The gentleman with the striking white beard in the front row, slightly to the left of center, is Sir Ronald Fisher, who was also instrumental in the establishment of the new society.  Fisher served as the very first President of the Society, while Chester Bliss was the first Secretary.  Bliss eventually got his chance and was elected as the 8th IBS president, serving in 1961/62.  As an aside, Bliss and Fisher were lifelong colleagues and friends and their letters over a 30-year period starting in 1927 make for interesting and entertaining reading. Another one of the attendees at this first IBC, Bill Cochran (seven people to the right of Fisher), later wrote a touching obituary on Chester Bliss (Cochran and Finney, 1979), giving some insight and personal details about this interesting and somewhat underappreciated man.   

It is worth noting that like several other statistical giants of the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly Sir Francis Galton and Karl Pearson, Fisher’s reputation has come under a cloud in recent years due to his involvement in the field of eugenics.  Those interested in more detail may want to read the document that has been prepared by the Fisher Memorial Trust (http://www.senns.uk/FisherEugenics.pdf). Similarly, a recent article in the journal Significant on Sir Francis Galton makes for thought-provoking reading (Langkjaer-Bain, 2019). As well posed by Brian Tarran in the opening Editorial of that issue, “how should we best commemorate the statistical achievements of these individuals while not downplaying or overlooking the more disturbing aspects of their characters?”.  The IBS position is firm and unequivocal, namely that we promote equality, diversity, and inclusion and we reject all forms of exclusion. Read the IBS statement here.   

Following that very first conference in 1947, the International Biometric Conference was held again in 1949 in Geneva Switzerland, then at repeated locations around the world, roughly every two or three years, though with an occasionally longer gap (e.g. 1958 in Ottawa, Canada, followed by 1963 in Cambridge, England).  The Society’s 11th President, Gertrude Cox, published an interesting article in 1972 (Cox, 1972) that talks about what went on at some of those early IBC meetings.  Since the 1982 meeting in Toulouse, France, the IBC has been held every two years like clockwork.  The 2020 pandemic meant that the 30th IBC could not take place in person in the planned location of Seoul, Korea.  However, a virtual IBC was successfully run instead.  Cox’s paper reveals that, in addition to holding an IBC ever few years in those early years, the society also used to run an International Biometrics Symposium which seems to have been more targeted around a particular theme.  For example, the first one held in India in 1951 focused on 'Biometric Problems in the Prediction and Estimation of the Growth of Plants in Tropical and Sub-Tropical Regions.'  Cox’s paper confirms the long-standing relationship between IBS and the ISI, but also suggests that there were some early connections with the World Health Organization (WHO) and also the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS). 

Since its establishment in 1947, the IBS has changed dramatically.  Its original flagship journal, Biometrics, has grown in stature and is recognized as one of the world’s premier publication outlets for cutting edge methodological developments and applications of statistics to the biological sciences.   The late 80’s and early 90’s were a time of particular growth for biostatistics and biometry.  In response to this, the Society launched the Journal of Agricultural, Biological and Environmental Statistics (JABES) in cooperation with the American Statistical Association in 1993.  As suggested by its name, JABES has a mission similar to Biometrics in terms of publishing cutting edge statistical methods and applications, but with an emphasis on the non-medical aspects of the biosciences.    It is worth reading an editorial written on the occasion of the Society’s 70th birthday by then Outgoing President Elizabeth Thompson in collaboration with the Editors of Biometrics and JABES, Marie Davidian and Stephen Buckland, on the history of the society and its journals (Thompson et al, 2019).

An interesting short video of our IBS history was created by  Kathy Ruggiero from the Australasian Region in honour of our society’s 70th birthday.  From a society that began with only four regions in 1947, we had grown into a diverse community encompassing 37 different regions worldwide in 2020.  While we don’t collect gender and ethnicity information for our membership database for privacy reasons, it is clear from our conferences, our publications, our committees and our society leadership that the IBS has become much more diverse than the picture we see in that very first IBC meeting in Woods Hole. Indeed, it is interesting to peruse the list of past IBS Presidents. It was 20 years before we had our first female president (Gertrude Cox, President 1968-1969) and then 25 years to our next one (Lynne Billard, President 1994-1994). But since then, 7 of the 14 most recent Presidents, including Lynne, have been female. It is clear we have come a long way since those early days when the majority of women in the photo from that first IBC were referred to in their roles as wives, for example Mrs. Theodore Zucker! 

