Galton, Sir Francis

(1822-1911), biostatistician, human geneticist, and eugenicist

by Ruth Schwartz Cowan

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Galton, Sir Francis (1822-1911), biostatistician, human geneticist, and eugenicist, was born in Birmingham on 16 February 1822, the youngest of the seven children of Samuel Tertius Galton (1783-1844), a very successful banker, and his wife, Frances Anne Violetta Darwin (1783-1874), one of the many daughters of Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). The older Galtons, like the older Darwins, had been Quakers but by the time of Francis Galton's birth Samuel Galton had joined the Church of England. Both of Francis Galton's paternal and maternal grandfathers had been founding members of the Birmingham Lunar Society and Galton considered himself to be heir to the scientific and intellectual tradition which that society represented.

Childhood and education
According to his older siblings Galton was a child prodigy: they claimed that he learned the alphabet at eighteen months, read at two and a half years, memorized lengthy poems at five, and discussed the Iliad at six. However, despite this auspicious beginning, his school record was relatively undistinguished. At King Edward's School (the Birmingham Free School) he showed little aptitude for classical studies and chafed at the limitations that were placed upon him, occasionally becoming something of a disciplinary problem. At sixteen he was removed from school, much to his joy. His parents had decided that he should become, like his eminent grandfather, a physician; he became a pupil at Birmingham General Hospital in 1838 and, a year later, enrolled in King's College medical school in London. Medical education did not, however, suit him; after much discussion--and over some parental objections--he was allowed to proceed to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1840 to read mathematics.

At Cambridge Galton read mathematics under William Hopkins. However, his academic record was again undistinguished. Although his circle of friends included some of the most notable scholars of his day--among them H. S. Maine and Henry Hallam--he was never able to equal their academic success. In his autobiography Galton made much more mention of the social activities in Cambridge--reading parties, hiking parties, boating parties, and drinking parties--than of books or professors. During his third year, while preparing for his final set of examinations, he suffered what was probably a nervous breakdown and was forced to leave Cambridge with a pass ('poll') degree. He spent another term or two studying medicine, but this desultory progress toward a medical degree came to an abrupt end when, in the autumn of 1844, his father died, leaving an enormous inheritance.

Travel and marriage
'Being much upset and craving for a healthier life' (Galton, 82) Galton set out on a year-long tour of the Middle East. During this trip he learned to speak Arabic. Between 1846 and 1850 he divided his time between London and Scotland, pursuing a sporting life. However, this did not satisfy either his restless spirit or his intellect. Thus, in 1850 he undertook a journey of exploration (at his own expense but under the auspices of the Royal Geographical Society) to south-west Africa--an area which was, at that time, largely unknown to Europeans. Two books resulted: Tropical South Africa (1852) and The Art of Travel (1855). The first of these was rewarded with a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society, a fellowship of the Royal Society, and membership of the Athenaeum; the second (a how-to book) was reprinted several times over the next four decades.

On 1 August 1853 Francis Galton married Louisa Jane Butler (d. 1897), daughter of George Butler (1774-1853), dean of Peterborough and formerly headmaster at Harrow School. The London residence that the Galtons established soon after, in an elegant Georgian terraced house on Rutland Gate in South Kensington, was emblematic of the life they would lead in London for the next half century: active, central, wealthy, and intellectual.

Having settled in London, Galton became involved in various aspects of scientific administration. He belonged to and played an active role both in the Royal Society and in the Royal Geographical Society. In addition he was regularly involved in the governance of the British Association for the Advancement of Science; he served as secretary from 1863 to 1867. Having published some important meteorological investigations (Galton is credited with discovery of the anti-cyclone effect), he served on the governing committee of the Meteorological Office from 1868 to 1900 and as a member of the Kew committee of the Royal Society (chairman, 1889-1901). The Athenaeum was another important locus for his social and intellectual life.

Hereditary talent and character
Galton's fame rests on his long series of enquiries--spanning more than three decades--into the nature of heredity in general and human heredity in particular. With a few exceptions most of these investigations were numerical or statistical in character. Early in his adult life Galton had demonstrated an idiosyncratic appetite for counting and quantifying. When travelling in Africa, for example, he had come across some African women with extremely large breasts and had devised a method for estimating the size of their chests by triangulation. Later, when he was bored at scientific meetings, he counted the frequency with which people were fidgeting--and published the figures. He invented a little pocket ticker which would enable him to count without being noticed and, when taking long walks in various cities, he would count the frequency of attractive women he passed (he published those results also). Thus it is hardly surprising that when he decided to study heredity systematically his studies would be quantitative; somewhat more surprising is the fact that Galton, who was not a sophisticated mathematician, laid the foundation for the science of biostatistics as a result of his investigations into heredity.

