Blue Plaques

GALTON, Sir Francis (1822-1911)

Plaque erected in c. 1931 by London County Council at 42 Rutland Gate, Knightsbridge, London, SW7 1PD, City of Westminster

All images © English Heritage

Profession

Explorer, Statistician

Category

Economics and Statistics, Science, Travel and Exploration

Inscription

SIR FRANCIS GALTON 1822-1911 EXPLORER STATISTICIAN FOUNDER OF EUGENICS LIVED HERE FOR FIFTY YEARS

Material

Marble

Notes

Put up privately and adopted by the LCC in 1959.

Sir Francis Galton’s career embraced exploration and geography, anthropology and biology, bio-statistics and meteorology, and human genetics. He is best known for coining the term ‘eugenics’, which he described as ‘the science which deals with all influences which improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those which develop them to the utmost advantage’. This, and his wider racist views, make him an intensely controversial figure.

Side profile of Sir Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics
Sir Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics © Wellcome Collection/Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Family and career

Francis Galton was born in Birmingham into a prominent family of Quaker origin, two of whom were members of the Birmingham Lunar Society. On his mother’s side his grandfather was the physician and poet Erasmus Darwin and his cousin the still more distinguished Charles Darwin. On the paternal side his grandfather Samuel Galton had been disowned by the Birmingham Quakers in 1796 for profiting from war and slavery while Francis’s father, the banker Samuel Tertius Galton, made his fortune as an arms dealer.

On the death of his father in 1844, Francis Galton received a vast inheritance and, abandoning his intention to become a physician, set off for a year-long tour of the Middle East. In 1850 he organised an expedition to south-west Africa, and the resulting books – Tropical South Africa (1852) and The Art of Travel (1855) – led to a Royal Geographical Society gold medal and a fellowship of the Royal Society.

Galton went on to make varied contributions to science that are considered to be of continued importance. He was responsible for initiating the scientific study of biometrics, and for informing the debate on the role of nature and nurture in the formation of character. He was associated with early applications of the finger‐print system, and made contributions to experimental psychology (including the introduction of psychological testing) meteorology, anthropology, and genetics – especially the study of hereditary illness. A number of terms and concepts in statistics were also named after him.

However, it was his work on eugenics that proved most influential – with deadly consequences.

Eugenics and racism

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, published as On the Origin of Species in 1859, had a profound influence on his cousin. Believing that selective breeding in human populations would ‘improve’ a race from generation to generation, Galton began his studies in heredity. His article on ‘Hereditary Talent and Character’ (1865) was followed by an inquiry into the inheritance of physical characteristics, published in 1869 as ‘Hereditary Genius’, which placed ‘modern Europeans’ at the top of a supposedly scientific scale of intelligence and black people among those at the bottom. At the time, this was a commonly held assumption by those of white European origin but Galton was among the first to attempt this kind of classification.

Such racist views were mirrored in Galton’s attitudes to slavery. Unlike Darwin, he appeared untroubled by his encounters with enslaved people, writing in a letter to his father in 1840, after visiting the women’s slave market in Constantinople, that he wished he had enough money ‘to buy a beautiful one’. And, while condemning any action on Britain’s part to ‘reintroduce the sale of negroes’, as he wrote to The Times in 1857, he did ‘not join in the belief that the African is our equal in brain and heart; I do not think that the average negro cares for his liberty as much as an Englishman’.

Galton became increasingly concerned about the ‘fitness’ of the British nation – citing the higher birth rates among what he termed ‘inferior’ classes and low birth rate among those higher up the social scale – and promoted the improvement of the population through selective breeding.

From the late 1870s he worked with photographs of convicts to test the widely held idea that facial features might be associated with particular types of criminality. Among the subjects of his ‘composite portraits’ were people of Jewish origin, while others were sufferers from mental illness and tuberculosis. Later, Galton turned to what he termed the ‘healthy and talented’ classes, publishing the results in ‘Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development’ in 1883.

His ideas only gained traction in the latter part of his life, when they were taken up by social reformers and those concerned with the fitness of the population for military and imperial service. In 1907 Galton became the first president of the Eugenics (Education) Society, which was not very large but had many prominent and influential members. He was knighted in 1909 and, at his death in 1911, bequeathed his personal archive to University College London (UCL), where he also endowed the country’s first professorial Chair of Eugenics. As Galton wished, the first holder was his ‘disciple’ Karl Pearson

Galton’s anthropometric laboratory at the International Health Exhibition at the South Kensington Museum in 1884–85. Anthropometrics is the measurement of human features, which Galton considered indicators of human ability and behaviour
Galton’s anthropometric laboratory at the International Health Exhibition at the South Kensington Museum in 1884–85. Anthropometrics is the measurement of human features, which Galton considered indicators of human ability and behaviour © SSPL/Getty Images

Galton’s legacy: eugenics in the 20th century

Galton himself warned, late in life, that his eugenic ideas were attractive to ‘cranks’. It turned out to be much worse than that.

Most of his own practical eugenic suggestions were for so-called ‘positive eugenics’ – for schemes to encourage people deemed intelligent and suitable to marry and have large families, and for research into hereditary disease. However, many of those who followed Galton were more interested in ‘negative eugenic’ measures, such as the sterilization of people who were deemed ‘feeble minded’ or otherwise undesirable. Later these ideas informed the racial hygiene movement in Nazi Germany, which, with grotesque consequences, led to the Holocaust.

The British Eugenics Society publicly dissociated itself from Nazi ‘race hygiene’ in 1933. However, as late as June 1939, the Royal Society hosted a lecture by one of its leading exponents, Prof Freiherr von Verschuer, on ‘Twin Research from the time of Francis Galton to the Present-day’, in which he hoped for greater collaboration between the two countries and their respective eugenic institutions. One of von Verscheur’s pupils and wartime collaborators was Josef Mengele, who conducted deadly human experiments at Auschwitz concentration camp and was one of those responsible for selecting the people to be killed in the gas chambers.

After the war, the term eugenics – tainted by the horrors engendered by Nazi race science – was dropped from the titles of the institutions that Galton had helped to found. In 2020, following an inquiry into UCL’s historical links with the eugenics movement, the university removed the names of Galton and Pearson from two lecture theatres and a building that had been named for them.

Plaque

The rectangular marble plaque at 42 Rutland Gate, Knightsbridge, was erected privately in 1931. This was Francis Galton’s town house for nearly 50 years from 1857 until his death in 1911. It was joined with 41 Rutland Gate and the plaque moved to the blocked-up door of number 42 in about 1959, at which date the plaque was adopted by the London County Council.

Nearby Blue Plaques

Nearby Blue Plaques


Further Reading

  • Further Reading

    Michael Bulmer, Francis Galton: Pioneer of Heredity and Biometry, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003

    Debbie Challis, The Archaeology of Race: The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie, London: Bloomsbury, 2013

    Ruth Schwartz Cowan, ‘Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911)’, ODNB entry, 2005

    Peter Fraser, ‘Galton, Sir Francis (1822–1911)’, Oxford African American Studies Centre, https://doi.org/10.1093/acref/9780195301731.013.47422

    http://www.galtoninstitute.org.uk/

    Nicholas Wright Gillham, A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001

    Karl Pearson, Ed., The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton, Vols 1-3, Cambridge University Press, 1914-1930

    Stephen Senn, ‘Francis Galton and regression to the mean’, 2011, https://rss.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1740-9713.2011.00509.x

    Andrew Watts and Emma Tyler, Eds, Fortunes of War: the West Midlands at the time of Waterloo, Alcester: West Midlands History Limited, 2015.

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