Franscini, Stefano

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This article Stefano Franscini was adapted from an original article by Carlo Malaguerra, which appeared in StatProb: The Encyclopedia Sponsored by Statistics and Probability Societies. The original article ([ StatProb Source], Local Files: pdf | tex) is copyrighted by the author(s), the article has been donated to Encyclopedia of Mathematics, and its further issues are under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License'. All pages from StatProb are contained in the Category StatProb.


b. 23 October 1796 - d. 19 July 1857

Summary. Founding father of Swiss official statistics, Franscini was both politician and scientist. He was active in the establishment of Switzerland's national identity and served as Federal Minister of the Interior. He is especially remembered for his advocacy of statistical information as an inherent ingredient of the democratic process.

Profile of a man between agora and science

Stefano Franscini was born in 1796 in Bodio, a little village of Ticino, the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland. From childhood he manifested an uncommon intelligence and his parents decided to orient him towards the only educational career accessible at that time to children of modest families: he went to the catholic minor seminary of Pollegio, where he was supposed to be prepared for priesthood. At eighteen he moved to the major seminary of Milan, but finally he decided to abandon theology and turned towards the study of an eclectic variety of authors and fields.

Strongly influenced by liberal thinking, Franscini first took an interest in educational sciences. He worked in Italy as a teacher and his first book (1821) was a school text on Italian grammar which had major success (eigtheen editions in Italy and three in Ticino). Back in Switzerland, he opened and directed, with his wife, two schools inspired by English theories on mutual instruction. He then published a revolutionary pamphlet, Della pubblica istruzione nel Cantone Ticino (1828), in which he denounced the social inequalities and pedagogic lacunas of public schooling, and advocated a radical reform of the educational system.

A man of thought and action, Franscini embarked with equal energy on both scientific and political activity. His first work as a statistician, Statistica della Svizzera, appeared in 1827; then, in parallel with his activities as chancellor and member of the government of the canton Ticino, he published Svizzera Italiana (in German in 1835 and in Italian in 1837) and the Nuova Statistica in 1847. Finally, as a member of the first collegial executive of modern Switzerland, he published the Matériaux pour la statistique de la Conféderation Suisse (1851-1858), which appeared not under his name but attributed to the Federal Ministry of the Interior, of which he was the political head.

Such a statistical work was based on accurate observation of natural, economic and social phenomena. Franscini's portrait of Switzerland was an encyclopedic compendium on geography, topography, climate, fauna, flora, natural resources, demographic structures, agriculture, industrial production, trend, public finances, political institutions, social aggregates and cultural behavior. The amount of information and quality of analysis provided by Franscini appears today particularly impressive if one considers that he worked practically alone, without any assistance or grant. Indeed, in spite of his prominent political role, he never obtained official support for his statistical activity. Thus,

"he had to write himself mountains of letters to cantonal governments, municipalities, enterprises and scientific associations, in order to obtain data on all branches of public activities, education, roads, business, finance, agricultural and industrial production, taxes, prices, salaries... And it was on the basis of such a titanic work that he succeeded to organize and carry out the first federal census in 1850... but always alone, without a statistical bureau, without a single employee." (Calgari, 1968)

In 1855 the government decided for the first time to grant the publication of "federal statistics" with a ridiculous amount of a thousand francs - and it was only in 1860, after Franscini's death, that it decided to create a small Federal Bureau of Statistics.

Franscini not only lacked recognition of his statistical work from his colleagues in government, but he also had to face the arrogant scorn of the Swiss academia of that time. Although his scientific contribution was noticed abroad (he was corresponding member of the French Institute and of the Belgian Central Statistical Society), and he was the inspirer and creator of the federal university (today's Federal Institute of Technology), he experienced humiliating contempt when he applied for a chair of political economy and statistics at this university: the scientific commission simply refused to consider him.

As Franscini spent his entire life serving public interest and the advancement of knowledge, he was forever making a precarious living. His salary as federal minister of the interior was scarcely enough for the needs of a family with ten children and, at the end of his life, he was therefore obsessed by the idea that after his death his family could plunge into extreme poverty. He thus decided to resign his governmental tasks and to accept any position - however modest it might be - which would allow him to secure an income for his family. His political friends proposed him for a post as a director of the Archives of the canton Ticino, but he was not able to benefit from such an ``opportunity", as he died in Berne, still a federal councillor, on 19 July 1857. An epitaph on his tomb soberly expresses the integrity of the man and his tragic pain: ``"Nacque povero, visse povero, mori povero" - "He was born poor, lived poor, died poor".

"'Scientific rigour and democratic process

Franscini's scientific and political activities spanned a century quite attuned to the enlightement's ideals and turned towards a positivistic conception of scientific and human progress. The various facets of Franscini's career clearly reflect the spirit of his age. In his work as a statistician and as a politician he always referred to science as a precondition for objective knowledge of economic and social facts - and this evidence was directly linked to his conception of human development and "good government".

