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Francis Galton

BIOGRAPHY 16.1 Francis Galton (1822 -1911)

Francis Galton was born in Birmingham, England. Intellectually precocious, he turned to studying mathematics and medicine at an unusually early age. Yet he never finished his studies. When his father died and left him a fortune at age 22, he took to traveling: down the Danube to the Black Sea, to Egypt, and on to then-unexplored parts of southwest Africa. Upon his return, he settled in London for the rest of his life (and promptly won the Royal Geographic Society's gold medal for his earlier exploits). He never held any academic or professional posts, but he was driven by an endless curiosity about humanity and nature, and he never ceased to roam every nook and cranny of the world of thought. A rich flow of original ideas yielded 16 books and more than 200 articles and, eventually, brought him knighthood shortly before his death. Consider just these few examples of his accomplishments: He was a meteorologist who systematically charted weather patterns and in the process discovered and named the anticyclone. He was a psychologist who measured sensory acuity and character traits and sowed the seeds of mental testing. Like his cousin, Charles Darwin, he was a biologist and established fingerprinting as an infallible means of human identification. (His taxonomy of prints is used to this day.) Using data on notable families, he also studied the inheritance of talent (artistic, athletic, scholarly) and concluded, in such works as Hereditary Genius (1869) and Natural Inheritance (1889), that inheritance played a significant role in transmitting talent, even after making due allowance for environmental factors. Indeed, he became convinced that a eugenics program (he coined the word) "to foster talent and healthiness and suppress stupidity and sickliness" was crucial for the promotion of a high-quality society. He, therefore, endowed the Galton chair of eugenics at the University College, London. The first occupant of that chair, Karl Pearson (Biography 14.1), extended and refined much of Galton's work-particularly his work in statistics.

Galton had a passion for collecting numerical data and exhibited an astonishing cleverness in analyzing them. Thus, he became the originator of the modern regression and correlation techniques discussed in this chapter (that were foreshadowed by Carl Friedrich Gauss-Biography 10.1). For a discussion of one of Galton's famous experiments, see text section 16.2.

Sources: Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. 5 (New York: Scribner's, 1972), pp. 265-267; International Encyclopedia of Statistics, vol.1 (New York: Free Press, 1978). pp. 359-364.


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