Canberra Branch  - Knibbs Lecture

Knibbs Lecture, Statistical Society of Australia Canberra Branch 

In honour of Sir George Handley Knibbs' impact on statistics in Australia, the Statistical Society of Australia Canberra Branch holds an annual lecture named after him. An eminent statistician, not necessarily from Australia, is invited to present a lecture on a topic of interest to an audience of primarily statisticians. Two people are usually asked to respond to the invited lecturer's comments. This has become the main event for the branch with the annual dinner held in conclusion of the lecture.  The event is generally the final meeting of the year, held in November or December.

Short Biography

Sir George Handley KnibbsKt, CMG (1858 - 1929) began his career as a surveyor in the New South Wales Survey Department. He was interested in education, and in the fashion of the times, was a poet conversant with several languages, ancient and modern, an artist, philosopher and lover of music. He taught mathematics and physics at the University of Sydney and later became Director of Technical Education for NSW. It was he who instituted the Official Year Book; throughout his tenure as Commonwealth Statistician (commenced in 1906 and concluded in 1921) he maintained his strong mathematical and statistical interest in population problems, and published The Mathematical Theory of Population, first separately in 1917 and later as an appendix to the Report on the Australian Census of 1921. He was much concerned with the Malthusian theory that population would outgrow food supplies, a threat which has become even more serious today.

Knibbs retired in 1921 to become Director of the Institute of Science and Industry; he was succeeded in 1922 by Charles H. Wickens (1872 - 1939) who had also joined the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics in 1906 from Western Australia.

For a wider reading of Sir George Handley Knibbs' career and life, see Professor Chris Heyde's article on "Official statistics in the late colonial period leading on to the work of the first Commonwealth Statistician, G.H.Knibbs" in The Australian Journal of Statistics, Special Volume30B, August 1988. Professor Joe Gani also wrote of Sir G. H. Knibbs in his article "Some aspects in the development of statistics in Australia" which appeared in The Australian Journal of Statistics, Volume 18, Numbers 1 and 2, August 1976.

Longer Biography 1

(by Susan Bambrick, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol 9, (MUP), 1983)

Sir George Handley Knibbs (1858-1929), statistician, was born on 13 June 1858 at Redfern, Sydney, son of John Handley Knibbs, foreman, and his wife Ellen, née Curthoys. Nothing is known of his early education but in December 1877 he joined the public service and in January 1878 was appointed a licensed surveyor. On 2 January 1883 in Sydney he married Susan Keele James with Baptist forms. He joined the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1881 and was honorary secretary and editor of its Journal and Proceedings for nine years and president in 1898-99. In 1889-1905 Knibbs was an independent lecturer in geodesy, astronomy and hydraulics in the engineering school of the University of Sydney. In 1902 he represented the university on the board composing regulations for administering Rhodes scholarships and in 1902-03 travelled through Europe and North America as a member of the two-man commission on primary, secondary, technical and other branches of education (1902-06). In1905 he became acting professor of physics at the university, concurrently with his appointment as New South Wales superintendent of technical education.

In 1906 Knibbs was appointed first Commonwealth statistician, directing the work of the newly established Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics. That year he presided over a conference of State statisticians to secure uniformity of State returns. 1908 saw the issue of the highly praised first Commonwealth Year Book. Knibbs visited Europe in 1909, representing Australia at the International Congress on Life Insurance (Vienna), on the special committee revising the nomenclature of diseases (Paris), at an International Congress on the Scientific Testing of Materials (Copenhagen), at the International Institute of Statistics (Paris) and at the Geodetical Congress in London.

In 1911 the first Commonwealth census was taken, followed by the war census of 1915 under the War Census Act. Knibbs sat on the board reporting on the Federal capital site and was a member of the royal commissions on life, fire and other insurances (1909-10) and on food supplies during war (1914). He sat on several wartime committees and was a consulting member of the 1915 committee on munitions in war. He was chairman of the royal commission on taxation of Crown leaseholds in 1918-19. In 1919 he represented Australia at the conference on double income tax and war profits (London) and in 1920 attended the British Empire Statisticians’ Conference (London), chairing the census committee. A past-president (1903-05) of the Society for Child Study in New South Wales, in 1921 he was elected vice-president of the International Eugenics Congress, New York. He resigned as Commonwealth statistician to become director of the newly constituted Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry in 1921. Knibbs’s indefatigable planning was rendered abortive by government economies and lack of initiative. His appointment terminated in 1926 after a period of leave of absence due to illness.

