Arthur Lyon Bowley was born in Bristol, England. His father, James William Lyon Bowley a minister in the Church of England, died in 1870 leaving Arthur's mother, a mother or step-mother to seven children. Arthur was educated at a well-known school, Christ's Hospital. After a successful career there he won a major scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge to study mathematics. He graduated as Tenth Wrangler.
At Cambridge Bowley had a short course of study with the economist Alfred Marshall who had also been a Cambridge wrangler. Under Marshall's influence Bowley became an economic statistician. His Account of England's Foreign Trade won the Cobden Essay Prize and was published as a book. Marshall watched over Bowley's career, recommending him for jobs and offering him advice. Most notoriously Marshalll told him the Elements of Statistics contained "too much mathematics."
After leaving Cambridge Bowley taught mathematics in school from 1893 to 1899. Meanwhile he was publishing in economic statistics; his first article for the journal of the Statistical Society (now the Royal Statistical Society) appeared in 1895. In that year the London School of Economics and Political Science opened. Bowley was appointed as a part-time lecturer and he would be connected with the School until he retired in 1936. He can be considered one of the School's intellectual fathers. However he continued to teach elsewhere; for more than a decade he taught at University College, Reading (now the University of Reading). At LSE he was made a Reader in 1908, a Professor in 1915 and in 1919 appointed a newly established Chair of Statistics, probably the first of its kind in Britain.
Bowley produced a stream of studies of British economic statistics beginning in the 1890s with work on trade and on wages and income and proceeding to studies of national income in the 1920s and –30s. (Official national income statistics date only from the Second World War.) From around 1910 Bowley worked on social statistics as well. In aim, the work was a continuation of such surveys of social conditions as Charles Booth's "Life and Labour of the People in London" (1889-1903) and Seebohm Rowntree's "Poverty, A Study of Town Life" (1901). The methodological innovation was the use of sampling techniques. Bowley gave a detailed exposition of his approach to sampling in a 62 page paper published in 1926. The culmination of Bowley's work on social surveys was the monumental New Survey of London Life and Labour. Even in the 1930s his research could take a new direction, as when he collaborated with his junior colleague R G D Allen on an econometric study of family expenditure.
The Elements of Statistics is generally regarded as the first statistics book in English. It described the techniques of descriptive statistics that would be useful for economists and social sciences and in the early editions it contained rather little statistical theory. That changed in the enlarged 4th edition of 1920. In statistical theory Bowley was no innovator but drew on the writings of Karl Pearson, Udny Yule and, most importantly, F.Y. Edgeworth. Bowley paid tribute to the master by trying to make his contributions accessible but his 1928 book is possibly more impenetrable than the original. In the 1930s Bowley played the reactionary, informing Fisher that "Professor Edgeworth had written a great deal on a kindred subject" and slapping Neyman down with "I am not at all sure that the 'confidence' [in confidence interval is not a 'confidence trick.'"
Bowley's The Mathematical Groundwork of Economics was a notable attempt to provide the practising economist (rather than the beginner) with the main ideas and techniques of mathematical economics; it was the first book in English of its kind. One of its successes was to bring the Edgeworth box to the attention of economists generally. was so successful that this is often referred to as the "Edgeworth-Bowley box"!
Bowley received many honours. In 1922 he was made a fellow of the British Academy and in 1950 he was knighted. He served on the council of the Royal Economic Society and the Econometric Society and was President of the Royal Statistical Society.
According to Allen and George, "In personality Bowley was somewhat shy and retiring. He did not readily make friends and his close friendship with Edwin Cannan over many years was an almost unique experience." They recall a nice anecdote about an occasion when Bowley and Cannan were cycling with Edgeworth. When Edgeworth wanted to discuss a mathematical question Cannan said, "Bowley, let us go a little faster, Edgeworth cannot talk mathematics at more than eight miles an hour."
There is an extensive bibliography in Allen and George (1957).
The New School entry has a photograph. There is another at
For Bowley's contribution to sampling theory put in historical perspective see
From the Explore Dictionary of Economists
Revised 9 June 2005