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Summary Article: Galton, Francis (1822-1911)
from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: France

Subject: biography, biology

English scientist, inventor, and explorer who made contributions to several disciplines, including anthropology, meteorology, geography, and statistics, but who is best known as the initiator of the study of eugenics (a term he coined).

Galton was born on 16 February 1822 near Sparkbrook, Birmingham, the youngest of nine children of a rich banker and a first cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton's exceptional intelligence was apparent at an early age - he could read before he was three years old and was studying Latin when he was four - but his achievements in higher education were unremarkable. Acceding to his father's wish, Galton studied medicine at Birmingham General Hospital and then King's College, London, but interrupted his medical studies to read mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. He returned to medicine, however, studying at St George's Hospital in London, but abandoned his studies on inheriting his father's fortune and spent the rest of his life pursuing his own interests. Shortly after the death of his father, Galton set out in 1850 to explore various uncharted areas of Africa. He collected much valuable information, and on his return to England wrote two books describing his explorations. These writings won him the Royal Geographical Society's annual gold medal in 1853, and three years later he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

Galton then turned his attention to meteorology. He designed several instruments to plot meteorological data, discovered and named anticyclones, and made the first serious attempt to chart the weather over large areas - described in his book Meteorographica (1863). He also helped to establish the Meteorological Office and the National Physical Laboratory.

Stimulated by Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), Galton then began his best-known work, concerning heredity and eugenics, which occupied him for much of the rest of his life. Studying mental abilities, he analysed the histories of famous families and found that the probability of eminent men having eminent relatives was high, from which he concluded that intellectual ability is inherited. He tended, however, to underestimate the role of the environment in mental development, since intelligent parents tend to provide their children with a mentally stimulating environment as well as with genes for high intelligence. Galton described his study of mental abilities in eminent families in Hereditary Genius (1869), in which he used the term ‘genius’ to define creative ability of an exceptionally high order, as shown by actual achievement. He formulated the theory that genius is an extreme degree of three traits: intellect, zeal, and power of working. He also formulated the regression law, which states that parents who deviate from the average type of the race in a positive or negative direction have children who, on average, also deviate in the same direction but to a lesser extent.

Continuing his research, Galton devised instruments to measure various mental abilities and used them to obtain data from some 9,000 subjects. The results were summarized in Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development (1883), which established Galton as a pioneer of British scientific psychology. He was the first to use twins to try to assess the influence of environment on development, but more important was his quantitative and analytical approach to his investigations. In order to interpret his results, Galton devised new statistical methods of analysis, including correlational calculus, which has since become an invaluable tool in many disciplines, especially the social sciences.

As a result of his research into human abilities, Galton became convinced that the human species could be improved, both physically and mentally, by selective breeding, and in 1885 he gave the name ‘eugenics’ to the study of methods by which such improvements could be attained. He defined eugenics as ‘the study of the agencies under social control which may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, physically or mentally.’

Galton also made a number of other contributions. He demonstrated the permanence and uniqueness of fingerprints and began to work out a system of fingerprint identification, now extensively used in police work. In 1879 he devised a word-association test that was later developed by Sigmund Freud and became a useful aid in psychoanalysis. Also, he invented a teletype printer and the ultrasonic dog whistle.

Galton was knighted in 1909, two years before his death on 17 January 1911 in Haslemere, Surrey. In his will he left a large bequest to endow a chair in eugenics at the University of London.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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