George Udny Yule was born near Haddington, and studied civil engineering at University College London, and later also physics at Bonn University. He returned to London and became assistant professor of applied mathematics at University College in 1896. On marrying, Yule moved jobs becoming both an assistant to Sir Philip Magnus, at the department of technology at the City and Guilds Institute, as well as Newmarch Lecturer in Statistics at UCL. His lectures provided the basis for his Introduction to the theory of statistics (1911) which was to become a standard textbook in the field. In 1912 Yule became lecturer in statistics at Cambridge, and his association with St John's began a year later. He became a Fellow of the College in 1922. During the First World War he was a statistician to the director of army contracts and the Ministry of Food. Yule was very influential in the fledgling discipline of statistics, and an active member of several scientific societies, but he also had an interest in medieval devotional literature, and studied Latin in later life, alongside motoring and flying. His interest in literature led him to attempt a statistical study of the vocabulary of the devotional work Imitatio Christi to ascertain its authorship.
Yule left all his books to St John's to dispose of, and there are currently over 200 items which bear his provenance. Chief among them are his collection of early printed editions of the Imitatio Christi, on which he conducted his studies, which includes the first edition (Augsburg, 1473) in a contemporary pigskin binding with part of a chain still attached. Among the other editions, several bear interesting bindings, for example one in late 15th-century calf, with blind-stamped panels of the crucifixion and St Gregory, and another in a 17th-century embroidered English binding depicting King David and Time, with hour-glass and scythe. Some also have interesting provenances, including one which bears the bookplate of William Penn, and a 17th-century Icelandic edition which belonged to William Morris. Beyond the Imitatio Christi Yule's books are quite varied, although there is much devotional and liturgical literature, including an edition of Bertoldus the Dominican's Horologium devotionis circa vitam Christi (ca. 1490) with hand-coloured woodcuts, a French Book of Hours printed on vellum (1497) with hand-coloured initals, and an early translation of the Psalms of David into Welsh (1588). Altogether there are over forty items of incunabula but there are many interesting later items as well. These include a pirated copy of the first edition of Rousseau's Du contract social (1762) and a first edition of John Clare's Poems descriptive of rural life and scenery (1820).
The books given by Yule bear a simple book label.