Later life

The eugenic vision

By 1873, Galton was further refining his ideas on eugenics, although the term was still yet to be invented. He wrote a letter to The Times headed Africa for the Chinese that expressed his racist philosophy in uncompromising terms, proposing that the African continent was given over lock, stock and barrel to the Chinese people: ‘the gain would be immense’ if they were to ‘outbreed and finally displace’ the native Africans. Furthermore, in the January 1873 edition of Fraser’s Magazine he published a rambling fifteen page article – Hereditary improvement – that set out in more detail than before his absurd and ghastly eugenic ‘Utopia’, where the genetic elite would be separated from the rest of society and would be given all manner of incentives and bequests. The genetic underclass would be expected to refrain from procreating otherwise they would be regarded as ‘enemies of the State’, forfeiting ‘all claims to kindness’. It is unclear what Galton means by these words, but they have a terrifying resonance, knowing – as we do now – how such policies were sanctioned in Nazi Germany only fifty years later.

Galton’s eugenic ideas informed much of his lifetime’s scientific endeavour, but mostly had been greeted by indifference. In October 1901, Galton gave the Huxley Lecture at the Royal Anthropological Institute and used the occasion to re-launch his vision. Gradually, the tide was turning: Galton had influential admirers; the mathematician Karl Pearson, for example, had established the School of Biometry at University College, London and – as a keen eugenicist –pioneered the use of statistics to develop Galton’s ideas further, with more academic rigor. During the same phase Mendel’s laws of inheritance were re-discovered and swiftly applied to human attributes – including to behavioural characteristics – introducing ideas of genetic determinism to the scientific and popular mind. Galton’s contribution to the study of heredity and evolution was recognised by the award of the Darwin Medal by the Royal Society in 1902, and the election to the position of Honorary Fellow by Trinity College Cambridge in the same year. Galton was awarded a knighthood in 1909.

In 1904 he addressed the new Sociological Society with a talk entitled Eugenics: its definition, scope and aims, in which his previous uncompromising tone had given way to a more reasoned approach, in which he at least recognised the values of different types of excellence. He indicated that there was a humanitarian angle to the eugenic approach: ‘What nature does blindly, slowly and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly and kindly.’ Also, he recognised the need to be cautious: ‘Overzeal leading to hasty action would do harm…which will…cause the science to be discredited’. In spite of an obsequious tribute from Karl Pearson, several of the discussants raised serious criticisms. Dr Robert Hutchison eloquently raised the role of nutrition in the creation of a ‘satisfactory race’; John Robertson suggested that poverty was the great stumbling block, not heredity; and the writer Benjamin Kidd foretold some of the horrors of the coming century when he prophesied that eugenic practices ‘might renew, in the name of science, tyrannies that it took long ages of social revolution to emerge from’. Dr Alice Vickery Drysdale, one of the very first female qualified medical practitioners, warned Galton that ‘to produce a well-developed race, we must treat our womankind a little better than we do at present’. However, there were many enthusiasts: HG Wells proposed his terrifying vision that it was in ‘the sterilisation of failures, and not the selection of successes…that the possibility of an improvement…lies’. And George Bernard Shaw unreservedly endorse Galton’s view in a written contribution in which he proposed a new ‘eugenic religion’.

The Eugenics Record Office

Later in 1904 Galton established a research fellowship in eugenics at University College London (UCL), and the Eugenics Record Office was installed in Gower Street. The following year the ominously named German Society for Race Hygiene was created in Berlin by followers of Galton.

Galton spent his declining years examining the outputs of the Eugenics Record Office, including its register of noteworthy families. He planned an endowment that would create the Galton Chair of Eugenics at UCL for Karl Pearson, and, in preparation, he arranged for Pearson to be appointed as the new director of the Eugenics Record Office, which was renamed the Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics. One of the first studies to emerge from the new laboratory was one on the demography of London, where it was found that the people from working class areas were making a disproportionate contribution to population growth, thus fuelling eugenic fears.

Final years

In 1908 Galton published Memories of my life, in which he recognised that ‘an appreciative audience is at last to be had, though it be small’. He appeared to back away from compulsory marriage, but made it clear that ‘stern compulsion’ should be used to prevent those affected by ‘lunacy, feeble-mindedness, habitual criminality and pauperism’ from breeding.

In spite of all the eminent converts to Galton’s philosophy, he knew that policy makers and the public would be less eager to sign up to his plans for rewarding the ‘fit’ for reproducing, whilst discouraging the ‘unfit’. Indeed, soon afterwards the last Liberal government laid the foundations for the welfare state in the UK with old-age pensions (1908), free school meals (1909), and national insurance (1911); all practical measures that would relieve the lot of the most disadvantaged, and would do nothing to further the eugenic vision.


1920s eugenics poster Wellcome Library, London

In 1907 a group of followers founded the Eugenics Education Society (EES). Galton expected the local branches of the EES to spread the word, compiling lists of individuals of note in the area. At the same time Galton warned about the dangers of fanaticism recognising that ‘the subject of eugenics is particularly attractive to ‘cranks’’. Galton expected that the EES and Pearson’s Galton Laboratory would collaborate, however the personalities at the EES and Pearson could not see eye-to-eye, so this was not to be. Relations broke down irretrievably when Pearson published a report indicating that parental alcoholism had no effects on child health, prompting the President of the EES to attack his methodology in The Times.

As Galton declined, suffering from chronic asthma in his final years, his ideas started to become popular, with fervent supporters setting up societies and establishing journals worldwide.

In late 1910 the Royal Society conferred on Galton the Copley Medal, its highest award. Two months later on 17 January 1911 Galton died.

Although eugenics gained popularity as the 20th century progressed, it is noteworthy that eugenic practices were largely rejected in Britain: a bill for the compulsory sterilisation of certain categories of mental patient was proposed in the British Parliament in 1931 but was not passed. In contrast, in the USA many states introduced laws for the sterilisation of criminals, the mentally ill and intellectually disabled; and in Nazi Germany the racial hygiene movement led to the horrors of the extermination camps during the Holocaust.

In the 21st century it is recognised by most that the relationship between genetics and health, character and ability is much more nuanced and complex than Galton ever imagined. However, in spite of this, and although Galton’s passion for eugenics has become rightly discredited, his contribution to 19th and 20th century science was immense. He was responsible for initiating the scientific study of biometrics, for the debate on the role of nature and nurture in the formation of character, for pioneering the introduction of psychological testing and for major further contributions to the study of statistics, meteorology, anthropology and genetics. Galton’s substantial deficiencies should not be forgotten, but neither should his huge impact and influence.