Birmingham-born Sir Francis Galton was a Victorian genius. But today he would be thought a racist because of the controversial interest for which he is best remembered – eugenics. Jessica Winch reports.
While most people are familiar with the life and work of Charles Darwin, many have all but forgotten the name of his equally brilliant cousin, Birmingham-born Sir Francis Galton.
Galton, born near Sparkbrook in February, 1822, was a Victorian polymath – geographer, meteorologist, explorer, mathematician and scientist whose work in different areas still affects our lives today.
He prepared the first weather map for The Times newspaper in 1875, now a standard feature in most newspapers.
He invented the fingerprint identification system used in criminal investigations worldwide.
He was one of the founders of the science of statistics, measuring everything from height to the efficacy of prayer (he found that those frequently prayed for, like monarchs, lived no longer than anybody else).
He even made a “Beauty-Map” of Britain, secretly rating women he passed as attractive, indifferent, or repellent (London ranked highest, Aberdeen was the low point).
He was a geographer and tropical explorer, travelling to present-day Namibia and leading a trip up the Nile to Khartoum. His guide to the art of travelling, which ran through eight editions in his lifetime, is still in print.
However, what he is best known for is his pioneering work in eugenics, the science of improving a population by controlled breeding.
In Galton’s time, eugenics was a popular topic - the First International Congress of Eugenics in 1912 was supported by Leonard Darwin, son of Charles, and Winston Churchill.
Today, eugenics is indelibly linked with Nazi Germany and its extermination of Jews, gypsies, the disabled and other “undesirable” population groups. Galton was one of the founding fathers of eugenics, coining the term as well as the phrase “nature vs nurture”.
He was interested at first in the idea that genius was hereditary - attempting to prove this theory in his 1869 book Hereditary Genius.
But much of his thinking was “misguided” as Professor Mark Pallen from the University of Birmingham explained.
“Galton was a polymath, he did so many things,” said Professor Pallen, a geneticist in the school of Biosciences.
“He was an amazing character - these people don’t exist anymore.
“The trouble is he’s tainted with eugenics, so we try to airbrush him out of history.
“He clearly was a eugenicist and by modern standards would be considered a racist.”
While Professor Pallen is “reluctant” to link Galton’s work directly to the Nazis - they were also influenced by “their own Teutonic myths” and figures like Martin Luther, who became increasingly anti-Semitic as he aged - Galton did attempt to group people by race and measure superiority.
“He was a bit misguided to think that you could capture the essence of an ethnic group,” said Professor Pallen. “Darwin recognised that everywhere you look there is variation.”
He said: “What Galton and others thought then really does strike us now as offensive, and wrong.
“[But] can you judge previous generations by the same standards that we hold today? We’d say he’s a racist but in his own time he was a polymath, a genius.
“I think he was misguided in certain areas but he was revered in others. If you ignored the eugenics [research], he would still rate as a major scientist.”
Mark Carnall is curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL, and curated the Galton collection housed by the university.
UCL marked the 100th anniversary of Galton’s death last year with exhibitions and discussions on his work.
Mr Carnall said: “Because [Galton] was such a polymath, his reputation was always going to suffer from not being remembered as well as people who have one big idea.
“He suffered from nervous breakdowns because he was constantly worrying or thinking about things – even down to things like the best way to cut a cake so it lasts longer.”
The university houses a collection of Galton’s scientific instruments, papers, and personal memorabilia, many of which – especially his head spanners, according to Mr Carnall – are almost always out on loan.
On his death, Galton left the university £45,000 to found the Laboratory of National Eugenics.
It soon changed its name to the Galton Laboratory to escape from the eugenical association, and the university still has a Galton Professorship.