Psychologie et Histoire, 2001, vol. 2, 131-147.





Raymond E. FANCHER

York University, Department of Psychology, Canada




Abstract : Althought Francis Galton was disdainful of phrenology in his later life, his correpondence shows that he was quite knowledgeable about the subject as a young man, and apparently took it seriously. At the age of 27, following a disappointingly mediocre academic career, he consulted a professional phrenologist who told him his natural abilities were more suited to practical than to purely academic concerns. Shortly thereafter Galton embarked on an African exploration that launched his career as a public figure. It appears probable that this experience helped consolidate Galton's convictions about the importance of innate limitations to every person's abilities - limitations which he later came to see as hereditary.


Résumé : Bien que Francis Galton fut assez dédaigneux envers la phrénologie à la fin de sa vie, sa correspondance montre qu'il fut assez informé sur le sujet étant jeune homme et qu'il le prit apparemment très au sérieux. A l'âge de 27 ans, poursuivant des études universitaires médiocres, il consulta un phrénologiste professionnel qui lui dit que ses capacités naturelles étaient plus adaptées aux affaires pratiques. Peu après Galton s'engagea dans un voyage d'exploration en Afrique qui lança sa carrière publique. Il apparaît probable que cette expérience aida à raffermir les convictions de Galton sur l'importance des restrictions innées des capacités de chaque personne - limites qu'il devait plus tard considérer comme héréditaires.













Late in his life, the English pioneer of psychology Francis Galton (1822-1911) was disdainful about the scientific status of phrenology. When asked in a letter what he thought about the subject he replied: "The localisation in quite modern times of the functions of the brain lends so far as I am aware no corroboration whatsoever, but quite the reverese, to the divisions of the phrenologist. Why cabable observers should have come to such strange conclusions has to be accounted for -- most easily on the supposition of unconscious bias in collecting data" (Quoted in Pearson, 1914-1930, Vol. 3b, p. 577). But although Galton's late attitudes toward phrenology were negative, in his earlier life he took the subject quite seriously. Indeed, an argument can be made that an encounter with a professional phrenologist constituted a turning point in his life, and one of the factors that predisposed him towards his later theory of "hereditary genius." After providing some basic background about Galton and his career, this paper will describe and discuss his early experiences with phrenology.


Galton's Background and Early Life

Francis Galton first came to public notice as an African explorer and travel writer, before turning his attention to meteorology and inventing the modern weather map. His most important psychological contributions followed in middle age, after his imagination was captured by his cousin Charles Darwin's newly published evolutionary theory. Applying evolutionary principles to human intelligence, Galton proposed the idea of "hereditary genius" and created the eugenics movement, to which he devoted the rest of his long life. He coined the phrase "nature and nurture," and consistently emphasized the supposed dominance of the former over the latter. Among the contributions he made while pursuing his hereditarian vision were the ideas for intelligence tests, statistical correlation and regression, studies of twins and adoptive versus biological relatives, and other basic foundations of modern behavior genetics.

Galton came from a wealthy and distinguished family. His Darwin connection was through his mother, who was the daughter of the famous doctor, poet, and man of science, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), by his second wife. Charles Darwin's father Robert was Erasmus's son by his first wife. On his father's side, Galton traced his ancestry back to the founders of the Quaker religion, and to the Barclay family of English banking fame.

Galton himself has gained the reputation of having been a "genius." The main source of this reputation was a 1917 paper by the psychologist Lewis Terman, who examined some evidence from Galton's childhood and concluded that young Galton routinely performed intellectual tasks at about half the age at which normal children first learn them. Thus Terman judged Galton's "mental age" to have been double his "chronological age." Applying this estimate to the newly developed IQ formula (IQ equals mental age divided by chronological age, multiplied by 100), Terman declared that Galton must have had a childhood IQ of approximately 200 - a figure substantially higher than that of any child on an actual IQ test to that date (Terman, 1917). Following Terman's estimate, the influential early historian of psychology E. G. Boring (1950, p. 461) declared that Galton belongs "with the most intelligent persons who have been tested or whose biographies have been examined, with John Stuart Mill, Goethe and Leibnitz." And when D. W. Forrest (1974) published his biography of Galton, he subtitled it "The Life and Work of a Victorian Genius."

