Francis Galton was born in Sparkbrook in 1822, the grandson of two members of the Lunar Society: Samuel Galton Junior, and Erasmus Darwin. He can justifiably be described as one of the last polymaths, with outstanding achievements in:
- exploration, particularly in opening up what is now Namibia in South West Africa;
- statistics, especially the development of the concepts of dispersion, correlation and regression;
- meteorology, notably the identification of the anticyclone, and the invention of isobars and weather maps;
- fingerprinting, where he devised the comprehensive scheme of classification still in use.
However, the principal focus of his work was the understanding of heredity, being the first person to recognise that not only physical, but also mental traits were passed on from parents to children. Moreover, he went on to link that to the concept of natural selection as outlined by his cousin, Charles Darwin, so as to come up with suggestions as to how the quality of a particular human race – and, by extension, the whole human species – could be improved over several generations by encouraging the procreation of the more eminent members, and discouraging the procreation of the less well endowed.
Galton coined the expression ‘eugenics’ to sum up that process, and his ideas proved very popular, as indicated by the award of a knighthood in 1909.
He died in 1911 and was buried in the churchyard at Claverdon in Warwickshire, but has been airbrushed out of history, thanks to people equating eugenics with the atrocities carried out in Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, many current issues – from family planning through education and racism to assisted dying – are rooted in eugenics. It is surely time to re-examine what Galton actually said and, in the process, restore the reputation of this inspiring Brummie.
‘The Forgotten Brummie,’ by David Allen, is available as an e-book from Amazon.co.uk for £4, with royalties going to the charity Canine Partners.