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Allan, Frances Elizabeth (1905–1952)

by C. C. Heyde

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Frances Elizabeth Allan (1905-1952), statistician, was born on 11 July 1905 at St Kilda, Melbourne, third daughter of Edwin Frank Allan, journalist, and his wife Stella May, née Henderson. Educated at Melbourne Church of England Girls' Grammar School and the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1926; Dip.Ed., M.A., 1928), Betty shared the Dixson and Wyselaskie scholarships for mathematics in 1926. Under the supervision of J. H. Michell, she did postgraduate work on solitary waves at the common boundary of two liquids, for which she won the Professor Nanson prize and a Fred Knight research scholarship. In 1928 Allan arranged to attend Newnham College, Cambridge, and, before leaving Australia, applied for a Council for Scientific and Industrial Research studentship in 'the study of statistical methods applied to agriculture'. Tenable for two years and able to be taken abroad, a studentship would obviate her need to live on borrowed money. News of her success and the concomitant lifting of her financial burden greeted her when she reached London.

At Cambridge, Allan studied mathematics, statistics, applied biology and general agriculture. In late 1929 she proceeded to Rothamsted Experimental Station, Harpenden, Hertfordshire, to learn the methods used by (Sir) Ronald Fisher in his pioneering statistical work. Of the three papers she produced at Rothamsted, the best known was written jointly with John Wishart and concerned the estimation of the yield of a missing plot in field experiments. Fisher found her 'helpful and congenial in co-operative work' and noted her 'rare gift for first-class mathematics'. C.S.I.R. did not hesitate to take up its option on Allan's services and on 29 September 1930 she was provisionally appointed to the division of plant industry in Canberra as the council's first biometrician. Allan was soon giving mathematical and statistical assistance to all six divisions of C.S.I.R., as well as to outside organizations.

Consulting and collaborating on a broad range of projects, she used novel statistical techniques which had a marked effect on research programmes. Among her tasks was the collection and collating of climatic data. She also contributed to research on plant diseases, noxious weeds, control of blowflies and dietary supplements for sheep. Committed to teaching, she lectured on statistical theory at Canberra University College in 1932 and gave classes in pure mathematics there in 1935-37. The C.S.I.R.'s chief executive officer (Sir) David Rivett had observed in 1933: 'we need more people of her type'. Reclassified as a research officer in 1935, Allan became a foundation member that year of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science. In 1936 she wrote a set of four instructional papers for the institute on the application of statistical methods to agriculture, delivered sixteen lectures to officers of the Canberra-based C.S.I.R. divisions, trained the first of two students from the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Stock, and lectured part time at the Australian Forestry School.

On 22 April 1940 in Trinity College chapel, Parkville, Melbourne, Allan married with Anglican rites Dr Patrick Joseph Calvert, an assistant research officer in C.S.I.R.'s division of plant industry. Although subject to government regulations requiring her to resign on marriage, Mrs Calvert was given ministerial approval to work until the end of the year. She had resumed her lectures at the forestry school in 1938 and continued them after her marriage, along with part-time research for the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics. After the birth of her son, she became secretary (1943-44) of the Canberra Nursery Kindergarten Society and president (1944-46) of the Canberra Mothercraft Society. Family commitments prevented her from accepting Rivett's offer of six months work in 1945 at Proserpine, Queensland, on chemical warfare.

Survived by her husband and 11-year-old son, Betty Calvert died of hypertensive cerebral haemorrhage on 6 August 1952 in Canberra Community Hospital and was buried in Canberra cemetery with Presbyterian forms; students from the forestry school were pallbearers at the funeral. She was remembered as having been 'kind-hearted and considerate, easy to work with, and always willing to help'. The scientific community recorded the loss occasioned by the early death of one of Canberra's best-known mathematicians.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Journal of Statistics, 30, no 1, Apr 1988, p 15, 30B, Aug 1988, p 54
  • Canberra Times, 8 Aug 1952
  • CSIRO records, Canberra.

Citation details

C. C. Heyde, 'Allan, Frances Elizabeth (1905–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/allan-frances-elizabeth-9330/text16379, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 2 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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