Francis Galton - Famous Scientist in Genetics

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Francis Galton

Francis Galton’s interest in the issue of heredity was inspired to a large extent by his cousin Charles Darwin’s book ‘The Origin of Species.’ He wanted to find out if intelligence, talent and ability resulted from genetic heredity. To this end, he carried out a number of research experiments, reaching conclusions that opened up interesting avenues for later research in behaviour genetics.

In one of his early experiments on heredity, he made a study of a number of distinguished families and found that notable characteristics and abilities found in these families were inherited over several generations. He wrote about this study in his book ‘Hereditary Genius’ (1869).

Another study concerned the families of several Royal Society Fellows. Galton gave them detailed questionnaires and studied the data about their familial characteristics. This study led to the book ‘English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture’ (1874).

Galton also carried out a study of twins reared in different environments. He was the first researcher to carry out such a study; these investigations are quite commonplace in genetics research nowadays. He described his findings in 1875, in a paper called ‘The History of Twins.’

His findings in all these cases led Galton to conclude that it was nature rather than nurture that played a decisive role in shaping the characteristics of a person. He coined the term ‘Nature versus Nurture’. This finding created controversy amongst those who believed that the environment in which a person was reared was far more important.

Galton and Eugenics

Galton agreed with Darwin’s view that evolution was largely a hit and miss affair as regards the selection and variation of genetic characteristics. From his research, he thought that selective breeding might be a swifter option than evolution in improving the human race. He called this concept of race improvement eugenics, and in 1883 he wrote about his ideas in a book called ‘Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development.’

He began, in 1884, to carry out tests for mental and physical characteristics on volunteers at the Biometric Laboratory at University College, London. He tested people for a number of attributes, including height, weight, eye color, eyesight, color sense, smell sense, hearing sense, grip strength, fingerprints and so on. He devised measurement gadgets and invented the correlation factor for mathematically processing the collected data. Galton was the first to use statistical studies in scientific research.

Like his contemporary Mendel, Galton carried out heredity research experiments on the garden pea. But he was concerned with hereditary transmission and correlation of continuous traits and his experiments did not bring him to understand genetic transmission principles as happened with Mendel.

In modern times, Galton’s eugenics research is considered controversial, especially in light of the infamous espousal of eugenics by the Nazis. However his research work and his methods of measurement have proved useful in later studies on behavior genetics.

Francis Galton: Personal Life and Education

Francis Galton was born on 16 February 1822 to Samuel Galton, a banker, and his wife Violetta Galton. He was the youngest of the couple’s seven children of four boys and three girls. The family was well-off and lived in a large house called ‘The Larches’ in Sparkbrook, Birmingham, Warwickshire, England. Galton was related to Charles Darwin through their common grandfather Erasmus Darwin.

From an early age, Galton showed a prodigious intellect. He attended a number of private schools in Birmingham and Boulogne, but disliked the classical and religious studies that were part of the curriculum. As per his parents’ wishes, he decided to study medicine, first at Birmingham General Hospital and then at King’s College, London Medical School.

Then he went on a European tour, ostensibly to visit medical institutions on the Continent, but the trip turned into a sightseeing affair. He visited Geissen, Vienna, Constanza, Constantinople, Smyrna, and Athens.

Galton’s Career

Returning to England in the autumn of 1840, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge University, to study medicine, but then he switched over to mathematics. He was at Trinity College until early 1844, when, in his third year, overwork and concern for his ill father brought about a nervous breakdown. Due to this, he opted out of an Honors degree and instead took a poll degree.

For a while he took up medicine again, but dropped the subject entirely after his father died and left him with a considerable fortune. He never took up a conventional occupation, but devoted his life to travel and scientific research.

He traveled up the Nile, visited Jerusalem and Syria and organized a trip to South-Western Africa to chart the then-unexplored territory of present-day Namibia. On his return, he married Louisa Butler on 1 August 1853, and published some notable travel books like ‘Tropical South Africa’ (1953) and ‘The Art of Travel’ (1855). His later travels were limited to the European continent.

Galton also carried out meteorological research, devising weather mapping and stressing the importance of the anticyclone. He published a book ‘Meteorographica’ in 1863 and played a role in the establishment of the Meteorological Office and the National Physical Laboratory.

Galton received many awards and honors in his lifetime, including membership of the Royal Society and a Knighthood. He died at the age of eighty-eight on 17 January 1911 in Grayshott House, Haslemere, Surrey, England.