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Sir Francis Galton

English scientist, explorer, and principal figure in the early history of eugenics.

Born in Birmingham, England, Francis Galton was descended from founders of the Quaker religion. He learned to read before the age of three and became competent in Latin and mathematics by age five. Nevertheless, Galton's formal education was unsuccessful. A rebellious student, he left school at the age of 16 to receive medical training at hospitals in Birmingham and London. Entering Cambridge University two years later, Galton failed to attain the high academic ranking he sought, and this precipitated a mental breakdown, although he did eventually earn his degree.

After several years of living on an inheritance from his father who died in 1845, Galton led a two-year expedition to the interior of southwest Africa, winning a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society for a highly detailed map he produced from data obtained on this

Sir Francis Galton (The Library of Congress. Reproduced by permission.)

trip. He also became a fellow of both the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society. During the next ten years, Galton was preoccupied with geographical and meteorological studies. Among his other achievements, Galton created the world's first weather maps.

The 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species by Galton's cousin, Charles Darwin, turned Galton's attention to the subject of heredity. Theorizing that the operating principles of Darwin's theory of evolution provided the potential for the positive biological transformation of humankind, Galton began to study the inheritance of intellectual characteristics among human beings. Based on quantitative studies of prominent individuals and their family trees, he concluded that intellectual ability is inherited in much the same way as physical traits, and he later published his findings in Hereditary Genius (1869).

Galton's belief in the hereditary nature of intelligence led him to the idea that society should encourage superior individuals to procreate, while those with lesser mental abilities should be discouraged from doing so, a concept for which he coined the term " eugenics," denoting the scientific attempt to genetically improve the human species through selective parenthood. It is interesting to note that Galton's approach to eugenics was to encourage the "best specimens" to procreate. This differed from the American approach referred to as "negative eugenics," where the "worst specimens" were prevented from procreating.

Galton carried out further research to distinguish between the effects of heredity and those of environment. He polled members of the Royal Society about their lives, using a new research tool of his own devising that was to have a long life as an information-gathering device: the questionnaire. Eventually, Galton modified his original theories to recognize the effects of education and other environmental factors on mental ability, although he continued to regard heredity as the preeminent influence.

Galton made significant contributions in many areas. His strong interest in individual psychological differences led him to pioneer intelligence testing, inventing the word-association test. He also was the first known investigator to study twins who had been separated from each other as a means of offering insight into the nature-nurture controversy. In his late sixties, Galton discovered the analytical device known as the "regression line" for studying the correlations between sets of data. In 1909, he was knighted in recognition of his manifold accomplishments in such diverse fields as geography, meteorology, biology, statistics, psychology, and even criminology (he had developed a system for classifying fingerprints). While many of Galton's specific conclusions and research methods turned out to have been flawed, his work provided a foundation for the study of individual differences by both psychologists and educators. Among Galton's many publications are Tropical South Africa (1853), The Art of Travel (1855), Hereditary Genius (1869), English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture (1874), Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (1883), and Memories of My Life (1908).

Further Reading

Forrest, D.W. Francis Galton: The Life and Work of a Victorian Genius. London: Elek, 1974.

Pearson, Karl. The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1914-30.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists