Skip to main content

Francis Galton

Francis Galton


English Biologist and Statistician

Francis Galton has been called the last of the gentleman scientists—men who dabbled in science as a hobby rather than a profession. Galton was brilliant and, with hundreds of publications to his name, prolific, but he was also a dilettante—his inquiries ranged from the effectiveness of prayer to the body weights of British nobles. Many of his ventures were successful: he pioneered the use of fingerprints for identification, tested Darwin's theories, and discovered the anticyclone. But his most notable contribution to science is a source of more infamy than fame: eugenics, the study of improving a human population by selective breeding, a cause that would later be championed by bigots and genocides.

It is understandable that Galton would have latched on to the idea that intelligence and talent are hereditary. He himself came from an eminent family—Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was his cousin, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) his grandfather. Francis showed intelligence, even genius, from an early age; by four he could multiply, tell time, and read English, Latin, and some French. He entered medical school at age 16 but used it partly as a chance to systematically sample the pharmaceuticals cabinet, in alphabetical order (he stopped at C, when a dose of Croton oil made him vomit). Even the Croton oil was not as harmful as the grueling schedule, though, and when his father's death left him with a substantial inheritance, Galton was quick to leave school.

After school Galton made a name for himself as an explorer, earning a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society (of which he would later become a fellow) for his excursions into uncharted southern Africa. In 1853, having satisfied at least some of his wanderlust, he married Louisa Butler and gradually began dabbling in science. He was the first to use statistics to determine correlation in biology—the phenomenon where if one variable, like arm length, varies, another one, like leg length, will vary in the same way (a person with long arms will, on average, have longer legs than a person with short arms). This concept was in many ways revolutionary, especially in Galton's own work, which ofte involved correlating people's intelligence with that of their ancestors or offspring.

The experiments with hereditary intelligence represented the part of his work Galton was most passionate about. He was generally interested in the budding science of genetics; one of Galton's most notable experiments involved disproving his cousin Charles Darwin's theory that hereditary traits were passed down by tiny particles called "gemmules" that were found in every part of the body. Galton believed that talent and intelligence—what he termed "eminence"—was one of these heritable traits. He studied England's most prominent families and found that any individual's eminence was directly related to that of his parents and grandparents. This led him to propose a program of eugenics, assuring that notable families would continue to produce notable children. Statistically, he reasoned, it would take many times more pairings of unremarkable people to produce as many eminent children as one pair of geniuses, so in order for a society to grow in eminence certain people must be encouraged to reproduce while others are discouraged.

Galton countered his own plan of selective breeding by dying childless in 1911. He did leave behind a chair in eugenics at University College, London, endowed in his will; a number of works, like his study of fingerprints, that would represent his lasting impact on the scientific world; and a brainchild, eugenics, that would be come to represent the depths of ignorance.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Francis Galton." Science and Its Times: Understanding the Social Significance of Scientific Discovery. . 20 Sep. 2019 <>.

"Francis Galton." Science and Its Times: Understanding the Social Significance of Scientific Discovery. . (September 20, 2019).

"Francis Galton." Science and Its Times: Understanding the Social Significance of Scientific Discovery. . Retrieved September 20, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.