Galton's first publication on the subject was an article, 'Hereditary talent and character', which appeared in Macmillan's Magazine in 1865. Inspired by his reading of the Origin of Species (published in 1859), and most probably by the fact that Charles Darwin was his first cousin, Galton became interested in the question of whether human mental traits could be inherited, and if they were, whether they could be made susceptible either to natural or to artificial selection. To this end he undertook a statistical analysis of the entries in biographical dictionaries, trying to determine the frequency with which eminent people were related to other eminent people and comparing this with the frequency with which eminent people arose within average, or undistinguished families. Using some data that today seem quite problematic, as well as some estimates which now seem quite crude, Galton concluded that 'talent and peculiarities of character are found in the children, when they have existed in either of the parents, to an extent beyond all question greater than in the children of ordinary persons' (F. Galton, 'Hereditary talent and character', Macmillan's Magazine, 12, June, 1865, 158). He had concluded, to put the matter another way, that mental traits were more the product of heredity than of environment, more the product of nature than of nurture. This belief led Galton to what appeared a simple and logical conclusion. That, if even 'a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle' it could produce 'a galaxy of genius' (ibid., 165-6). Galton believed selective breeding (the cultural equivalent of Darwin's natural selection) to be the only hope for improving the human race, precisely because heredity was a more important determinant than environment. This was the fundamental idea behind the eugenic political programme that he subsequently espoused.

Researches in inheritance
After 1865 Galton became actively engaged in researches which explored various aspects and corollaries of his initial insights. During the 1870s he disproved Darwin's theory of pangenesis, which held that inheritance could be affected by environmental conditions because hereditary particles were carried in the circulatory system. Galton created an experiment in which he transfused the blood of several black rabbits and several white rabbits. He then bred each of the rabbits to see whether changing the blood of the animals would change the colour of their offspring. Since this did not happen Galton was able to argue (much to his cousin's displeasure) that on this crucial point Darwin was wrong.

Galton also carried out several series of investigations on inheritance patterns in sweet peas (ironically, the same plant used experimentally, a few years earlier, by Gregor Mendel). Galton wanted to find out whether the plants that grew from extremely large seeds also produced extremely large seeds, whether, and to what extent, seed size was inherited. During this series of experiments Galton made two crucial discoveries that eventually formed the basis of biostatistics. He had long understood that the characteristics of populations could be described by the features and mathematics of normal curves, but in the sweet pea analysis Galton came to the further conclusion that the relationship between two populations could also be described by the laws of probability (then called the laws of frequency of error). Second, he realized that when the data for one characteristic (say for the weight of sweet pea seeds) were analysed probabilistically (to derive, for each seed, its unit of deviation from the population mean), and when the data (in units of deviation) for the parental generation were plotted against similar data for the offspring generation, a sloping line resulted. The slope of that line provided a measure, Galton thought, of the strength of the hereditary relationship between the two generations. That measure, generalized beyond genetic relationships, subsequently came to be called a regression coefficient and came to be used daily in thousands of different statistical investigations.

Galton completed the sweet pea studies in 1877. At that time he had for several years been trying to collect similar data from human populations, for example, by asking the headmasters of several schools to send him information about the height, weight, and health of their students. These human data had been helpful to him in some ways (the studies that he published form part of the basis of psychometrics, the quantitative analysis of human mental and physical characteristics) but they lacked the generational dimension that had proved so fruitful and interesting in the sweet pea studies. In order to gather inter-generational data Galton created, at his own expense, what he called an anthropometric laboratory at the International Health Exhibition at the South Kensington Science Museum. The booth was equipped with instruments which allowed various measurements to be taken (height, weight, chest span, head size, arm strength, hearing, visual acuity, and colour sense) and was staffed with people to take the measurements. During the life of this laboratory 9337 persons, parents and children, were measured. In addition Galton had published a pamphlet, Record of Family Faculties, and had offered cash prizes to families that sent it back to him with complete sets of data inscribed.

In his effort to analyse the data that he had now collected Galton made another important contribution to the sciences of human genetics and biostatistics. He had constructed elaborate graphs on which he had entered mid-parental height (an average of the mother's and the father's height) on one axis and offspring height on the other. At the point of intersection, however, he had placed a number corresponding to the number of children of that height that had been, according to his data, produced by parents of the corresponding height. Galton immediately noticed that if he drew lines connecting the points of equal frequency (for example, all the '4s' on his chart) they formed concentric ellipses, reminding him of meteorological charts that he had prepared years earlier. Furthermore, the straight line that connected the tangent points of those ellipses had a slope identical to the regression coefficient for his data. His knowledge of mathematics was sufficient to suggest to Galton that his graphs could be constructed from only three pieces of information: the probable error for each generation and the regression coefficient. When a professor of mathematics (J. D. Hamilton Dickson of Cambridge University) was able to do this construction without the original data, simply as a problem in analytic geometry, Galton realized that he had discovered a way to measure the relationship between the characteristics of two bodies of data, whether or not the two populations being studied were biologically related to each other--that he had discovered what was later called the measurement of correlation.