With ability and confidence evident in all his work, Knibbs won considerable prestige for the office of Commonwealth statistician, confounding those who had criticized his appointment. His major interest was in vital statistics and it was here that he won his international reputation. One of Knibbs’s major contributions as statistician was his organization of the labour and industrial branch of his bureau. His failure to concern himself with current economic questions, coupled with his self-assurance and didacticism bordering on pomposity, may eventually have rendered him unpopular. His written expression, however, may have belied his reputed charm of manner and unvarying kindness of heart. He talked quickly and quietly in a high-pitched voice about his extraordinarily wide interests; one interviewer observed that ‘an hour’s conversation with him is a paralysing revelation’. He was the author of numerous monographs and even turned his talents to verse; his descriptive works repay perusal for the detailed portraits they draw of his times. In 1928 he published The Shadow of the World’s Future or the Earth’s Population Possibilities (London). In his later years he embraced a doctrine which he called the ‘new Malthusianism’.

Knibbs received various honours of which he was perhaps inordinately proud. He was president of the Institution of Surveyors (1892, 1893, 1900), honorary fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, an honorary member of the American Statistical Association and of the statistical societies of Paris and Hungary, and a member of the International Institute of Statistics, the British Science Guild and the International Association for Testing Materials. In 1921 he presided over the social and statistical section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science and in 1923 was its general president. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1911 and was knighted in 1923. He died on 30 March 1929 of coronary vascular disease at his home at Camberwell, Melbourne, and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife, three sons and a daughter survived him.

Longer Biography 2

(source unknown)

KNIBBS, SIR GEORGE HANDLEY (1858-1929), first Commonwealth statistician and first director of the Commonwealth institute of science and industry, son of John Handley Knibbs, was born at Sydney on 13 June 1858. He joined the land survey department of New South Wales in 1877, in 1889 resigned to take up private practice as a surveyor, and in 1890 became lecturer in surveying at the university of Sydney. He was elected a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1881, became a member of the council in 1894, from 1896 to 1906 was almost continuously honorary secretary, and in 1898-9 was president. He was also taking an active interest in other societies, and was president of the Institution of Surveyors at Sydney for four years in the period between 1892 and 1901, and president of the New South Wales branch of the British Astronomical Society in 1897-8. He had begun contributing papers to the Royal Society of New South Wales at an early age, at first on matters arising out of surveying, and then on problems of physics. In his presidential address delivered on 3 May 1899 he showed that he had given much time to the study of mathematics. In 1902 and 1903, as a royal commissioner on education, Knibbs travelled through Europe and furnished a valuable report, which led to his being appointed director of technical education for New South Wales in 1905. He was also in this year acting-professor of physics at the university. In 1906 the Commonwealth bureau of census and statistics was created and Knibbs was made its first director.

