As the pioneer of eugenics, Francis Galton is hardly a favourite subject for research. Yet Galton, whose English Men of Sciences: Their Nature and Nurture (1874) started the "nature versus nature" debate, has been described as "possibly the most original of all the great Victorians" (Trotter 113); and much of his work on heredity and bio-statistics (such as using groups of identical and fraternal twins in his studies, and pioneering statistical analysis), was immensely valuable. He gave a great deal to society in other areas as well. Galton spent a year at King's College London Medical School in his youth, and later became an important benefactor of the University of London.

Photo of Ramsay

Francis Galton as a student. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

Galton had a privileged childhood. He was born in Birmingham in 1822, the last of the seven surviving children of a wealthy banker who had married into the Darwin family — an amazingly talented family, which was almost guaranteed to produce someone with an interest in heredity sooner or later. He himself was a very precocious child, and when he somehow failed to live up to expectations at his Birmingham school, his parents withdrew him. They sent him instead as a pupil to the Birmingham General Hospital. His mother in particular was keen for him to follow in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, the distinguished physician Erasmus Darwin. Galton reported later that he threw himself into his ward duties at the hospital "with zeal" (Memories, Ch. III); but it must have been a traumatic experience for a sixteen-year-old from such a background. Amongst his duties, for example, was tending beleaguered Chartists and men injured in common brawls. Of their scalp wounds, he says, "it was my part to shave the head, using the blood as lather, which makes a far better preparation for shaving than soap" (Memories, Ch. III). Again, one can see the seeds of later interests, this time in the threat of degeneracy in the lower levels of society.

The hope for him to become a doctor haunted Galton's early manhood. After a year on the wards in Birmingham, he was enrolled in King's College Medical School in London in 1839. Here he became one of several student lodgers at the home of the humorous, shrewd and kindly Professor of Anatomy, Richard "Dickey" Partridge, then in the early stages of a brilliant career in surgery. The house (since demolished) was very conveniently situated in the Whitehall area, only a ten minutes' walk from King's on the Strand. Galton liked it because it had a "capital library" and a view of the Admiralty ("with a telegraph at the top continually working and attitudinising like a skeleton learning gymnastics," qtd. in Pearson I: 106). Much as students today buy posters to personalize their space, he wrote home to ask his artistic sister Emma ("Pemmy") for a couple of paintings to cheer up his little garret room, and was delighted when they came. He seems to have settled in quickly. Partridge, who had been a friend of Charles Lamb, had some fascinating dinner guests, including his colleague at King's, Charles Wheatstone. Not yet married, Partridge gave the students the run of his drawing-room, providing them with a complete jointed skeleton for their studies.

As for the medical department at King's, Galton expressed himself well satisfied: "Kings's College is a very nice place," he reported back to his father (qtd. in Pearson I: 106), explaining that the dissection room (like the junior department) was in the basement, and commenting with pleasure on the "most splendid collection of large green frogs all alive and croaking too" which were kept there for "Physiological Experiments" (qtd. in Pearson I: 105; do their spirits still haunt King's?). He appears to have enjoyed this aspect of his studies, for he took one of his elder brothers, Erasmus, to see the dissection room. Erasmus beat a hasty retreat. Galton also commented rather ghoulishly to his father, "dissecting increases the appetite wonderfully" (qtd. in Pearson I: 107). As well as Physiology and Anatomy, he studied Chemistry. This is how he describes a typical day:

9-10 Anatomical Lecture, 10-1 dissection, 2-3 Chemical Lecture, 3-4 Physiological Lecture, 5-6 read or walk or fence or something of the sort; 6-7 dinner, doze of an hour, often a wee more, then tea till 8. Read and microscopize till 1 and amuse myself till 2 or 3 according as I am lazy or not. Sleep till 8. [qtd. in Pearson I: 109]

Chelsea Physic Garden) Chelsea Physic Garden)

Two views of Chelsea Physic Garden where Galton studied.

[Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

He also took some classes in Botany at the Chelsea Botanical Gardens (more correctly known as the Chelsea Physic Garden), and "the minor subject of Forensic Medicine." This "had a sort of Sherlock Holmes fascination for me," he says later, recalling that it was the only subject in which he won a prize "all to myself" (Memories, Ch III). According to D. W. Forrest, though, this was a case of mistaken recall (wishful thinking?) for he only came second here as he did Anatomy and Chemistry, and all he got was a certificate (15). As usual, it seems, he had failed to meet his own and his family's high expectations of him.

During this period he had been attending the very recently established King's College Hospital as well. This was more crowded than the hospital in Birmingham, but he found he had much less contact with the patients than he had had as an "indoor pupil" in his hometown. However, he speaks only good of the teaching there, which he describes as having been "greatly superior to the generality of that at Birmingham" (Memories, Ch. III). Galton was far from uncritical when he looked back on his student days. For example, he was quite negative about Partridge as a lecturer (too narrow, too dry and so on), even though he evidently liked him as a person. So this is praise indeed.

Yet as early as 16 October 1839, Galton was talking of moving on. "I have been thinking over about another year's Londonizing," he writes to his father, "and, having crammed up 'Whewell's University Education,' I certainly think it would be better to give it and the Laboratory up altogether" (qtd. in Pearson I: 107; Whewell was the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge). By early December, he has had a word with his cousin Charles Darwin about Cambridge, and reports to his father that Darwin has suggested "next October and to read Mathematics like a house afire." There are signs of stress now. "O, Bessy, Bessy," Galton moans to another sister at this time, "I have another boil.... Mountainous ... like Ben Lomond covered with scarlet red heather" (qtd. in Pearson I: 110). At the end of the academic year, then, he dropped his medical studies for the time being (leaving open the possibility of a return to King's later, at least in his letter home), and went up to Trinity to read mathematics.

The change was not an immediate answer to his problems. Once again, he enjoyed the student experience but failed to impress his tutors. In fact, like several other brilliant men, he had some kind of breakdown before his finals, and had to settle for a pass degree. He did attend some medical lectures at Cambridge, and even thought of returning to King's to complete his qualifications, but his father's sudden death in 1844 liberated him from all need to engage in a profession. At the same time it precipitated him out into the world to recover his health and spirits. From this point on, his restless energy, his ready enthusiasm and above all "idiosyncratic appetite . . . for counting and quantifying" (Myers; not unconnected, perhaps, with his banker father's having demanded detailed financial accounts from each of his sons), determined his interests more than anything he had ever learnt in college.

Galton's father had always encouraged him to travel. Now he became much more adventurous. His first books were about his African explorations, and he went on to distinguish himself as an anthropologist, twice serving as President of the Anthropology Section of the British Association. He was also a notable meteorologist, who coined the word "anti-cyclone" and introduced weather-mapping; an early advocate of fingerprinting and composite photography in forensics, a science which continued to fascinate him; the "first English experimentalist" in psychology (Pearson II: vi); and of course a bio-statistician. His first article on the nature of heredity, "Hereditary Talent and Character" (1865) was inspired by reading his cousin's Origin of the Species, and he went on to introduce the "science" of eugenics, a word he coined himself in Inquiries into the Human Faculty and Its Development (1885). He was convinced that the human being, like any other species, could be improved by attention to breeding, and that this would be better and kinder in the long run than the process of natural selection. His biographer and protégé Karl Pearson sums up the rationale behind eugenics in this way:

the garden of humanity is very full of weeds, nurture will never transform them into flowers; the eugenist calls upon the rulers of mankind to see that there shall be space in the garden, freed of weeds, for individuals and races of finer growth to develop with the full bloom possible to their species. [II: 220]

How chillingly that reads now! But the idea, which Galton pursued with even more than his usual enthusiasm, gained wide currency, especially when people grew concerned about the state of Army recruits for the Boer War (Trotter 114). Eugenics became a major branch of sociology in Edwardian England, and by 1930 there were institutes focusing on eugenics research not only in England but also in "America, Sweden, Norway, Russia, Switzerland, Germany, Poland and probably elsewhere" (Pearson III A: 217n.). Pearson also mentions a journal for it in Italy.

