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How Eugenics Began

“Scheduled to read a paper at a meeting of the British Association in 1866, Galton felt ill, excused himself, arranged to have the paper read for him by another, and hurried away. It would be not until 1869 that he was once more entirely right in the head.”

From private griefs to public disasters

We know how it ended. But what was Sir Francis Galton thinking of when eugenics began? What led from the quiet book-lined study of a Victorian scientific worthy, loved by his family and admired by his peers, to the charnel houses of the Nazi era? Did he in fact have a crack-up, and did this lead inexorably step by step to the mother of all cultural crack-ups in Germany?

Galton was born in 1822 and died in 1911. Between those dates he explored and mapped part of Africa, wrote best-selling books about travel, was a member of the Athenaeum and actively participated in the affairs of England’s Royal Society, Royal Geographical Society, and British Association. He also invented psychometrics, discovered correlation and regression, and was investigating unconscious processes in our mental life in the 1880s at the same time as Freud.

He had that rarest of all things human, an original mind—and it developed early. By age six he had learned the Iliad and the Odyssey well enough to correct his elders. When his father’s friend Leonard Horner visited one day and tiresomely quizzed the child on their fine points, Galton replied: “Pray, Mr. Horner, look at the last line in the Twelfth Book of the Odyssey,” and scampered off. This translates as “But why rehearse all this again? For even yesterday I told it to them and thy noble wife in thy house: and it liketh me not twice to tell a plain-told tale.”

But there were early signs of mental fragility too. An erratic school career led eventually to Trinity College, Cambridge, but the strain of the Mathematics Tripos proved too much. Affected by dizziness and other symptoms of mental stress when trying to concentrate, he settled for a pass degree, and for six years dropped out of academic and intellectual life almost entirely. The time from 1844 to 1850 was spent adventuring in Africa and the Middle East and socialising with the hunting set back home.

Darwin and the ‘hereditary bent’

When The Origin of Species appeared in 1859 it was a turning point. Charles Darwin was a cousin. Coming at a critical stage of both his scientific career and his domestic life, Darwin’s book shattered Galton’s religious beliefs and turned him towards biological research. He always had what he called “a hereditary bent of mind”, and from 1859 he proceeded to investigate, he said later, matters “clustered round the central topics of Heredity and the possible improvement of the Human Race.”

But the two topics—heredity and racial improvement—are not inseparable. Why was it that the human race needed to be improved? How was it that for Galton the “central topic” of heredity became indissolubly associated with the biological improvement of human kind, a worthy enough project in the abstract, but ethically hazardous in the extreme?

Doubtless there was more than one cause, but my argument here is that it mainly originated in the private grief of childlessness. Although his cousin Charles Darwin fathered several children, Galton’s marriage was infertile, and as each year passed without issue he developed a growing obsession with heredity, fertility, procreation, and the need for a controlled and managed caste system that would ensure the reproduction of people like himself.

African exploration

Between the idle years after university from 1844 to 1850, and the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, Galton built a considerable reputation as an explorer, geographer, and travel writer. David Livingstone had reached Lake Ngami from the south and east, and in 1850 Galton proposed to approach it from the west through today’s Namibia, a route of some 550 miles from Walvis Bay. With African experience in the Sudan behind him, he had the support of the Royal Geographical Society, and took the precaution of visiting Drury Lane for theatrical supplies before he left. There he bought beads and belts for trade-goods, along with a nice little crown.

This came in handy in Ovamboland. There, King Nangoro expected Galton to stand still while he (the king) spat well-gargled water all over his guest’s face. This was to discourage any lurking evil spirits—and no doubt it did. When Galton declined to submit to this ritual, however, the king retaliated by refusing to let the expedition continue. There matters stood for some time until Nangoro hospitably offered his daughter Princess Chipanga as a temporary wife. Galton found her installed in his tent largely naked except for a covering of

red ochre and butter, and as capable of leaving a mark on anything she touched as a well-inked printer’s roller. I was dressed in my one well-preserved suit of white linen, so I had her ejected with scant ceremony.

This added insult to injury, and only when Nangoro was crowned with the fetching little item from Drury Lane was the king sufficiently appeased to let Galton go. Anyway, once his work in southern Africa was finally completed he hurried home to England where he expeditiously married the daughter of the Dean of Peterborough. In Francis Galton, The Life and Work of a Victorian Genius (1974), D. W. Forrest notes thoughtfully that

His attachment to Louisa Butler does not appear to have been a romantic or sexual one. She was evidently plain, and he was more handsome as a man than she beautiful as a woman.

A photograph confirms this judgment. One wouldn’t wish to make too much of it except that for anyone hoping for children, as Galton did, the combined absence of any romantic motive or sexual attraction may have handicapped the union from the start. In his old age he wrote in his autobiography emphasizing that the most important thing was not the sentiments of bride and groom, but “the wider effect of an alliance between each of them and a new family.”

But if there were no new family? What then?