It is interesting also to look back over some of the Presidential Addresses that have been published in Biometrics over the years.  President Billard’s writings are often particularly interesting since she is known and appreciated as something of an amateur history buff.  Her 1995 address at the 17th IBC in Hamilton Ontario gives an excellent overview and analysis of how our society’s journal publications have changed over the years, including the early years of Biometrics as well as the groundswell of interest that led to the launch of our second society journal, JABES in 1993.  One interesting sentiment expressed by Billard is that although things definitely change and evolve, there is also a tendency for things to repeat.  She cites, for example, complaints in the 1950s that the journal Biometrics was becoming too technical for many of the more applied IBS members to read.  This is of course a comment that one sometimes still hears today, though the Journal Editors have in fact made great efforts and excellent progress in ensuring the practical relevance of the publication!  In light of the pandemic raging in 2020, it is very interesting to read Cochran’s 1954 Presidential Address (Cochran, 1955) where he talked about statistical aspects of the large polio vaccine trial that had just finished running in the United States. President Molenbergh’s (2005) address at the 2004 IBC meetings in Cairns, Australia, gave some fascinating insights in the history of our society.  Interested readers may want to read Stigler (2000), which talks about the interpretation and history of the word biometry.  Of course, David Finney’s subsequent letter to the Editor and Stigler’s response are interesting as well (Finney and Stigler, 2001).  Stigler (2007) builds on his earlier paper to talk further of the history of our society. 

These days, the IBS is recognized as the world’s premier society devoted to the Development and Application of Statistical and Mathematical Theory and Methods in the Biosciences.  Though numbers tend to fluctuate from year to year, we have between 5,000 and 6,000 active members.   In addition to our regions, there are now four Networks that link together multiple regions in various parts of the world.  Each year, the various Regions and Networks run their own conferences.  IBS supports all these activities through advertising and funding, especially for members from Low and Middle-Income Countries.  The Society administers a number of awards to recognize the accomplishments and leadership of its members.  It runs a virtual journal club and after the positive experience of offering a virtual IBC2020, plans are underway to expand these kinds of offerings further. 

References: 

Billard, L. (1995).   The Roads Travelled. Biometrics 51, 1-11.

Billard, L. (2014).  Sir Ronald A. Fisher and The International Biometric Society. Biometrics 70, 259–265

Cox, G.M. (1972). The Biometric Society: The First Twenty-Five Years (1947-1972). Biometrics 28, 285-311.

Bliss, C. I. (1958). The first decade of the Biometric Society. Biometrics 14, 309-329.

Cochran, W. G. (1955). Brief of Presidential Address: The 1954 trial of the poliomyelitis vaccine in the United States. Biometrics 11, 528-534.

Cochran, W.G. and Finney, D.J. (1979). Chester Ittner Bliss, 1899-1979. Biometrics 35, 715-717.

Finney, D.J. and Stigler, S.M. (2001).  Letter to the Editors of Biometrics. Biometrics  57, 643.

Langkjær‐Bain, R. (2019). The troubling legacy of Francis Galton. Significance 16, 16-21.

Molenberghs, G. (2005). Biometry, Biometrics, Biostatistics, Bioinformatics, . . . , Bio-X. Biometrics 61, 1-9.

Thompson, E., Davidian, M. & Buckland, S. (2017). Biometrics, JABES and the International Biometric Society. JABES 22, 221–223.

Stigler, S. (2000).  The Problematic Unity of Biometrics. Biometrics 56, 653-658.

Stigler, S. (2007). The Pedigree of the International Biometric Society! Biometrics 63, 317-321.

Wilson, S.E. (1999). Evolution and BiometryBiometrics 55, 333-337.

[1] This should be distinguished from the Biometric Bulletin which was established in 1984 and continues today as the IBS newsletter





Clarice G. B. Demétrio  (IBS President 2021-13) at the IBC in Kobe, 2012


Tom Louis (IBS President 2006-7) presenting Norm Breslow (IBS President 2002-3) with his lifetime membership award during the 2006 IBC in Quebec, Canada.


David Finney (IBS President 1964-65) and Elizabeth Thompson (IBS President 2016-17) at the occasion of David's 100th birthday.