- Galton; Sir; Francis (1822-1911); biostatistician, human geneticist
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About this work
Francis Galton was born in Birmingham on the 16th February 1822. His father was Samuel Tertius Galton (1783-1844), a banker, and his mother was Frances Anne Violetta Darwin (1783-1874), daughter of the physician Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). Through his mother's family he was a cousin of the naturalist Charles Darwin.
Galton was educated in Kenilworth and at King Edward's School, Birmingham, until the age of sixteen. Following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, he was enrolled to study medicine at Birmingham General Hospital in 1838 and moved to King's College Medical School in 1839. However, he gave up his medical education and in 1840 spent six months travelling through Europe, Turkey and Syria. On his return he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge to read mathematics and was awarded his BA in 1844. When his father died later that year, a generous inheritance allowed Galton to give up his plans to study medicine at Cambridge and instead he embarked on a year-long tour of the Middle East.
In 1850 he explored south-west Africa on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society and later published two books as a result of his experiences: Tropical South Africa (1852) and The Art of Travel (1855). He married Louisa Jane Butler in 1855 and they established a home in Rutland Gate in South Kensington, London.
Galton then devoted his life to the study of diverse fields, including the weather, physical and mental characteristics in man and animals, the influence of heredity, heredity in twins, and fingerprints. He was preoccupied with counting and measuring, and collected a huge amount of statistical data to support his research.
Today, Galton is perhaps best known for his studies into the inheritance of mental characteristics in humans, for example estimating the frequency with which eminent individuals come from similarly distinguished families. His questionable hypotheses and methods led him to conclude that talents could be inherited, and later in his life he was zealous in advocating the study of "those agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally". He invented the word "eugenics" to describe this. Many of his genetic theories, such as eugenics, have since been discredited, although his study into the concept of inheritance - that certain physical characteristics can be passed from one generation to the next - is an important legacy.
One of Galton's other important legacies was his work on fingerprints. He discovered that a person's fingerprints could be used for personal identification because they are unique and do not change throughout a person's lifetime. His archive contains a large number of examples of fingerprints, which he used to create a taxanomic system still in use today. Galton also carried out further studies into the method of inheritance, for example disproving Charles Darwin's theory of pangenesis (inheritance via particles in the bloodstream) and making various discoveries through his data analysis that eventually formed the basis of biostatistics.
Galton was also involved in many societies and organisations, particularly the Royal Society, the Royal Geographical Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He was on the governing committee of the Meteorological Office from 1868 to 1900. He founded the Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics at University College London to further his work on eugenics, although under the leadership of L S Penrose in the 1960s the name of this department was changed to the Galton Laboratory, Department of Human Genetics and Biometry.
Francis Galton died on the 17 January 1911 and he was buried at the Galton family vault in Claverdon, Warwickshire. His wife Louisa predeceased him; they had no children.
University College London Special Collections also holds photographs of, and papers relating to, Galton in the Pearson Papers (Ref: PEARSON), and letters from Galton to: A G Butler (Ref: MS ADD 305), Millicent Adele Lethbridge 1883-1910 (Ref: MS ADD 310), and James Sully (Ref: MS ADD 158).
Material relating to Galton can also be found in the following repositories:
The Royal Geographical Society:
Oxford University Museum of the History of Science has some papers relating to Galton
Oxford University Museum of Natural History holds correspondence, mainly letters to Sir E B Poulton, 1887-1908
The Royal Society holds some material relating to Galton (In particular Ref: MM/11, MM/15, MM/17 and EC/1860/10)
The McLennan Library at McGill University has a Galton notebook, 1894-1897
Cambridge University King's College Modern Archive Centre holds letters to Oscar Browning, 1884-1886, (Ref: OB)
The Department of Manuscripts and University Archives at Cambridge University Library holds letters to Charles Darwin (Ref: Darwin), and letters to Sir George Stokes, 1868-1885 (Ref: Add 7342, 7656)
The British Library Manuscript Collections holds correspondence with MacMillans publishers, 1861-1909 (Ref: Add MS 55218)
Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories holds letters to Lord Rayleigh, 1876-1908
Warwickshire County Record Office holds copies of photographs of Francis Galton (PH0816) and other material relating to the Galton family in Warwickshire (CR1198)