He created a vented hat to keep the head cool, invented a new way to cut round cakes and dreamed up an algorithm for making the perfect cup of tea.
But Francis Galton’s achievements as an inventor, meteorologist and statistician pale into insignificance when compared to what he is chiefly remembered for.
The Victorian scientist was the founding father of eugenics: the movement that aimed to cut out supposedly undesirable human traits from the population.
Now, a new BBC Radio 4 documentary presented by well-known scientist and author Adam Rutherford is set to tell the dark history of eugenics.
The beliefs became hugely popular across the world in the early 20th Century, with the first international congress on the subject being held in London in 1912.
Eminent figures including future Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and the inventor of the telephone Alexander Graham Bell were among the attendees.
But the notion that the genetic quality of the human race could be improved ultimately led to some of the worst horrors of the 20th Century.
The first sterilization law – which stopped some disabled people from having children – was imposed in the US state of Indiana in 1907. Around 70,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the country until the practice was finally stopped in the 1970s.
Eugenics ideas were then taken up with zeal in Nazi Germany, first with a similar sterilization program and then in the Holocaust, when six million Jewish men, women and children were murdered during the Second World War.
Francis created a vented hat to keep the head cool, invented a new way to cut round cakes and dreamed up an algorithm for making the perfect cup of tea. But the Victorian scientist was also the founding father of eugenics: the movement that aimed to cut out supposedly undesirable human traits from the population
Galton’s work beyond eugenics was wide and varied.
He was the first person to plot a weather chart and had created a ‘beauty map’ of Britain that graded women on a scale of atrractive to repulsive.
Galton, who took great pride in the fact that he was a cousin of Charles Darwin -the father of Evolution – coined the term eugenics in the 1880s by combining the Greek words for ‘well’ and ‘born’.
His initial ideas had been inspired by reading Darwin’s famous work On the Origin of Species, which laid out his theory of natural selection.
Galton pursued eugenics to, in his words, give ‘the more suitable races, or strains of blood, a better chance of prevailing over the less suitable.’
He also said that he should be pursued as a ‘jihad, a holy war against customs and prejudices that impair the physical and moral qualities of our race.’
Speaking to Dr Rutherford in Bad Blood: The Story of Eugenics, science historian Professor Philippa Levine said: ‘Galton’s particular contribution, in addition to the term eugenics, is this principle of bringing together the quantification on the one hand and the dream of improving the human race on the other.
Around 70,000 people were forcibly sterlised in the country until the practice was finally stopped in the 1970s. Above: Families in Topeka, Kansas compete in the ‘Fitter Family’ contest which was designed to find the most eugenically perfect family in 1925. These contests were a popular form of eugenics education in the 1920s
Eugenics ideas were then taken up with zeal in Nazi Germany, first with a similar sterilization program and then in the Holocaust, when six million Jewish men, women and children were murdered during the Second World War. Above: Auschwitz prisoners are photographed after the death camp’s liberation in 1945
Photographs of ‘Indian Dwarfism’ from the Eugenics Society in 1912. Dwarfism refers to people who are 4 feet 10 inches or under as a result of a genetic or medical condition. Before the atrocities of Nazi Germany, eugenics – the system of measuring human traits, seeking out the desirable ones and cutting out the undesirable ones – was once practiced the world over
‘And it is when you put the two and two together that you get the explosion, I think, of eugenics.’
The notion of eugenics proved hugely popular in wider society, with more than a hundred novel written on the theme.
Galton’s ideas were also taken up by the Eugenics Education Society, which was founded in Britain in 1907.
It campaigned for sterilization and marriage restrictions for the weak to prevent the degeneration of Britain’s population.
A year after Galton’s death in 1911, the International Eugenics Congress was attended by the great and the good.
Among the talks at the conference were those which claimed the alleged inferiority of the poor and working classes.
As Home Secretary, Churchill would go on to write early drafts of the Mental Deficiency Act, which became law in 1913.
It allowed for the involuntary institutionalization of those deemed to be ‘feeble minded’, but crucially the law did not include any program of enforced sterilization.
In the US however, forced sterilization was taken up with zeal in 32 states.
Winston Churchill would go on to write early drafts of the Mental Deficiency Act, which became law in 1913
French researcher Alphonse Bertillon demonstrates how to measure a human skull in Paris, France in 1894. Bertillon was a criminologist who first developed a system for measuring physical body parts – particularly of the head and face – to work out if someone might be a criminal
In California alone, more than 20,000 people imprisoned in institutions for the mentally ill were put through the procedure from 1918 until 1953.
In Virginia, between 1924 and 1979, more than 7,000 people were permanently made infertile.
Other countries which passed similar sterilization laws in the 1920s and 30s included Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland.
But it was in Nazi Germany that the most barbaric crimes were committed in the name of improving society.
In a network of death camps that included Auschwitz-Birkenau in Nazi-occupied Poland, millions were murdered in gas chambers and by other means from 1941 until 1945.
At Auschwitz alone, 1.1million people met their fate.
The Nazis murdered thousands more disabled, mentally ill and gay people.
But even after the atrocities committed in the Second World War, eugenics did not go away.
China is believed to have sterilized 10,000 women who violated its former one-child rule.
The practice is also reportedly being used by Chinese authorities on thousands of Uighur Muslims.
In India, millions were believed to have been coercively sterilized under former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s policies.
The first episode of Bad Blood: The Story of Eugenics airs on Monday at 4.30pm on BBC Radio 4.
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