Sir Francis Galton was one of the most influential scientists of his time and is of systematic anthropological and bioethical interest for having introduced into the discussion the idea of eugenics.
Galton was born on February 16, 1822 near Sparbrook, south of Birmingham, England, and was the youngest of seven children of Violetta Darwin and Samuel Tertius Galton. Both came from distinguished families with scientific backgrounds. Already as a child he showed signs of extraordinary talent. Trips to Europe and attendance at different schools within England and abroad were part of his young adolescence. At the age of 16, he began a medical education. In 1840, he started attending lectures on mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. It was also during this time that he first experienced the effects of overwork but also discovered his passion for traveling and statistics. In 1844, his father died and left him with money that would finance his future lifestyle. In contrast to his father’s wish, he did not finish his medical career. Instead, he spent his time traveling along the Nile together with friends.
Until then, his achievements had hardly been outstanding, but the expeditions into foreign countries set the tone for his future actions. In 1850, Galton followed the example of other famous people of that time and set off to explore Africa, namely, the area around Lake Ngami. After his return to England with a vast number of maps and measurements, he made a name for himself as an excellent cartographer. The Royal Geographical Society honored this work with the annual gold medal and soon made him a fellow of the Society. This was to be the starting point for his scientific career. In the following years, he wrote several books and gave lectures on traveling and basic survival skills, some of which are still in practice in today’s army. In 1853, he married Louisa Butler, whose family included some well-known scholars. The marriage of the two quite diverse characters remained without children, but Galton’s scientific life became more and more successful. For example, he was made a fellow of the Royal Society and received various other awards also from abroad. His love for statistics and measuring sometimes seemed to wander off in unorthodox directions, for example, when he scrutinized how to make the perfect cup of tea or studied the efficacy of prayer. But it was his unusual approach to a subject that would set him apart from all other scientists.
By coining the term anti-cyclone and developing a set of pictorial schemes for weather maps, he also left his mark on meteorology. Another part of his work was concerned with psychology and mental imagery. He also belonged to a group of scientists who published a new weekly magazine on science, literature, and art, The Reader. Although this project failed, it can be seen as the predecessor of Nature magazine.
He made other important contributions to science, for example, in the field of twin research or by opening an anthropometric laboratory where he gathered detailed information of almost 10,000 people. He also wrote the first systematic study on fingerprints and therefore introduced it as a means of identification. When trying to find a term that concisely illustrated the difference between environmental and hereditary influences on the development of a person, he coined the phrase “nature versus nuture,” which is still found in recent debates to refer to that issue. As in many other cases, it was not only the content but also his methods that were new and setting future standards (for example, the questionnaire, the use of statistics or family trees for scientific purposes).
Galton worked on these studies and invented many methods while making his most important contribution to science, which he is famous for even today. In 1864, he published Hereditary Talent and Character, a work inspired by his half-cousin Charles Darwin and his work On The Origin of Species. Galton claimed that not only physical but also mental features and capabilities are subject to heredity, a thesis that was barely accepted at that time. In addition, he argued that we should improve the human race by allowing only the best to reproduce, just as we breed only those animals that are of good disposition. This idea of selected reproduction he called “viriculture.” From then on, his ambition was to prove his thesis that mental and physical abilities are equally inherited and advocate the idea of viriculture. In his following books, Hereditary Genius (1869) and Inquiries Into Human Faculty (1883), the topic was further developed. In the latter, he coined the term Eugenics (from Greek: eu = good; gignesthai = to become) to describe the program of improving the human race by letting only the most capable men and women and the more suitable races reproduce. Already in 1869, Galton had formulated the thesis that it is possible to improve the inborn qualities of a race. Thereby, he reassumed an old idea the Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BC) had already developed in his work Republic. Like Plato, Galton found the rationale for eugenic improvement directly in the successes of animal breeding. The prevalence of desirable features in livestock can be increased by selectively mating specimens with the desired trait (for example, in chickens, the increase of their egg production).
Especially toward the end of his life, he found many supporters of his idea of eugenics. In 1904, a research fellowship in eugenics was established at the University in London, and the first Eugenics Record Office was founded. By the late 1920s, some two-dozen American states had enacted sterilization laws according to their new eugenic political agendas. Galton’s ideas were discredited as a result of the German Third Reich and their political agenda of eugenics but were reassumed in 1962 by the Ciba-Symposion in London.
In 1909, shortly before his death, Galton was knighted, and in 1910, he received the highest honor from the Royal Society, the Copley Medal. His work sums up to nine books and more than 200 articles and an unpublished novel. He died January 17,1911, in Haslemere, Surrey, England. According to his will, a eugenics chair was established at the University of London.
- Francis, G. (1883). Inquiries into human faculty. London: Macmillan.
- Francis, G. (1908). Memories of my life. London: Methuen.
- Francis, G. (1985). Essays in eugenics (Reprint of London, Eugenics Education Society). New York: Garland. (Original work published 1909)