Raymond E. Fancher

York University

Among the many honors collected by Francis Galton towards the end of his long life was election as a Fellow of Britain's Royal Society of Literature. At age 86 he took advantage of this new status by publishing a paper in the Society's Transactions, entitled "Suggestions for Improving the Literary Style of Scientific Memoirs" (Galton, 1908). Both the honor and the paper topic were appropriate, for Galton's own vivid writing had inspired and stimulated innumerable younger scientists in several fields. As one who has been studying Galton's life and work for many years now, I personally can say that while I sometimes have to grit my teeth at the content of his writings, their lively and lucid style is a constant pleasure.

Yet for those of us today who look for writing tips from a master, Galton's paper itself proves disappointing. Besides complaining about the atrocious literary style of most scientific writing, and recommending that editors have their papers refereed for style as well as content, Galton made only one substantive suggestion: namely that authors be required to cut down on what he called "the superfluous use of technical expressions that have not yet been naturalised among scientific men" (Galton, 1905, p.3). And on this point he did not receive unanimous agreement even in 1905. Many scientists of the time, including several who were building on foundations laid by Galton himself, were finding it necessary both to introduce new technical terms, and also to assume that their primary readership would be sufficiently informed about their field to understand and use them. That is, while Galton was arguing in favor of a scientific literary style that should be accessible to almost everyone, other conscientious writers were seeking to communicate efficiently, and with relatively small audiences of fellow specialists within their particular fields.

One such dissenter was Galton's disciple and biographer Karl Pearson, who called Galton's paper "the swan's song of the last of the great Victorian leaders in science." Pearson added: "In his youth [Galton] had followed and contributed to the early growth of Anthropology, Meteorology, Evolutionary Biology, Genetics, the Theory of Statistics, and Psychology; but these sciences had outgrown their infancy, had become highly specialised, and teemed with new terms with which he could not keep in touch. It would have been a very great task for a younger man; for the octogenarian, however outstanding his intellect, the task was impossible" (Pearson, 1914-1930, 3a, p. 338).

Pearson's comment clearly has merit, but it also overlooks the fact that Galton's penchant for accessible and popularized writing was a lifelong habit, and not just something that had developed with old age. This is the main point I wish to emphasize today, for I believe it helps us to understand something about the type of writer and scientist that Galton really was. And in fact, Galton from his earliest childhood had found a rewarding role as what I call an "intellectual entertainer" - that is, someone who used his intelligence and knowledge to entertain and amuse others. I believe this childhood tendency persisted into adulthood, and even colored some important aspects of his mature scientific output.

The youngest child in a large and wealthy family, Francis was much doted upon by his older sisters, particulary the invalid Adele who took it upon herself to turn him into an apparent prodigy. Under her enthusiastic tutelage, he produced several documents that were lovingly saved and even formally "witnessed" by other members of the family as proof of his prowess. Among the letters still preserved among the Galton Papers at University College London is one declaring: "I am four years old and I 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…. I can also say the pence table. I read French a little and I know the Clock" (Pearson, 1914-1930, Vol. 1, p. 66).

As Francis grew older and went away to school, he continued to write his family regularly, and his family continued to save, and obviously to treasure, his letters. These very often took on a witty and bantering tone that everyone enjoyed. Thus at age ten he wrote to his banker-father: "My Dearest Papa, It is now my pleasure to disclose the most ardent wishes of my heart, which are to extract out of my boundless wealth in compound, money to make this addition to my unequalled library." There followed an impressive list of weighty theological and philosophical tomes, accompanied by the comment, "All books much approved of" (Pearson, 1914-1930, Vol. 1, p. 77).

Anyone who reads these and the other youthful letters that have been published in Pearson's biography will see that young Galton showed an unusual literary flair whether requesting money to buy books, chiding his brother about a spectacularly unsuccessful hunting expedition, or complaining in colorful terms about the miserable boredom of his schools. And when he became a medical student at the tender age of 16, he had a wonderful source of interesting story material to write about; consider the following, a description of his first attempt at pulling teeth:

A boy came in looking very deplorable, walked up to me and opened his mouth. I rather started, but two senses soon told me what was the matter…. I did not manage the first proceedings well, for I put in the tooth instrument the wrong way…. At last I got hold,… took my breath to enable me to give a harder wrench; one, two, three and away I went. A confused sort of murmur something like the sound of a bee in a foxglove proceeded from the boy's mouth and he kicked at me awfully…. I at last fixed the instrument splendidly and tugged away like a sailor at a handspike, when the boy, roaring like a lion with his head in a bag, broke away and bolted straight out, cursing all hospital doctors right manfully. So much for my first toothdrawing (Quoted in Pearson, 1914-1930, vol. 1, p. 102).

