Francis Galton: a Victorian polymath

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By | The Researcher’s View

We have added two new digitised archive collections (Alan Coulson and Francis Galton) to the Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics online resource. Here, Katy Makin from the University College London (UCL) Special Collections team shares her experience of working with the Galton papers.

Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) was a Victorian polymath, who at various times over the course of a long career could be described as an explorer, meteorologist, statistician, biometrician and expert in personal identification. He left a large archive – nearly two hundred boxes of material – which is now kept at UCL and covers the whole of his life and his multitude of interests.

L0021166 Francis Galton aged 42, seated Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Francis Galton, aged 42, from photographs of 1864. The life, letters and labours of Francis Galton Karl Pearson Published: 1924

Francis Galton, aged 42, from The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton by Karl Pearson, 1924. Wellcome Image no. L0021166.

Today, Galton is perhaps best known for his studies into heredity, more specifically as the ‘father’ of eugenics. It is his eugenic ideas, and especially their appropriation in the 20th century, that necessarily colour perceptions of Galton and make writing about him a challenge. However, although many of Galton’s theories, including eugenics, have been soundly discredited, these were only part of the work he carried out over his lifetime.

Galton is credited with pioneering the scientific methodology for using fingerprints for forensic purposes, in particular studying twins and family groups to prove that an individual’s fingerprints are unique and do not change over time. His archive includes the six thousand sets of fingerprints he collected and classified, drawing up a taxonomic system still used today. He also made extensive use of composite photography, layering images of individuals’ faces on top of one another to make a composite face or ‘type’. He believed he could produce images of criminal types or people prone to illnesses such as tuberculosis using photos collected from prisons and hospitals.


Composite photographs for a ‘Tubercular type’. Wellcome Library reference: GALTON/2/8/1/14.

Born into a wealthy family, Galton was the grandson of the physician Erasmus Darwin and cousin of Charles Darwin. One of UCL’s ‘treasures’ is Galton’s first edition copy of On the Origin of Species, which was given to him by Darwin. Galton has made annotations beside the text on some pages, giving the sense of how exciting the book must have been when it was first published but also how it raised as many questions as it answered. The letter he wrote to Darwin in response to the book has been transcribed as part of the Darwin Correspondence Project.

Working on cataloguing and conserving Galton’s archive has been a challenge because, despite his affluence, he had a habit of making his own stationery and recycling paper wherever possible. It is not always easy to tell if you are looking at something profoundly interesting or just old notes re-used as packaging for something else. A small metal implement was eventually revealed to be the hole-punch he used for making his own index cards. He was also presumably an early proponent of the edge-notched card index system as we found a set of knitting needles with his cards and tools.

One item which caused particular confusion was his proof copy of Inquiries into Human Faculty (1883) which was believed to be missing until it was discovered that Galton had removed the hardback boards from a copy of Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and sewn them onto his unbound proof as a homemade cover. He didn’t do anything quite so elaborate with the proof copies of his other books but this one is the most heavily annotated, showing that he made a lot of revisions to the final text.


Annotated proof copy of Inquiries into Human Faculty. Credit: Katy Makin, UCL Libraries.

Galton corresponded with many of the most famous scientific figures of the time, including his cousin Darwin, and also Joseph Dalton Hooker, Thomas Henry Huxley, Charles Lyell and Alfred Russel Wallace. His wife picked out a series of around two hundred letters to her husband from “notable Victorians”; these were later arranged in two books by Galton’s biographer Karl Pearson. Only one book has survived intact and it has posed a particular challenge for the conservation team as it was never designed to display letters. The binding and the leaves were damaged from repeated handling and suffered from the extra weight of the letters stuck to the pages.

UCL original

The book of letters in its original form. Credit: Katy Makin, UCL Library Services.

It was decided that book should be photographed, then the letters should be removed, repaired, digitised individually, replaced and the finished pages scanned again. This gives us the option to display single letters, which are easier to read online, or show the images of whole pages, which give a better sense of what the physical item looks like. The digital images that you see in the Codebreakers player are the ones that were taken of the individual letters before they were replaced in the book:


Access the digitised Francis Galton Papers on the Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics website and through the Wellcome Library catalogues.

Author: Katy Makin is Project Archivist at UCL Library Services.

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