Before the establishment of the Commonwealth bureau valuable work relating to the statistics of Australia had been done by H. H. Hayter (q.v.) of Victoria, and T. A. Coghlan (q.v.) of New South Wales; but there was need for co-ordination, and beginning on 30 November 1906 a conference of statists from the different states and from New Zealand was held with Knibbs presiding. As a result of the conference it was agreed that the information collected by each state should be made available to the Commonwealth, and that, as far as possible, there should be uniformity of methods. In 1908 Knibbs issued No. 1 of the Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia, an invaluable work issued yearly ever since, which has established the highest reputation among publications of its kind. Knibbs was in charge of the bureau for 15 years, but was also employed in other activities. In 1909 he represented Australia at five European congresses which discussed such diverse subjects as life assurance, the nomenclature of diseases, the scientific testing of materials, and statistics. During the 1914-18 war he was on the royal commission dealing with problems of trade and industry, and was a consulting member of the committee on munitions of war. In 1920 he represented Australia at the empire conference of statisticians in London. In March 1921 he was made director of the newly-founded Institute of Science and Industry. At the 1921 meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science he was president of the social and statistical science section, and took as the subject of his address "Statistics in regard to World and Empire development". Two years later he was president of the association and spoke on "Science and its service to man". He resigned his directorship of the Institute of Science and Industry in 1926, and lived in retirement until his death at Camberwell, a suburb of Melbourne, on 30 March 1929. He was created C.M.G. in 1911 and was knighted in 1923. He contributed 29 papers to the Royal Society of New South Wales, and several of his monographs, largely on statistical subjects, were published as pamphlets. In 1913 he published a volume of verse, Voices of the North and Echoes of Hellas, largely translations, carefully written but not important as poetry, and in 1928 appeared a work on population, The Shadow of the World's Future.

Knibbs was a man of wide culture with a thirst for knowledge. He was deeply interested in more than one department of science, but will be remembered chiefly for his work as a statistician. He married in January 1883 Susan Keele, daughter of L. O'D. James, who survived him with three sons and a daughter. One of the sons, S. G. C. Knibbs, lived for some time in the Solomon Islands, and was the author of The Savage Solomons, published in 1929.

Knibbs Lecture Speakers         



Title of lecture

Speaker Affiliation

(Australian unless otherwise indicated)



Prof Herbert David

The Theory of competing risks

Iowa State University, USA

Dr Stefan Maritz (CSIRO), 
Prof Hasofer (UNSW)


Prof David Cox

Foundations of statistical inference: the arguments for eclecticism

Imperial College, London, UK

Prof Pat Moran (ANU),
Prof Finch (Monash)

Prof Toby Lewis (Hull)



Prof Oscar Kempthorne

Foundations of statistical thinking and reasoning

Iowa State University, USA


Dr Bill Norton

Information problems of economic advisers

Reserve Bank

Dr Higgins (Treasury),
Dr Ironmonger (Uni of Melb),
Mr Ken Foreman (ABS)


Prof Toby Lewis

Society, Statistics and Statisticians

Open University, UK

Prof Evan Williams (Uni of Melb),
Prof Ted Hannan (ANU),
Dr Chris Heyde (CSIRO)


Dr Joe Gani

An adventure in publishing: Eighteen years of the Applied Probability Trust


Prof Evan Williams (Uni of Melb),
Dr Chris Heyde (CSIRO)


No Knibbs lecture held this year


Mr E.K. (Ken) Foreman

Survey design

Research School of Social Sciences, ANU


Prof Leslie Kish

Sample surveys vs experiments, controlled observations, censuses

University of Michigan, USA

Mr DennisTrewin (ABS),
Mr Ken Brewer (BAE)


Dr Richard Tweedie

Public sector statistics in the private sector: some examples and problems in their use



Dr Terry Speed

The Role of statisticians in CSIRO: Past, Present, and Future


Dr Richard Tweedie (Siromath),
Prof Ted Hannan (ANU)


Prof Alastair Scott

Interpreting confidence intervals for opinion polls

University of Auckland, NZ

Mr Ken Brewer (ANU),
Mr David Leaver (ABS)


Prof Peter Hall

Computer intensive statistical methods: What does the future hold?

Australian National University

Dr Nick Fisher (CSIRO),
Dr Mike Osborne (ANU) 


Dr Ron Sandland

Who owns data analysis?