Other letters regaled his family and friends with vivid accounts of amputations, fracture-settings, drug preparation, and other arcane medical practices. Sometimes he entertained quite concisely and wittily, as when he sent his father the following note: "Can't come home - quite impossible. Cut a brace of fingers off yesterday, one the day before. Happy to operate on anybody at home. I am flourishing - wish I could say the same of my patients" (Pearson, 1914-1930, Vol. 1, p. 103). His recipients' general reaction to these letters was reflected by a friend after Galton had decided to quit medical school, who wrote: "Your giving up mediculizing is a great blow; who is henceforth to tell me pleasant stories about lupus, and purpuristic elephantiasis of the pia mater?" (Quoted in Pearson, 1914-1930, Vol. 1, p. 207).

But after leaving medicine, Galton soon found an equally good source of story material in travel to exotic places. At age 23 he visited the then little known Sudan, and while most of his letters home have unfortunately been lost, something of their quality may be inferred from the following reply written to him by a friend: "Your letter is a great work of art, worthy to be ranked with the most ingenious productions of modern times. Of course I don't believe a word of it, and think you have been all the time concealed in [London] and examining the map of Africa. If I really could put my faith in what you tell me I should look upon you as the real Carlylese hero" (Quoted in Pearson, 1914-1930, Vol. 1, pp. 205-6).

Unsurprisingly, it was popular travel writing that first brought the adult Galton to wide public notice. Between 1850 and 1852 he explored and mapped the region of southwest Africa now called Namibia, earning the Royal Geographical Society's gold medal for his efforts. But even as he achieved these "serious" and "scientific" geographical purposes, he did not miss the opportunity to entertain. His book about the expedition, entitled Tropical South Africa, included much more than a map and descriptions of the countryside; here he wrote vividly about exciting adventures with fierce native warlords, man-eating lions, and poisonous snakes; he also told of voluptuous native women whose figures, as he put it, "would drive the females of our native land desperate" and whose exact measurements he dared only to estimate from afar with the aid of his sextant. All of this made for entertaining reading, and helped secure Galton a position as a travel writer and journalist. And much more momentously, his book elicited the following interesting letter from a half-cousin he had not been in personal touch with for many years:

My dear Galton, You will probably be surprised, after the long intermission of our acquaintance, at receiving a note from me. But I last night finished reading your volume with such lively interest that I cannot resist the temptation of expressing admiration…. What labour and dangers you have gone through!… I [myself now] live in a village called Down… and employ myself in zoology; but the objects of my study are very small fry, and to a man accustomed to rhinoceroses and lions would seem infinitely insignificant (Quoted in Pearson, 1914-1930, Vol. 1, p. 240).

The cousin, of course, was Charles Darwin, who by that time had already conceived his epochal theory of evolution by natural selection, but had not yet chosen to share it with the world. Galton would be just as surprised by it as everyone else when it finally appeared in 1859. But Darwin's typically modest and genial letter of 1854 initiated a continuing friendly contact that would predispose Galton to regard evolutionary theory with particular interest when he finally did learn of it. And it was entirely characteristic that Galton first captured Darwin's serious personal attention through the liveliness and boyish exhibitionism of his literary style. Darwin's daughter later recalled that her father had regarded Galton with great admiration and affection, not only because of his acuteness but also because of "what fun [he] was" (Pearson, 1914-1930, Vol. 2, p. 197).