The crack-up

He married Louisa Butler on returning from Africa in 1852. Now he plunged into a busy life of travel writing, Tropical South Africa being followed by Hints for Travellers and The Art of Travel, and the first 10 years of Galton’s married life apparently went well. He played a prominent role at the Royal Geographical Society during the heated controversy over the source of the Nile, and in 1864 Galton was one of the notables on stage in a theatre in Bath at the public humiliation of John Speke by Richard Burton, when Speke—his face “full of sorrow, yearning, and perplexity”—escaped from the lecture hall and was not seen alive again.

Nothing quite so serious happened to Galton. But in 1866, scheduled to read a paper about charts for sailing ships at a meeting of the British Association, he felt ill, excused himself, arranged to have the paper read for him by another, and hurried away. It would be not until 1869 that he was once more entirely right in the head. He wrote later:

Those who have not suffered from mental breakdown can hardly realise the incapacity it causes, or, when the worst is past, the closeness of analogy between a sprained brain and a sprained joint. In both cases, after recovery seems to others to be complete, there remains for a long time an impossibility of performing certain minor actions without pain and serious mischief, mental in the one and bodily in the other.

Galton and the unconscious

Galton says nothing about the precise nature of “the incapacity”, or what “the worst” was like. Yet no-one at the time was better qualified to cast light on the pathologies of the mind. In the course of his “inquiries into human faculty” (the title of some essays gathered in book form in 1883) he had looked more deeply into the mysterious operations of the unconscious than any other Englishman alive—Carl Gustav Jung both followed and acknowledged Galton’s pioneering research. The full story can be read in Henri F. Ellenberger’s 1970 The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. Much experimental research on word association was involved, Galton summarizing it as follows:

Perhaps the strongest impression left by these experiments regards the multifariousness of the work done by the mind in a state of half-unconsciousness, and the valid reason they afford for believing in the existence of still deeper strata of mental operations, sunk wholly below the level of consciousness, which may account for such mental phenomena as cannot otherwise be explained.” (My emphasis, RS)

Mental phenomena such as what? One would like to know. But although by 1877 he had a mass of information drawn from the margins of his own unconscious, he drew back from printing more than a selection of the alarming things he had found. One’s private associations were too personal to have much scientific value, he said, excusing himself from publication:

It would be too absurd to print one’s own associations singly. They lay bare the foundations of a man’s thoughts with curious distinctness, and exhibit his mental anatomy with more vividness and truth than he would probably care to publish to the world.

Hereditarian obsessions

Modern biographies are sometimes loaded with bedroom gore, and most of the time we want less of it. Regarding Galton we would like to have more. In 1974 D. W. Forrest pointed to a possible connection between his “obsessional characteristics”, his mounting anxiety about having children, his mental breakdown between 1866 and 1869, and his turn from geographical research to unrelentingly focus on heredity, fertility, and the need for the intellectual classes to keep breeding:

His growing interest in heredity dates from about the time when it was evident that his marriage was likely to prove infertile. There is no reason to suppose that the marriage was not consummated. It is more likely that the infertility was genetic: neither of his brothers had children and none of Louisa’s sisters.

Poor Louisa! There are numerous photographs of Galton himself but few showing his wife. One that may date from around 1870 shows a face resigned and dolorous—she must have been under extreme strain. If they were childless, thought Galton, there must be an obvious reason (and it couldn’t be him). In the next few years a stream of articles and books dealt with matters of descent and fertility in a way that implicated his wife.

Examining peerages that became extinct he satisfied himself that sterile women were the cause. Poor peers, especially those of middling circumstance raised to the peerage, married rich heiresses. What they got was money, not children, for an heiress “who is the sole issue of a marriage, would not be so fertile as a woman who has many brothers and sisters… Marriage to an heiress, while financially advantageous, brought with it the potential incubus of a barren union…”—a union like his own. In his conclusion he wrote emphatically that

Although many men of eminent ability… have not left descendants behind them, it is not because they are sterile, but because they are apt to marry sterile women…

Louisa was no heiress. But she otherwise appeared to fit the pattern, and would have to be punished. So would her late, frail, father. And so would Galton’s older and partially disabled sister Adele, who had taught him The Odyssey and single-handedly nurtured his gifted mind.

A difficult personality

Karl Pearson, Galton’s disciple, who wrote a four-volume biography published between 1914 and 1930, spoke benevolently of Galton’s character and personality: he describes him as “affectionate” and “modest”. The testimony of several family members supports this and is entirely along the same lines. Yet the evidence suggests her husband also had a cruel streak.

When a field assistant who had helped him in Africa appealed for help in return, Galton, a rich man, turned him down with a miserly rebuke. Upon his death he willed his servant of forty years the merest pittance. He pursued the American journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley, of Stanley and Livingstone fame, with a vindictiveness inspired by little but the man’s desire to conceal his illegitimacy, a hidden fact Galton determined to expose. Galton’s critics underline these tendencies. Clements Markham of the Royal Geographical Society acknowledged that Galton was perfectly straight in all his dealings, but added that “he was essentially a doctrinaire not endowed with much sympathy. He was not adapted to lead or influence men. He could make no allowance for the failings of others and had no tact.”

