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Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics

The Francis Galton Papers

Francis Galton was an accomplished figure in late 19th century science. Known chiefly for his work on heredity and eugenics, he also made important contributions to fields such as forensics and statistical methods.

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Francis Galton was a long-lived polymath, remembered chiefly for promoting a selective approach to human breeding in order to perfect the 'race' and coining the term 'eugenics' to describe it. He also deployed his passionate interest in the collection of scientifically robust data across a wide range of subjects, making important contributions to meteorology and the forensic use of fingerprints, as well as biostatistics and psychometrics.

The exhaustive collection includes a substantial number of biographical notes and albums of photographs that go back several generations. A child prodigy himself, Galton's distinguished forebears included Erasmus Darwin, and Charles Darwin was his first cousin. His inherited wealth meant that he could devote his full energies to his investigations without needing to worry about earning his keep.

Watercolour sketch from Galton's journal for his expedition to Damaraland [later Namibia], August 1850-August 1851.
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Galton obsessively recorded and collected data about himself, with examples of this including: a will, written at the age of eight in a remarkably confident hand, leaving his "collection of beetles" (and much else besides) to his sister; his doctor's prescription of "blue pills" (mercury) and Leamington Water for constipation at the age of 12; and a report of his examination by a phrenologist when aged 27.

Galton's early adult life was devoted to intensive study and travel. He explored and charted Damaraland (part of modern Namibia) from 1850 to 1852. "I saw enough of the savage races," he wrote in his journal, "to give me material to think about for the rest of my life." On his return his marriage to Louisa Butler put an end to his travels. Louisa maintained annual summaries of their years together until her death in 1897. She mainly notes visits to friends and relatives, and illnesses and deaths among their acquaintances, though she does also refer to "Frank's" work.

Galton's scientific interest in inheritance came after the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859. On a quest to discover whether human abilities were due to "nature or nurture", Galton delved into the family relationships of judges, MPs, military officers and many other notables from historical accounts, publishing his findings - in favour of nature - in his 1869 book Hereditary Genius. From the start his ideas received mixed reviews: "The mere accumulation of disjointed facts remain an inert and lifeless body…logically worth nothing," wrote an anonymous reviewer for the 'Saturday Review'. Galton continued to collect family data, for cattle, horses and dogs as well as humans.

Photograph of a pedigree dog at the Crystal Palace dog show, October 1899.
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Even his sister Emma was troubled by his views. But he dismissed her scruples, writing to her that "It is one of the few services that a man situated like myself can do, to take up an unpopular side when he knows it to be the true one". Though he and Darwin did not see eye to eye on every matter, Galton was devastated by Darwin's death in 1882, writing to Emma, "I owed more to him than to any man living… The world seems so blank to me now Darwin is gone" [letters to Emma].

In pursuit of reliable data on which to base his studies of human inheritance, Galton pioneered the measurement of individual differences in mental and physical ability. His methods of data collection included innovative questionnaires on everything from twins to mental imagery, and much of the correspondence in the collection represents responses to these surveys - an early form of 'citizen science'. His Anthropometric Laboratory, established in 1891, was a predecessor of the Department of Applied Statistics at University College London, established by Galton's colleague Karl Pearson.

To analyse his data he invented or developed a number of useful statistical techniques and concepts, notably regression to the mean and the standard deviation from the mean, or 'law of error', - the performance of homing pigeons served as data to test this idea.
Galton died convinced that the way forward for a scientifically enlightened population was to favour for reproduction the most physically and psychologically able. He left the considerable residue of his estate, after gifts to his relatives, to University College London to found the Galton Professorship of Eugenics and a laboratory "to pursue the study and further the knowledge of National Eugenics that is of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial faculties of future generations".

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[Statistics] are the only tools by which an opening can be cut through the formidable thicket of difficulties that bars the path of those who pursue the Science of man.

Francis Galton, 1889 (from Natural Inheritance 1889, p.63)

Digitised book

Hereditary genius

Hereditary genius

by Francis Galton

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1889: Francis Galton publishes his law of ancestral inheritance

Francis Galton publishes his law of ancestral inheritance

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