History of the Galton Collection

Sir Francis Galton (1822 - 1911)

Sir Francis Galton was a scientist who worked on biostatistics and human genetics, as well as a traveller and inventor of scientific instruments. His life’s work consists of significant — in some cases foundational — contributions to a wide range of subjects, including statistics, meteorology, criminology and crime science, anthropometrics and eugenics.

Galton portrait

Galton was born to wealthy parents in Birmingham in 1822. The youngest of nine children, his father was a banker and his mother the daughter of the esteemed doctor Erasmus Darwin, who was also the grandfather of Charles Darwin.

After starting a medical degree at King's College, London, Galton transferred to Cambridge to read mathematics. His father's death in 1844 left Galton a wealthy young man, and, during the next six years, he embarked on a series of expeditions abroad, interspersing these adventures with life in England as a wealthy country gentleman.

From 1850 Galton worked industriously and prolifically at his various scientific pursuits throughout the second half of the century and beyond. In 1853 he married Louisa Butler - they had no children. Galton, who was knighted in 1909, died in 1911.

The Galton Collection at UCL

Galton was never officially part of any academic institution, but he did work closely with Karl Pearson and Flinders Petrie, who were both Professors UCL. Galton's legacy at UCL stems from this work and the incorporation of the Galton Laboratory into the University.

  • 1885,  The Galton Laboratory began life as the Anthropometric Laboratory which was part of the London International Health Exhibition of 1885. Visitors to the Exhibition were tested with a battery of machines many of which Galton had devised himself and paid a fee for a copy of their measurements and other data. Over 9,000 people contributed to the exercise, and the data gathered were not properly analyzed until the 1920s/30s. Following its success at the Exhibition, Galton established a permanent home for the Anthropometric Laboratory at the South Kensington Museum (which was renamed the Victoria & Albert Museum). Again, so much data was gathered that it was not until advantages in computer technology in the 1980s that any appropriate statistical analysis was done of these.
  • 1904, Galton wrote to the principal of UCL, to register his support for "the study of ... National Eugenics". The University provided rooms at 50 Gower Street, which were designated The Eugenics Records Office.
  • 1907, The Eugenics Records office was converted into The Eugenics Laboratory , with Karl Pearson as director and David Heron, a mathematician, as the Francis Galton Fellow.
  • 1911, Galton's will left £45,000 to UCL for the Chair of Eugenics. The will specifically stated that Karl Pearson was to be the first holder of the post. Pearson was the first of many distinguished Galton Professors, including RA Fisher, Lionel Penrose, Harry Harris & Bette Robson.
  • 1963, The Francis Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics became the The Galton Laboratory of the Department of Human Genetics & Biometry. The Galton Lab became part of the Department of Biology in 1996.