Sir Francis Galton

(1822 - 1911)

Compiled by Stela Gega (May 2000)

Galton Biography
Time Line

Francis Galton was born at the Larches near Sparbrook, Birmingham on February 16, 1822 and died in 1911. He is best known for his pioneering work on human intelligence. He also earned the reputation of being a great explorer and anthropologist and was elevated to Knighthood in 1909.

During his childhood, as the youngest of his family, he had a strong connection with his twelve-year-older sister, Adele, who had a spinal injury and was obliged to lie in bed for most of the time (Forrest, 1974). She became Galton's first educator, and strongly believed that he was some sort of child prodigy. Records exist of his early performances. By the age of 2 he could a little book and few months later sign his name (Pearson, 1914).

At the age of five Galton joined the local school and was disappointed when he discovered that none of his friends knew about the Iliad or Marmion. Mrs. French, the schoolteacher, was always impressed by the young gentleman, who was "always to be found studying the abstruse sciences" (Galton, 1908). When he was 8 years old, his father sent him to Boulogne to study French. At the age of 14 he joined the King's Edward School in Birmingham and only after a year he was accepted as a pupil at Birmingham General Hospital. He left school early at the age of 16.

Galton's life has attracted the attention of major psychologists. For example Lewis Terman wrote a paper in attempt to estimate Galton's I. Q. He believed that Galton's performance was so exceptional as to be termed that of a genius (Forrest, 1974).

Galton's career bore remarkable similarities to that of his cousin Charles Darwin. Like Darwin, Galton attended Cambridge, but did not do exceptionally well. He spent a period of traveling before settling down to scientific work. And like Darwin, Galton had caught hold of the controversial ideas, which he realized could only be adequately proved by careful scientific investigation (Forrest, 1995). Galton placed an extremely high value upon science. Galton attracted the notice of Victorian scientific circles with tan account of an exploration of South-West Africa, which he had undertaken between 1850 and 1852 (Forrest, 1974). In 1853 he was in 1853 elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and, three years later, of the Royal Society.

Galton's interest in mathematics and techniques of measurement led him to concentrate within the field of geography on mapping and meteorological observations, and it was here that he made his first contribution to science. It was some years before the technical printing difficulties were to be overcome and Galton's weather map could first appear in The Times in 1875 (Forrest, 1974).

Throughout his life he continued to be active in the affairs of Royal Geographical Society and Meteorological Council, although his participation remained strictly administrative. During his forties, his research began to focus on heredity, a change which he ascribed to Darwin's influence "I was encouraged by the new views to pursue many inquiries that had long interested me, and which clustered around the central topics of Heredity" (Galton, 1908:288). He collected data on eminent men in England and summarized his findings in English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture. His views on innate and developmental influences on development determined his position as a nativist. Galton placed great emphasis on statistical measurements of these hereditary predispositions as a way of predicting and improving the population, and was the founder of a new movement in science called Eugenics. He promoted Eugenics enthusiastically and left part of his wealth to endow a chair of Eugenics in the University of London (Hothersall, 1995). He died in 1911.


The collection of data for his first important book, Hereditary Genius, marks the beginning of his psychological work. The thesis of the book is that "genius" or "talent" is genetically rather than environmentally determined (Forrest, 1995). He devoted the latter part of his life chiefly to propagating the idea of improving the physical and mental makeup of the human species by selective parenthood. By an examination of lists of famous people in the fields of law, politics, science, art, sport, and so on, Galton was able to trace their relatives in order to ascertain how many of them were bright enough stars to merit obituaries (Locy, 1908). He would then calculate the percentage of talented people in various degrees of kinship to the initial famous people. He writes that "there is no escape from the conclusion that nature prevails enormously over nurture when the differences of nurture do not exceed what is commonly found among persons of the same rank of society and in the same country " (Galton, 1908).

In order to estimate the proportion of the general population, which succeed into being 'prominent', Galton examined obituaries published in The Times. After careful data gathering and analyzing, Galton claimed that people differ in their abilities, and such differences are innate, and published his ideas in English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture.

From these ideas Galton found himself involved in the field of hereditary improvement, which he called Eugenics. The eugenic concept became the paramount importance in Galton's thinking (Forrest, 1974). He adopted a laboratory approach to collect the necessary data, and the laboratory was so successful in terms of the number of people who passed through it (nearly 10,000 in its year opening). Eugenics is accordingly often treated as an expression of class prejudice, and Galton as a reactionary. Yet to some extent this view misrepresents his thought, for his aim was not the creation of an aristocratic elite but of a population consisting entirely of superior men and women.

Some 17,000 individuals visited, paid for the priviledge, and were tested in Galton's Laboratory in the 1880s and 1990s. As they left they were given cards showing their results. To measure mental abilities Galton relied heavily on physical measures, such as height, weight, strength, rate of movement, visual and auditory acuity and reaction times, since he believed that there was a consistent co-relationship between sensory and mental acuity (Hothersall, 1995).

The lab served as a stimulator for other scientists such as Edward Thorndike whose "law of effect" bore resemblance to Darwinian and Galtonian theories of adaptation. Another who was impressed with Galton's work was James McKeen Cattell, whose first mental tests were largely derived from Galton (Forrest, 1995). From his first inquiries in to human intelligence, he concluded that there might be other methods of investigating mental imaginary. While walking down Pall Mall, he tried to call up mental associations to the objects and scenes before his eyes, conceiving the first word association test (Forrest, 1995). Galton was able to show that association formed in his early years were likely to be those repeated on the later trials with the same list, whereas recent associations were less fixed and would vary from trial to trial (Galton, 1979). He published his ideas on word association in Brain, to which Freud was subscribed and it might have been influenced in his later research. Galton was a prolific writer and a zealous scientist who placed great emphasis in the measurement of phenomena he was mostly interested in: intelligence and human ability to transfer it from one generation to the other. He examined a number of deferent human faculties, including the efficacy of prayer and much information about animals, which he compiled and published in his Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development in 1883. His hereditarian position is still important in contemporary psychology, and the paradigms he developed to investigate the relative contributions of nature and nurture to human behavior are still used.

Time Line
1822 - Francis Galton was born at Sparbrook, Birmingham.
1837 - Accepted as pupil at Birmingham General Hospital where he would graduate early at the age of 16.
1850 - Galton undertook an exploration in South -West Africa.
1853 - He published Tropical South Africa and was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Geographic Society.
-----The Art Of Travel was published, which was recently reprinted in 1974.
1869 - Published Hereditary Genius.
1874 - Published English Men Of Science: Their Nature and Nurture.
1884 - Anthropometric Laboratory was established.
1882 - "Finger Prints" found to be an ideal index of the personality identity. Scotland Yard adopted the method.
1883 - Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development was published.
1889 - Published Natural Inheritance.
1908 - Galton founded the Eugenics Society of Great Britain
1909 - Galton started a monthly journal called The Eugenics Review.
-----Galton was knighted Sir Francis
1911 - Sir Francis Galton died.

Forrest, D.W (1974). Francis Galton: The Life and Work of a Victorian Genius. New York: Paul Elek (Scientific Books) Ltd.
Forrest, D. W. (1995). Francis Galton. Seven Pioneers of Psychology.
London and New York: Routledge.
Galton, F (1908). Memories of My Life. London: Methuen & Co.
Galton, F (1879). Psychometric Experiments. Brain, 2:149-162.
Hothersall, D (1995). History of Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
Locy, W. A. (1908). Biology and its Makers. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Pearson, K. (1914). Life, Letters, and Labours of Francis Galton. Cambridge: University Press.

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