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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 80.2 (2006) 348-363

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Francis Galton's Reputationin Biography

Martin Brookes. Extreme Measures: The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas of Francis Galton. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004. xviii + 298 pp. Ill. $24.95 (1-58234-481-7).
Michael G. Bulmer. Francis Galton: Pioneer of Heredity and Biometry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. xvii + 357 pp. Ill. $45.00 (0-8018-7403-3).
Nicholas W. Gillham. A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. xii + 416 pp. Ill. $40.00 (0-19-514365-5).

Francis Galton (1822–1911) is the Zelig of biomedicine. Or rather, his reputation is. Like the title character in the Woody Allen movie, Galton—the father of eugenics, of biometry, of the nature–nurture debate, of twin studies and pedigree analysis, of fingerprinting, and of reading underwater—morphs with each scene. Although the real Galton was in fact an original thinker with real virtues and flaws, his reputation shifts kaleidoscopically, reflecting the predispositions, inclinations, and prejudices of his biographers. I mean more than that he receives different interpretations—that much is true of everyone honored with multiple biographies. But all of Darwin's biographers, say, agree on some basics, despite their wide range of interpretation: his theory was clever; he was kind to those he cared about; many people, over many years, have thought him important. Galton has enjoyed no such consistency. Depending on whom one reads, he can appear a genius or a fool, a confident optimist or a bumbling neurotic, a towering scientific giant or a notorious intellectual dwarf. [End Page 348]

In simplest terms, Galton sought to dissect nature from nurture, always with the dual aims of quantitative understanding and social improvement. He was inordinately preoccupied with intelligence and its role in determining behavior and social status. Therefore, he is a lightning rod for geneticists, evolutionary biologists, psychologists, social historians, and cultural critics. A trio of recent biographies brings out a set of new Galtons, each different from the others and from previous biographies. My aim is to situate them within the history of Galton biographies and to begin to understand why estimations of the man and his work fluctuate so wildly.

Born in 1822 near Birmingham, England, Galton was the last of seven children born to Samuel Tertius and Violetta Galton. Violetta was a sister of Robert Darwin, Charles Darwin's father. The young Darwin had been a happy and unremarkable child, a mediocre student at best. His young cousin Galton, on the other hand, was a prodigy. He might have been merely bright, had not a zealous and bored invalid sister coached his native gifts to remarkable heights. The night before his fifth birthday, he wrote to her (Brookes, p. 18):

My dear Adele,

   I am four years old and can read any English book. I can say all the Latin substantives and adjectives and active verbs besides 52 lines of Latin poetry. I can cast up any sum in addition and multiply by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, (9), 10, (11)

   I can also say the pence table, I read French a little and I know the Clock.

Francis Galton

In short, Galton was a poster boy for the interaction of nature and nurture. His education was an odd, seesawing affair in which he was buffeted by his father's whims and vicarious aspirations. He was bounced from school to school every couple of years: happy spells in enlightened institutions only softened him up for the birch rod and dull curricula of disciplinarian boarding schools. As Robert Darwin had done to his sons Erasmus and Charles, Samuel Galton pushed Francis into medicine. He studied medicine at Birmingham General Hospital and then at King's College in London, before enrolling at Cambridge in mathematics. He studied obsessively and invented devices such as the Gumption Reviver, a large water-filled funnel that dripped on his head at an adjustable rate, to help keep up his stamina. Under...


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