BOX 1.1

History of the Field—Two Biometrics

“Biometrics” has two meanings, both in wide use. The subject of this report—the automatic recognition of individuals based on biological and behavioral traits—is one meaning, which apparently dates from the early 1980s. In biology, agriculture, medicine, public health, demography, actuarial science, and fields related to these, “biometrics,” “biometry,” and “biostatistics” refer almost synonymously to statistical and mathematical methods for analyzing data in the biological sciences. This usage stems from the definition of biometry, proffered by the founder of the then-new journal Biometrika in its 1901 debut issue: “the application to biology of the modern methods of statistics.” The writer was the British geneticist Francis Galton, who made important contributions to fingerprinting as a tool for identification of criminals, to face recognition, and to the central statistical concepts of regression analysis, correlation analysis, and goodness of fit.

Thus, the two meanings of “biometrics” overlap both in subject matter—human biological characteristics—and in historical lineage. Stigler (2000) notes that others had preceded the Biometrika founders in combining derivatives of the Greek βíος (bios) and μετρον (metron) to have specific meanings.1 These earlier usages do not survive.

Johns Hopkins University opened its Department of Biometry and Vital Statistics (since renamed the Department of Biostatistics) in 1918. Graduate degree programs, divisions, and service courses with names incorporating “biostatistics,” “biometrics,” or “biometry” have proliferated in academic departments of health science since the 1950s. The American Statistical Association’s 24 subject-matter sections began with the Biometrics Section in 1938, which in 1945 started the journal Biometrics Bulletin, renamed Biometrics in 1947. In 1950 Biometrics was transferred to the Biometric Society (now the International Biometric Society), founded in 1947 at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The journal promotes “statistical and mathematical theory and methods in the biosciences through … application to new and ongoing subject-matter challenges.” Concerned that Biometrics was overly associated with medicine and epidemiology, in 1996 the Society and the American Statistical Association jointly founded the Journal of Agricultural, Biological, and Environmental Statistics (JABES). The latter, along with other journals such as Statistics in Medicine and Biostatistics, have taken over the original mission of Biometrika, now more oriented to theoretical statistics.

Automated human recognition began with semiautomated speaker recognition systems in the 1940s. Semiautomated and fully automated fingerprint, handwriting, and facial recognition systems emerged in the 1960s as digital computers became more widespread and capable. Fully automated systems based on hand geometry


1S.M. Stigler, The problematic unity of biometrics, Biometrics 56: 653-658 (2000).

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