Like other scientists of his age, Franscini upheld statistics as an objective basis for knowledge of reality. In schematic terms, one can define his conception of statistical science as ``knowledge of facts through rigourous measurement". In this sense, he certainly could share the conception of statistical work defined by Adolphe Quételet (q.v.) in his "Instructions populaires sur le calcul des probabilites - which was published the same year as the Statistica della Svizzera. However, Quételet considered that human and social phenomena were to be described and explained through mechanical laws. He believed that the real scientific mission of statistics was to elaborate in the social sphere what Newton accomplished in the celestial sphere. On the other hand, Franscini was not interested in this kind of theoretical development. He considered statistics mainly as an applied science and his work aimed at establishing a comprehensive social science in the modern sense of this term. He attached high interest to statistical methods, but he considered these as means for providing accurate information. Of course, the concept of "statistical information" was unknown to Franscini. Nevertheless, it seems today the most appropriate concept for characterizing the achievement of his work, which aimed explicitly at three main objectives:

i) First of all, Franscini wished to gather together all sorts of relevant information in order to elaborate a unified image of Switzerland as a national entity. Such a task was an enormous challenge, because until the middle of the nineteenth century the Swiss never considered their country as a real national entity; they regarded it mainly as an alliance among cantonal sovereign States. Franscini was conscious that the building of an effective Swiss national entity needed stronger capacity for union based on a real national identity. His statistical work was aimed at building a clear image of Switzerland as a common home land of all Swiss people. He did not simply ``describe" the Swiss nation but contributed to building it through the statistical indices on material well-being, on domestic trade, and on prevailing cultural practices" (P. Garonna and F. Sofia, 1996). Undoubtedly, this has been one of Franscini's main achievements: his statistical portrait of the country contributed considerably to the development of a new national awareness.

ii) A second explicit objective of Franscini - as a statistician as well as a politician - was to provide the statistical information required for the management of public affairs of a modern federal State. Thanks to Franscini, it became evident that statistical information was an essential instrument for ``good government" and, in the framework of the new institutional order inaugurated by the Swiss Constitution of 1848, statistics were then included in the functions of the federal executive. In his capacity as minister of the interior Franscini thus applied his efforts to laying the foundations of genuine official statistics, focusing on the production of the information needed for the implementation of federal public policies.

iii) Last but not least, the third objective of Franscini's work was to develop statistical information as a tool for education and public knowledge, enabling the population to understand the problems of their country better. Such a pedagogic role of statistical information constitutes one essential component of his conception of official statistics. To Franscini, this was the most challenging mission of official statistics - and this is perharps also one of the most pertinent and modern messages of his intellectual legacy: statistical information should be considered as an inherent ingredient of the democratic process.

The main intentions of Franscini's work are condensed in his last book, "Semplici verita ai Ticinesi ("Simple truths explained to people of Ticino", 1854). Here statistics do not appear at the foreground, but throughout they discretely support a didactic argument against simplistic views on public debt and reduction of public expenditures. Franscini sincerely believed that such complex issues could be explained to people on the basis of rigourous information and an appropriate pedagogic approach. He considered this as a mark of both scientific and a civic commitment of the statistician: vis-a-vis demagogic arguments and opportunistic decisions, he had to make public and to explain pertinent simple truths. Franscini's conception of the role of scientists in a democratic society still remains a topical subject because, as he used to say, ``"la democrazia non è soltanto la maggioranza che vota, è anche la minoranza che pensai" - ``democracy is not only the majority which votes, but also the minority which thinks".


[1] Calgari, G. (1968). Vita di Stefano Franscini, Edizioni Pedrazzini, Locarno.
[2] Ceschi, R. (1996). Stefano Franscini: la vita e l'opera, Centro didattico cantonale, Bellinzona.
[3] Franscini, S. (1827). Statistica della Svizzera, a cura di R. Ceschi, Armando Dado, Locarno 1991.
[4] Franscini, S. (1854). Semplici verita ai ticinesi sulle finanze e su altri oggetti di ben pubblico, Introduzione di Ch. Marazzi, Armando Dado, Locarno 1996.
[5] Friedrich, R. (1995). Stefano Franscini, pionnier de la statistique en Suisse, Office federal de la statistique, Berne.
[6] Garonna, P. and Sofia F. (1996). Statistics and Nation-Building in European History, Preprint, CES - ECE/UNO, Seminar on Official Statistics: Past and Future (Lisbon, 25-27 September 1996).
[7] Malaguerra, C. (1997). Stefano Franscini: From Statistics to Simple Truths, Bulletin of the International Statistical Institute, 58, Book 1, 71-74.

Reprinted with permission from Christopher Charles Heyde and Eugene William Seneta (Editors), Statisticians of the Centuries, Springer-Verlag Inc., New York, USA.

How to Cite This Entry:
Franscini, Stefano. Encyclopedia of Mathematics. URL:,_Stefano&oldid=39202