And indeed Galton continued to have fun and to entertain with his writings, even as he entered what we may think of as the "scientific" half of his life and produced the ideas for which we remember him best today. A surprising proportion of his most important papers originally appeared in popular periodicals rather than the proceedings of scientific societies or other "professional" organs. For example, his seminal 1865 article entitled "Hereditary Talent and Character" was published in the popular Macmillan's Magazine. Aptly designated by Pearson (1914-1930, Vol. 2, p. 86) as "an epitome of the great bulk of Galton's work for the rest of his life," this article contained his first statistical pedigrees of genius, the concept of the adoptive family method for separating the effects of nature and nurture, and the basic idea (though not yet the name) for eugenics. The article introduced a further important topic in the following whimsical and highly characteristic passage:

Let us then give reins to our fancy, and imagine a Utopia… in which a system of competitive examinations had been so developed as to embrace every important quality of mind,… and where a considerable sum was allotted to the endowment of such marriages as promised to yield children who would grow into eminent servants of the State. We may picture to ourselves an annual ceremony in that Utopia, in which the Senior Trustee of the Endowment Fund would address ten deeply-blushing young men, all of twenty-five years old, in the following terms: -- "Gentlemen, I have to announce the results of a public examination, conducted on established principles, which show that you occupy the foremost places in your year, in respect to those qualities of talent, character and bodily vigour which are proved, on the whole, to do most honour and best service to our race. An examination has also been conducted on established principles among all the young ladies of the country who are now of the age of twentyone, and, I hardly need remind you, this examination takes note of grace, beauty, health, good-temper, accomplished housewifery, and disengaged affections, in addition to the noble qualities of heart and brain. By a careful investigation of the marks you have severally obtained,… we have been enabled to select ten of [the young ladies'] names with special reference to [yours]. It appears that marriages between you and these ten ladies, according to the list I hold in my hand, would offer the probability of unusual happiness to yourselves, and, what is of paramount interest to the State, would probably result in an extraordinarily talented issue…. If any or all of these marriages should be agreed upon, the Sovereign herself will give away the brides, at a high and solemn festival, six months hence, in Westminster Abbey (Galton, 1865, p. 165).

Of course the "established principles" behind these examinations remained yet to be established, but here in this unorthodox and highly popularized vignette we find the first published statement of the idea of the modern intelligence test.

A second popular periodical, Fraser's Magazine, carried both the original version of Galton's famous study of identical and non-identical twins (Galton, 1875a), and his important article entitled "Hereditary Improvement" (Galton, 1873) where he first laid out a detailed program of eugenics. The visionary paper entitled "A Theory of Heredity," in which Galton swam against the tide of virtually all informed biological opinion of the time by arguing against the inheritance of acquired characteristics, appeared in the generalist periodical, Contemporary Review (Galton, 1875b). The justly famous and pioneering studies of word association (Galton, 1879) and mental imagery (Galton 1880) appeared in the Nineteenth Century and the Fortnightly Review, respectively. Some of these papers also appeared in scientific periodicals, but this does not negate the fact that Galton wanted his work to be widely and popularly known. Indeed, Even with a topic as technical and mathematical as statistical correlation, Galton quickly followed his professional presentation (Galton, 1888) with a popularized account in the North American Review (Galton, 1890).

These observations underline an important fact about Galton's contributions in general: namely that his primary gift was for the initiation and the popularization of new ideas. As a developer of ideas and techniques, and as an enthusiast who could inspire others to take up his projects, he had few peers. But it also should be noted that Galton's own attempts to implement his original ideas were often crude, and had to await the more systematic and in many ways more patient efforts of others: of an Alfred Binet with intelligence testing, for example, or a Karl Pearson with correlation, or a team like Newman, Freeman and Holzinger with twin studies. Thus it was not only the infirmities of old age that made him impatient with highly technical modes of scientific writing, but also a lifetime of writing in a highly popularized and sometimes slightly superficial style. It was good that he did so, but it was also good that there were others waiting in the wings to carry his ideas further - even if they had to do so in a more pedestrian style.


Galton, F. (1865). Hereditary talent and character. Macmillan's Magazine, 12, 157-166, 318-327.

Galton, F. (1873). Hereditary improvement. Fraser's Magazine, 7, 116-130.

Galton, F. (1875a). The history of twins as a criterion of the relative powers of nature and nurture. Fraser's Magazine, 12, 566-576.

Galton, F. (1875b). A theory of heredity. Contemporary Review, 27, 80-95.

Galton, F. (1879). Psychometric facts. Nineteenth Century, 425-433.

Galton, F. (1880). Mental imagery. Fortnightly Review, 28, 312-324.

Galton, F. (1890). Kinship and correlation. North American Review, 150, 419-431.

Galton, F. (1908). Suggestions for improving the literary style of scientific memoirs. Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature, 28, 1-8.

K. Pearson (1914-1930). The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton, 3 vols. in 4. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.