Galton was enthusiastic about these discoveries. There was, he wrote, 'scarcely anything so apt to impress the imagination as the wonderful form of cosmic order expressed by the "Law of Frequency of Error" ... The law would have been personified by the Greeks, and deified, if they had known of it' (F. Galton, Natural Inheritance, 1889, 66). Unfortunately, after 1889, when his summary book, Natural Inheritance, was published, he no longer had the energy to collect additional data and analyse them. However, his writings had inspired several younger people to take up both the study of human heredity and the analytical tools of statistical analysis, and Galton was able to use both his financial resources and his prestige to further their endeavours. In the last decades of his life (and in his will) he worked to create several institutions in which biostatistical and genetic research would be pursued: the scientific journal Biometrika (founded in 1902 with Galton's disciples Karl Pearson and W. F. R. Weldon as co-editors), the Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics, and the Galton Eugenics Professorship. (Both of these latter were at University College, London; after Galton's death, and Karl Pearson's accession to the Galton professorship, they were combined into the department of applied statistics.)

Although the study of inheritance was his main focus Galton also undertook many investigations of human mental and physical abilities. He asked mathematicians to make drawings of the ways in which they visualized the number system. He used superimposed photographs to create composite portraits of various groups of people. In the 1890s he investigated the use of fingerprinting for personal identification, establishing that the pattern of a person's fingerprints did not change from youth to old age and creating a taxonomic system by which the variations in fingerprint patterns could be described and catalogued. Although he never succeeded in developing a system for measuring intelligence, his various attempts provided the stimulus for the research which, in the early decades of the twentieth century, resulted in standardized tests for both intelligence and emotional states.

Final years and lasting influence
During the last years of his life Galton devoted himself to promoting the political programme of eugenics. In 1883 he had created the word eugenics out of the Greek roots for 'beautiful' and 'heredity'. He meant the word to denote both the science and the practice of improving human stock 'to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable' (F. Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty, 1883, 24-5). Most of his practical eugenic suggestions were for forms of what might be called positive eugenics: research programmes for discovering which diseases were hereditary; tax schemes for encouraging intelligent people to marry each other and to have large families. However, many of the people who took up the eugenic cause (and there were thousands of such people in many countries) were more interested in negative eugenic measures (for example the sterilization of persons deemed 'unfit'). Particularly after the lengths to which the Nazi regime in Germany took eugenic practice the word developed ugly connotations and was subsequently dropped from the title of all the institutions that Galton had helped to found.

Galton's ultimate contribution to human genetics is somewhat more difficult to explain than his contributions to biostatistics and psychometrics. In genetics he did not discover any law, enunciate any theory, nor reveal any body of facts which were later considered valid. What he did do, however, was provide an operational and quantitative definition for a process--heredity--which was, in his day, both ill-defined and very ambiguous. According to Galton heredity is the measurable relationship between two generations. This definition may seem obvious to us today, but it is only obvious because Galton was able to demonstrate not only how that measurement could be taken, but also how fruitful a scientific enterprise the exploration of the measurements could be.

Galton died on 17 January 1911 at Grayshott House, Haslemere, Surrey, and was buried in the Galton family vault at Claverdon, near Warwick. Louisa Galton had predeceased him by several years; she died on 13 August 1897. Ironically, given the fact that both Galtons belonged to intellectually eminent families and that Francis Galton had devoted himself both to the study of human heredity and to the cause of eugenics, the Galtons had no children.


R. S. Cowan, Sir Francis Galton and the study of heredity in the nineteenth century (1985)
R. S. Cowan, 'Francis Galton's statistical ideas: the influence of eugenics', Isis, 63 (1972), 509-28
R. S. Cowan, 'Francis Galton's contribution to genetics', Journal of the History of Biology, 5 (1972), 389-412
R. S. Cowan, 'Nature and nurture: biology and politics in the work of Francis Galton', Historical Studies on the Biological Sciences, 1 (1977), 133-208
K. Pearson, The life, letters and labours of Francis Galton, 3 vols. in 4 (1914-30)
D. J. Kevles, In the name of eugenics (1985)
F. Galton, Memories of my life (1908)
CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1911)

McGill University, Montreal, notebook
MHS Oxf., papers
RGS, astronomical observations
RS, letters and papers
UCL, corresp. and papers |  Air Force Research Laboratories, Cambridge, Massachusetts, letters to Lord Rayleigh
BL, corresp. with Macmillans, Add. MS 55218
CUL, letters to Charles Darwin
CUL, letters to G. Stokes
Keele University Library, LePlay Collection, corresp.
King's AC Cam., letters to Oscar Browning
RGS, letters to RGS
UCL, letters to A. G. Butler
UCL, letters to Millicent Lethbridge
UCL, letters to James Sully

O. Oakley, watercolour drawing, 1840, NPG
Maull & Polyblank, photograph, c.1856, NPG
G. Graef, oils, 1882, NPG
E. Myers, platinum print, 1890-99, NPG [see illus.]
C. W. Furse, oils, 1903, NPG
G. Frampton, bronze bust, c.1910, UCL
F. S. Baden-Powell, drawing silhouette, NPG
English school, oils, Down House, London
J. C. Fisher, chalk drawing, NPG
Graham's Art Studios, photograph, NPG
H. J. Whitlock, carte-de-visite, NPG

Wealth at death  
£104,487 3s. 1d.: resworn probate, 7 March 1911, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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