But more than a lack of tact—an unmanageable fixation—was involved in the scientific writing he now produced. His wife’s father, Dean of Peterborough, had died of heart disease just before Galton married Louisa. In Hereditary Genius (1869) Galton wrote that Divines like his father-in-law were weak and unprolific men who bred weak and unprolific children. They “usually have wretched constitutions”; those of high moral character are usually unstable; and while a pious disposition was not uncommon, “there are also frequent cases of sons of pious parents who turned out badly.” In addition to this, a Voltairean piece mocking the inefficacy of prayer seemingly went out of its way to wound his wife.

Personally I have no doubt that much he said was true. There may well be a placebo effect, yet I’m reasonably confident that prayers are not empirically efficacious. But what was the point Galton was making? Wasn’t infertility, broadly speaking and within the understanding of the conventionally religious Louisa, a form of “sickness”? Didn’t he regard Louisa as suffering from it, and wasn’t it extremely likely that she was praying nightly to be healed? He was publicly ridiculing her only consolation.

The case of his older sister Adele is equally disturbing. With a spinal curvature “that frequently forced her to lie on her back on a board”, she represented congenital disability within his own family. As a child his nursery was in her room. “Delly” was the woman who first fostered his talents, who set him to memorising Homer. Her reward was an essay declaring that “Our human civilised stock is far more weakly through congenital imperfection than that of any other species of animals, whether wild or domestic.” Something from the haunts of the unconscious appears to be at work here—something deeply disagreeable. “The proportion of weakly and misshapen individuals”, he went on, “is not to be estimated by those whom we meet in the streets; the worst cases are out of sight.”


So what should be done? People like Delly must be prevented from breeding: only the genetically perfect should be allowed to reproduce. In his 1873 essay “Hereditary Improvement” he insists that those of feeble constitution must embrace celibacy “lest they should bring beings into existence whose race is predoomed to destruction by the laws of nature.” They won’t actually be forcefully eliminated. But it is the bounden duty of those in power to “breed out feeble constitutions, and petty and ignoble instincts, and to breed in those which are vigorous and noble and social.” And just as his own sister Adele would be forced into celibacy under such a regime, there were also races that were “predoomed”—Princess Chipanga’s among them.

Whenever a low race is preserved under conditions of life that exact a high level of efficiency, it must be subjected to rigorous selection. The few best specimens of that race can alone be allowed to become parents, and not many of their descendants can be allowed to live.

Caste sentiment should be deliberately cultivated. England would be scoured for the names and addresses of gifted people who would be urged to intermarry. The intellectual aristocracy would receive special benefits; “untouchables” would receive nothing at all; and endowments would maintain a privileged Brahmin caste in healthy circumstances enabling it to multiply in comfort. Nothing more strikingly reveals Galton’s political naivete than his conclusion; and nothing more clearly exposes the workings of the perfectionist mind:

I do not see why any insolence of caste should prevent the gifted class, when they had the power, from treating their compatriots with all kindness, so long as they maintained celibacy. But if these continued to procreate children, inferior in moral, intellectual and physical qualities, it is easy to believe the time may come when such persons would be considered as enemies to the State, and to have forfeited all claims to kindness.

The new religion and state power

When Galton wrote, late in life, that the effect of Darwinism was “to demolish a multitude of dogmatic barriers by a single stroke, and to arouse a spirit of rebellion against all ancient authorities whose positive and unauthenticated statements were contradicted by modern science”, a radical antinomian spirit was unleashed; and when he declared that eugenics “must be introduced into the national conscience, like a new religion,” adding that “it has indeed strong claims to become an orthodox religious tenet of the future,” a kind of displaced religious zeal was put at the service of political compulsion: allied to German nationalism, it is unsurprising that it led, step by step, to policies of racial exclusion and finally annihilation.

Like many others today he showed a curious inability to distinguish the undoubted value of Christianity’s ethical teachings from its more dubious theological claims, or to understand that by aggressively knocking the props out from under the latter he could bring the whole civilizational structure down in ruins. But then he had no philosophical insight whatever. And no sense of institutional care. At present western civilization is like an aircraft on auto-pilot, its moral course fixed in the Christian era, with nobody understanding where the navigational settings came from or how to adjust them, and fast running out of fuel. Despite his valuable scientific contributions, Galton’s blindness to the needs of both political and moral order surely contributed to this unhappy state of affairs.

(A longer version of this article was published in the March 2007 issue of Quadrant, and will also be appearing in the American journal Social Science and Modern Society.)

Bibliographic note

Karl Pearson’s four-volume The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton, 1914-1930, is the foundation of all subsequent biographies. Among recent works, D. W. Forrest’s 1974 Francis Galton: the Life and Work of a Victorian Genius, is the most readable. Nicholas Wright Gillham’s 2001 A life of Sir Francis Galton is the most comprehensive. Michael Bulmer’s 2003 Francis Galton: Pioneer of Heredity and Biometry is the most suitable for scientific readers, with systematic treatments of Galton’s work on the mechanism of heredity, evolutionary problems, statistics, and biometry. It should also be mentioned that the website claims to have all Galton’s published works, plus Karl Pearson’s biography, in its files.

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