Prof Niels Becker

Statistical challenges of AIDS

La Trobe University

Prof Chip Heathcote (ANU),
Dr Patty Solomon (ANU)


Prof Murray Aitkin 

Statistical consulting, research, computing, theory and teaching - the roles of a university Statistical Consulting Centre

University of Lancaster, UK

Mr Ross Cunningham (ANU), 
Mr Richard Morton (CSIRO)


Dr Alan Gleeson

The changing role of Biometricians in NSW Agriculture

NSW Agriculture

Dr John Reynolds (Vic Dept of Ag), 
Dr Jeff Wood (CSIRO)


Dr Dennis Trewin

A comparison of two statistical systems

Statistics New Zealand, NZ

Dr Fellegi (StatsCanada), 
Mr Castles (ABS)


Prof Charles McGilchrist

Generalised linear mixed models

National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, ANU

Dr Alan Welsh (ANU), 
Mr Richard Morton (CSIRO)


Mr Bill McLennan AM

The ABS product - issues and prospects

Australian Bureau of Statistics

Dr Tom Karmel (DEET), 
Dr Bruce Armstrong (AIHW)


Prof Chip Heathcote

Mortality surfaces and health processes

Australian National University

Dr Christabel Young (ANU), 
Dr Richard Madden (AIHW)


Prof Susan Wilson

Who counts and why? A perspective of the history of women and men in statistics

Australian National University

Prof Joe Gani (ANU), 
Ms Susan Linacre (ABS)


Prof Geoff Eagleson

Selling statistics: is it time to segment the market?

Australian Graduate School of Management, University of New South Wales

Prof Alan Welsh (ANU), 
Ms Gemma van Halderen (ABS)


Dr Nick Fisher

Statistics and performance management


Prof John Robinson (Uni of Sydney)
Mr Dennis Trewin (ABS)


Prof Alan Welsh

Incomplete detection in enumeration surveys: Whither distance sampling?

Australian National University

Dr Ann Cowling (ANU)
Mr Geoff Lee (ABS)


No Knibbs lecture held this year


Prof Oliver Mayo

To What Extent Has Fishers Research Programme Been Fulfilled In Australia?


Professor Sue Wilson (CBIS, ANU)
Prof Andrew Cockburn (BoZo, ANU)


Prof William Dunsmuir

Estimation and modelling in time series of dependent counts

University of New South Wales

Professor Ross Maller (FAS, ANU)
Dr Steven Stern (FAS, ANU)


Prof Adrian Baddeley

The difficulty of selling cheap things

University of Western Australia

Professor Alan Welsh (MSI, ANU)
Dr Simon Barry (BRS)


Prof Peter Thomson

Hidden Markov Models: Some examples of their application and reflections on their use

Statistical Research Ltd., NZ


Dr Richard Jarrett

The Complexity of Risk



Prof Rob Hyndman

Population forecasting and the importance of being uncertain

Monash University


Prof Matt Wand

Variational Approximations in Statistics

University of Wollongong

Dr Mark Clements (ANU)

Mr Daniel Elazar (ABS)


Prof Joe Gani

Mathematical models for the spread of epidemics

Australian National University

Prof Alan Welsh (ANU)

Prof Daryl Daley (Uni of Melbourne)


Prof Neville Weber

Scaling courses for university admission purposes

University of Sydney

Helen Strauch (ACT Edu)

Warren Müller (CSIRO)


Prof Chris Field

Robustness as applied to marine ecology

University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Prof John Robinson (Uni of Sydney)

A. Prof Gavin Huttley, (ANU)


Prof David Griffiths

The thrown coin: who gives a toss?

Adventures in the design of the golden die and in binary regression

University of Wollongong

Alice Richardson

Michael Adena (Datalytics)


Prof Louise Ryan

On the challenge of covariate selection in environmental epidemiology

University of Technology Sydney

Prof Steven Roberts (ANU)

Dr Shuvo Bakar (CSIRO)


Prof Noel Cressie

Statistical Modelling of Big, Spatial, Non-Gaussian Data: The MODIS Cloud Mask Product 

University of Wollongong

Dr. Philip Kokic (CSIRO)

Daniel Elazar (ABS)


Bendix Carstensen

The resurrection of time as a continuous concept in biostatistics, demography and epidemiology

Steno Diabetes Center, Copenhagen, Denmark

Ian McDermid (ANU)


David Kalisch

'Big Data', Official Statistics and National Statistical Offices

Australian Statistician, Australian Bureau of Statistics


A. Prof Rachel Fewster

Statistical stocking fillers

University of Auckland


Prof Eric Stone

Is the Discipline of Statistics Destined for Disruption?

Australian National University

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