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SIR FRANCIS GALTON by Nicholas Wright Gillham


From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics

By Nicholas Wright Gillham

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-19-514365-5
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Most know that Sir Francis Galton fathered the eugenics movement (he even coined the word), but, as Gillham (Biology Emeritus/Duke Univ.) makes clear in this encyclopedic biography, that was only after sterling accomplishments in sundry other fields.

To name a few: African explorer in search of the source of the Nile in the days of Stanley and Livingstone; designer of weather maps and discoverer of the anticyclone; prime mover in establishing the uniqueness of fingerprints and hence their important forensic use; developer of the hereditary research tools of pedigree analyses and twin studies; pioneer in psychological studies of mental imagery; and innovator in statistical science, defining the coefficient of correlation and regression to the mean. Galton was the youngest of nine children born to a rich Quaker merchant who married Erasmus Darwin’s daughter Violetta. (Galton and Charles Darwin were cousins.) It was Charles who persuaded Galton to interrupt medical training to study math at Cambridge. It was Dad’s fortune that allowed Francis to devote his life to one or another intellectual pursuits. And it was Galton’s passion for measurement—collecting quantitative data for analysis—that Gillham underscores as the driving force behind Galton’s forays into science. A turning point was publication of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. For the rest of Galton’s long life (1822–1911), he championed heredity as the source of talent and character, in articles, speeches, and books and in the academic studies and journals he funded. Interestingly, Galton and his wife Louisa were childless. One would have liked Gillham to examine how this affected Galton—or how the presence of offspring might have altered his thinking. In general, one would have liked to know more about Galton the man apart from his scientific pursuits and controversies.

Read this then as a detailed intellectual portrait of a complex and creative scientist who nevertheless embodied the morals and principles—including the inferior position of women—of an eminent Victorian English gentleman.