He created a vented hat to keep his head cool, invented a new way to cut round cakes, and devised an algorithm for making the perfect cup of tea.
But Francis Galton’s accomplishments as an inventor, meteorologist and statistician pale into insignificance by what is mostly remembered.
The Victorian scientist was the founding father of eugenics: the movement that aimed to eliminate supposedly undesirable human traits from the population.
Now a new BBC Radio 4 documentary presented by renowned scientist and author Adam Rutherford is set to tell the dark history of eugenics.
The creeds became extremely popular across the world in the early 20th century, with the first international congress on the subject held in London in 1912.
Eminent personalities including the future Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the inventor of the telephone Alexander Graham Bell were among the participants.
But the idea 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 prevented 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 that 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 a cool head, invented a new way to cut round cakes, and devised 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 eliminate supposedly undesirable human traits from the population.
Galton’s work beyond eugenics was wide and varied.
He was the first person to draw a weather map and had created a ‘beauty map’ of Britain which ranked women on a scale from attractive to repulsive.
Galton, who was very proud to be a cousin of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, coined the term eugenics in the 1880s by combining the Greek words for “good” and “born”.
His initial ideas had been inspired by reading Darwin’s famous work On the Origin of Species, which set out his theory of natural selection.
Galton pursued eugenics to, in his own words, give “the most suitable races or blood strains a better chance of prevailing over the less suitable”.
He also said it should be pursued as a “jihad, a holy war against customs and prejudices which harm 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 of on the one hand and the dream of improving the human race on the other.
Around 70,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the country until the practice was finally stopped in the 1970s. Above: Families in Topeka, Kansas participate 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 pictured after the death camp was liberated in 1945
Photographs of “Indian Dwarfism” from the Eugenics Society in 1912. Dwarfism refers to people who are 4 feet 10 inches or shorter due to a genetic or medical condition. Before the atrocities of Nazi Germany, eugenics – the system of measuring human traits, finding the desirable and eliminating the undesirable – was once practiced around the world.
“And it’s when you put the two together that you get the explosion, I think, of eugenics.”
The notion of eugenics has proven extremely popular in society at large, with over a hundred novels written on the subject.
Galton’s ideas were also taken up by the Eugenics Education Society, which was founded in Britain in 1907.
He campaigned for sterilization and marriage restrictions for the weak to prevent the degeneration of the British population.
A year after Galton’s death in 1911, the International Eugenics Congress was attended by the great and the good.
Among the speeches at the conference were those that claimed the supposed inferiority of the poor and working classes.
As Home Secretary, Churchill would go on to draft the first drafts of the Mental Deficiency Act, which became law in 1913.
It authorized the involuntary institutionalization of people considered “feeble-minded”, but most importantly, the law did not include any program of forced sterilization.
In the United States, however, forced sterilization has been zealously taken up in 32 states.
Winston Churchill would go on to write the first 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 parts of the body – specifically the head and face – to determine whether someone could be a criminal
In California alone, more than 20,000 people imprisoned in mental institutions were subjected to this procedure from 1918 to 1953.
In Virginia, between 1924 and 1979, more than 7,000 people became permanently sterile.
Other countries that passed similar sterilization laws in the 1920s and 1930s include 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 other means from 1941 to 1945.
In Auschwitz alone, 1.1 million people met their fate.
The Nazis murdered thousands of other disabled, mentally ill and gay people.
But even after the atrocities committed during World War II, eugenics did not disappear.
China is believed to have sterilized 10,000 women who violated its ancient one-child rule.
The practice is also believed to be used by Chinese authorities on thousands of Uyghur Muslims.
In India, millions are believed to have been coercively sterilized under the policies of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
The first episode of Bad Blood: The Story of Eugenics airs Monday at 4.30pm on BBC Radio 4.
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