What kind of a man was Galton? Pearson sets out to show that Galton was thoroughly good-natured, "sympathetic, helpful and always full of fun" (III B: 56), a devoted son and brother and a patient husband to a not very prepossessing wife (there were no children). In connection with his wife, W. D. Forrest also talks of Galton's "kindness of heart and unselfish disposition" (243). Others have not been quite so glowing. Forrest himself quotes a contemporary who says of Galton in his early manhood that he had "little or no imagination," was "doctrinaire ... could make no allowance for the failings of others and had no tact" (69). His most recent biographer to date, Michael Bulmer, seems to seek to excuse him by saying he was "an archetypal romantic, an innovator with the gift of seeing problems in statistical terms, but lacking the mathematical ability and the inclination to push his ideas to their logical conclusion" (xvi). Should Galton (and Pearson, and the many other well-known Victorians and Edwardians who subscribed to the creed of eugenics) have recognised an inherent evil in his creed? Or at least seen how it could be pushed "to [its] logical conclusion"? It is hard to answer such questions objectively now, but no one reading the small clutch of biographies of him could seriously doubt that Galton "would have been horrified had he known" of the later atrocities "carried out in the name of eugenics" (Gillham 357).

That being the case, it does seem unfair that the official University of London history (Athlone Press, 1986) should make no mention of Galton. For many years he "worked largely alone" (Gillham 269), but in later life his greatest acolytes, Pearson himself and W. F. R. Weldon, were both influential professors at University College. Pearson, who had been educated at University College School, was Goldshmid Professor of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics at the college from 1884, while Weldon became Jodrell Professor of Zoology there in 1890. This drew Galton close to the college, and encouraged him to promote his work there. In 1904 he went to see the principal of the University of London, and it was swiftly arranged that University College would provide rooms in Gower Street for a "Eugenics Record Office," which he would fund. Florence Nightingale, a firm believer in the new statistical methods, had first proposed a "school of higher statistics" to Galton as early as 1891 (Pearson 2: 419). After Galton's death in Haslemere, Surrey, in 1911, this finally materialised: he had left the grand total £45,000 to the college, a great sum in those days, to provide a Professorship in Eugenics, and properly endow what was now renamed the Eugenics Laboratory (Forrest 259-60). As he had wished, Pearson was the first to hold this professorship, and he brought all the work in this area under the umbrella of a department of applied statistics, the first of its kind in the world.

Under its original founder's name, the Galton Laboratory has since been incorporated into the Department of Biology. Happily, the aims of genetic research at University College have completely changed, but it still operates on the controversial cutting edge of science. Issues surrounding (for example) embryo-screening, like the debate over nature versus nurture, are a part of Galton's legacy too, and there is an independent charitable foundation called the Galton Institute which exists to promote understanding of them.

Related Material


Bulmer, Michael G. Francis Galton: Pioneer of Heredity and Biometry. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2003. (This is more about Galton's work than his life.)

Forrest, D. W. The Life and Work of a Victorian Genius. London: Paul Elek, 1974. (Well-balanced.)

Galton, Francis. Memories of My Life. London: Methuen, 1908. Chapter 3, like the rest, is available at the very comprehensive Galton website.

Gillham, Nicholas Wright. A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001. (See Gavan Tredoux's excellent review of this.

Myers, Eveleen. "Francis Galton (1822-1911)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Viewed 18 April 2007.

Pearson, Karl. The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton. 3 Vols (Vols. 1, 2, 3A and 3B). London: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1914-1930. This massive and painstaking hagiography is also available at the Galton website.

Trotter, W. R. The Hilltop Writers: A Victorian Colony among the Surrey Hills. Headley Down: John Owen Smith, 2003. (This has a short piece on Galton, who liked to retreat to the Surrey Hills in old age.)

University College London: History of the Statistical Science Department.

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Last modified 3 May 2007