Francis Galton

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Sir Francis Galton, M.A., D.C.L., F.R.S. Born, February 16, 1822; Died, January 17, 1911 By John Gray, B.Sc.   

By the death of Sir Francis Galton, British science has lost one of its most original and creative thinkers, and the loss is especially great to anthropology, which he may be said to have elevated, for the first time, to the rank of an exact science.

Galton had the advantage of belonging to a stock of great intellectual distinction; his grandfather on the mother’s side being the celebrated Erasmus Darwin, and his cousin the still more distinguished Charles Darwin. On the father’s side he was come of a good Quaker stock, some members of which, as for example the famous Captain Barclay of Ury, were of exceptionally fine physique. No one appreciated better than Galton himself the benefits he derived from natural inheritance, the laws and importance of which he has done so much to elucidate.

Galton’s early studies were devoted to medicine and later to mathematics, he having entered Birmingham Hospital as a medical student in 1838, and Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1840. The study of these more or less exact sciences, must have exercised a great influence in impelling him to work out exact methods in that study of the mental and physical characters of man, which occupied almost exclusively the last forty years of his life.

In 1850 he organised an expedition to explore Damaraland, the scientific results of which were so valuable, that in 1853 the Royal Geographical Society awarded him one of its annual gold medals. Owing to this and subsequent work in connection therewith he was in 1856 elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Early in the ’sixties he began his studies in heredity, and in 1865 an article on “Hereditary Talent and Character” was published in Macmillan’s Magazine, which clearly set out his views on a department of applied anthropology, he afterwards named Eugenics, Through his strenuous advocacy, eugenics is now beginning to exercise an important influence on social reform in all civilised countries.

One of the greatest achievements of Galton consisted in the application of exact mathematical methods to the analyses of anthropometric statistics. Quetelet was the first to apply the Gaussian curve to represent the frequency of anthropometric data, but Galton records that, though he once met Quetelet, it was from Spottiswoode that he received the first impulse in this direction. In 1886 Galton made the great discovery of the Correlation table, and, with the assistance of a mathematical friend, devised a method of calculating the coefficient of correlation which now plays so important a part in the interpretation, not only of anthropometric, but of all kinds of statistics.

In 1882 he wrote in The Fortnightly Review, “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories where a man may from time to time get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have each of their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science? ” This important suggestion he afterwards realised by starting an anthropometric laboratory in 1884, in connection with the exhibitions at South Kensington. This was maintained at his own expense until 1891. It is of interest to mention that the Royal Anthropological Institute has resuscitated Galton’s important undertaking by the installation (1909-10) of anthropometric bureaus in connection with the exhibitions at Shepherd’s Bush.

Galton was President of the Anthropological Institute (1885-88) and Huxley Lecturer (1901).

The practical working of the finger-print method of identification is also due to Galton.

Among his more important works are Hereditary Genius (1869), Human Faculty (1883), and Natural Inheritance (1889).

He was on the Meteorological Council for thirty-four years, and invented many ingenious contrivances for making and recording meteorological observations, some of which are still in use.

Galton’s genius was essentially that of the great engineer. Fortunately he pre-ferred to apply the exact and practical methods of the engineer to the study of man— methods the future development of which may safely be left in the hands of the brilliant school which he has created.   


This obituary first appeared as: Gray, John. 1911. ‘Sir Francis Galton, M.A., D.C.L., F.R.S. Born, February 16, 1822; Died, January 17, 1911’. Man Vol. 11, pp. 33-34. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

GRAY, JOHN. 1911. ‘Sir Francis Galton, M.A., D.C.L., F.R.S. Born, February 16, 1822; Died, January 17, 1911’. Man Vol. 11, pp.33-34. (available on-line:



BEDDOE, JOHN. 1911. ‘Sir Francis Galton, D.C.L., F.R.S.’. Man Vol. 11, pp.34. (available on-line:


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