S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science




Galton, Sir Francis (exploration, physical anthropology)

Born: 16 February 1822, Birmingham, England.
Died: 17 January 1911, Haslemere, Surrey, England.

Francis Galton, British statistician, human geneticist and eugenicist, was a half-cousin of Charles Darwin*. Though he was a child prodigy his performance at school was undistinguished. Having spent some time as an apprentice to medical men in Birmingham he entered the medical school of King's College, London, in 1839. However, he did not complete his studies and after only a year, in September 1840, went to Trinity College, Cambridge to study mathematics. Owing to ill health these studies too were not very successful, leading to a pass degree without honours in 1844. His father died that year, leaving him financially independent. This enabled him to undertake an adventurous journey up the Nile to Al-Khartum (formerly Khartoum) in Sudan, and on to Syria. For the next five years he devoted himself mainly to sport, but in 1850 he met C.J. Andersson* in London and decided to undertake an expedition with him through present Namibia to Lake Ngami (Botswana), which had only recently been visited by Europeans for the first time. They sailed for Cape Town together, and from there reached Walfish Bay by sea in August 1850. From there they travelled to the mission stations at Otjimbingwe and Barmen (south of present Okahandja). In December Galton visited the Erongo Mountains and in January 1851 met the Nama chief Jonker Afrikaner where Windhoek was soon to be founded. After visiting Rehoboth he turned north and from March 1851 he and Andersson travelled to Ovamboland, being the first Europeans to do so from the south. They reached as far north as Ondonga, in the region north of Etosha Pan, before returning to Barmen in August. Travelling eastward to Gobabis, they proceeded to present Rietfontein (close to the Botswana border, near latitude 22šS), which they reached on 3 October. They hunted in the region, but did not reach Lake Ngami. None the less this journey established part of the route to Lake Ngami from the west and made Galton an important explorer of Namibia.

He returned to Walfish Bay in December and in January 1852 sailed for England with Andersson's collections of birds and insects, leaving his equipment for Andersson to underake further expeditions. Seeds that he had collected on his travels were presented to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. He described his travels in a paper, "Recent expedition into the interior of South-West Africa", in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society (1852). The paper contained the first printed description of Ovamboland and its people. The next year he produced a more detailed account in the form of a book, Narrative of an explorer in tropical South Africa... (London, 1853). His vivid and accurate descriptions of the Damara, Herero and Ovambo and their customs were the first to be recorded by a skilled observer. A somewhat expanded and updated second edition of the book was published in 1889, with third and fourth editions following in 1890 and 1891. These works made him well known as an explorer. He was soon elected a member of council of the Royal Geographical Society, serving for many years. In 1855 he published his most successful book, The art of travel..., a manual for travellers, missionaries and others who planned to "rough it" in the wilds. The book was planned during his travels in Namibia and reached an eighth edition in 1893. On 1 August 1853 he married Louisa J. Butler and settled in London.

After his African expedition Galton travelled extensively in Europe. He became active in organised science and its administration, serving as secretary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science from 1863 to 1867 and several times as sectional president. In 1856 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and frequently served on its council. His interest in meteorology led him to publish Meteorographica, or methods of mapping the weather (1863). He introduced the term "anticyclone" and pointed out the meteorological importance of this phenomenon. This and other contributions to meteorology led to his membership of the Meteorological Committee, and subsequently of the council governing the Meteorological Office, from 1868 to 1900. His wide scientific interests are indicated by his papers on a variety of subjects, for example, the exploration of arid regions, a hand heliostat, the theory of cyclones, spectacles for divers, stereoscopic maps, and the pantograph. Up to 1877 he conducted extensive experiments on the inheritance patterns in sweet peas. Through his experiments with rabbits he proved that Darwin's theory of pangenesis (that inheritance can be effected by environmental conditions because hereditary particles are carried in the blood) was wrong, at least with regard to hair colour in rabbits.

Galton also conducted extensive investigations into human heredity, setting up his Anthropometric Laboratory in South Kensington, London, in 1884 to collect statistics on the acuteness of the senses, strength, height, and other dimensions of a large number of persons. His laboratory was the forerunner of the biometric laboratory of University College, London. On the basis of this work he is recognised as the originator of biostatistics, for example, he introduced what came to be known later as the regression coefficient and correlation coefficient in his analysis of human data. His research included a study of the permanence (over one's lifetime) and individuality of fingerprints, leading to his book Fingerprints (1893). As an early student of modern psychology he investigated the working of the senses and visual memory. His statistical enquiries into the heritability of genius led to the book Hereditary genius (1869) and several other publications to 1906. Other books by him were English men of science; their nature and nurture (1874), Inquiries into human faculty and its development (1883), Natural inheritance (1889), and Memories of my life (1908). He is furthermore recognised as the originator of the eugenics movement (he created the term "eugenics" in 1883) and promoted the movement during his last years. A popular person and excellent conversationalist, his scientific achievements were widely recognised in his lifetime, leading to the award of many honours. These included honorary degrees from the Universities of Oxford (1894) and Cambridge (1895). He was knighted in 1909. The South African plant genus Galtonia (Fam. Liliaceae) was named after him, as was a subspecies of the Familiar Chat, Cercomela familiaris galtoni.


List of sources:
Clancey, P.A. The founders of South West African ornithology. Bokmakierie, 1989, Vol. 41(2), pp. 41-45.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 3, 1977.

Gunn, M. & Codd, L.E. Botanical exploration of southern Africa. Cape Town: Balkema, 1981.

Kienetz, A. Nineteenth-century South West Africa as a German settlement colony. PhD thesis in social geography, University of Minnesota, 1976. Facsimile by University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1977.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979 (Vol. 1-4) and Cape Town: South African Library, 1991 (Vol. 5).

Tabler, E.C. Pioneers of South West Africa and Ngamiland, 1738-1880. Cape Town: Balkema, 1973.

Tobias, P.V. History of physical anthropology in southern Africa. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 1985, Vol. 28, pp. 1-52.

Venter, R.J. Bibliography of regional meteorologica literature. Vol. 1. Southern Africa, 1486-1948. Pretoria: Weather Bureau, 1949.


Compiled by: C. Plug


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