Galton's reputation as a genius, combined with his own distinguished pedigree, has led to a common impression that his general theory of hereditary genius was at least in part a vehicle for self-serving vanity. This attitude is epitomized in some anecdotes regarding Galton's longstanding belief that head size is a positive indicator of intelligence . When Galton developed his first prototype "intelligence tests" in his Anthropometric Laboratory of the mid-1880s, he started out by measuring the circumference of the head on the assumption that big brains would be predictive of great "natural ability." When he sent self-report questionnaires to eminent English scientists while researching his book, English Men of Science, he did not fail to ask for their "measurement round inside of hat." Years later, when his disciple Karl Pearson used the newly developed correlation techniques to calculate an r of only .10 between the head size and academic record of Cambridge undergraduates, Galton was astonished and told Pearson, "The non-correlation of ability and size of head continues to puzzle me the more I recall my own measurements and observations of the most eminent men of the day" (Pearson, 1914-1930, Vol. 3a, p. 248).

Pearson further relates that when one of those eminent men, Prime Minister William Gladstone had his head measured, "Gladstone was amusingly insistent on the size of his head, saying that hatters often told him that he had an Aberdonian head.... It [actually] was not, however, of very great circumference and rather low.... It was less than... Galton's own. 'Have you ever seen as large a head as mine?' Gladstone said to Galton, on which the latter observed: 'Mr. Gladstone, you are very unobservant!'" (Pearson, 1914-1930, Vol. 2, p. 379). This notion that Galton himself had a very large head was repeated by Forrest, who further connected the supposed fact with Galton's theory: "Throughout his life, [Galton] retained a belief in the high intelligence of those, like himself, with large heads" (Forrest, 1974, p. 37, emphasis added).

Unfortunately for simplistic biographical theories, however, this anecdote cannot have been true. Among Galton's preserved papers is a list, in his own handwriting, comparing his own anthropometric data to those of Gladstone. These indicate that Gladstone's head was a full inch longer than Galton's own, and nearly half an inch wider. Further, a tabular presentation of the raw data on head circumference that Galton collected for his book English Men of Science shows that his own measure (21 1/8 inches) ranked 95th out of the 99 scientists reporting (Hilts, 1975, pp. 77-84). Clearly then, Galton held his belief in a positive correlation between head size and intelligence with full knowledge that his own head was relatively small.

The "self-serving genius theory" receives another setback when one closely scrutinizes the data that led Terman to declare Galton a great childhood genius. Terman based his astronomical IQ assessment on preserved family records, including diary accounts of achievements such as his quoting aptly from the Odyssey, or commenting learnedly on the construction of Saxon ships at the age of six. As a child Francis was much doted upon by his older sisters, particularly the invalid Adèle, twelve years older than him, who made it her special project to educate him. Adèle taught herself the basics of French and Latin, to pass them on to Francis while turning him into an apparent child prodigy who could produce documents such as a letter dated 15 February 1827 which read as follows:

My Dear Adèle,

I am four years old and I can read any English book. I can say the Latin Substantives and Adjectives and active verbs besides 52 lines of Latin poetry. I can cast up any Sum in addition and can multiply by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, -, 10, -. I can also say the pence table. I read French a little and I know the Clock.


After originally including 9 and 11 in his number list, he evidently became conscience stricken about claiming too much and scratched out the 9 with a pen knife, and pasted over the 11 with a small square of paper. Someone with an adult hand wrote on the back of this letter, "Francis wrote this when he was four years old." Indeed it was the family's custom to formally "witness" many of his childhood letters in this way. In this case there was a touch of exaggeration because the next day was to be his fifth birthday. This was quite clearly a "production" staged to be completed on the last day he could claim to be a four-year-old; hardly the kind of evidence on which a modern IQ assessment would be based.

Partly because of the family's dissenting Quaker religion, no previous Galton had earned a university degree. Recently converted to Anglicanism and encouraged by Francis's juvenile accomplishments, his family nurtured high hopes for a distinguished academic career for its youngest son. Francis took all of this in, and at age five declared his life's ambition to be the earning of "honours at the university" (Pearson, 1914-1930, Vol. 1, p. 69). These early hopes and expectations received a rude jolt, however, when Francis was sent away from home to a highly competitive boarding school, at the age of eight. Adèle's training and Francis's particular gifts were not suited to success in the pre-eminently emphasised classical subjects, and the "prodigy" was promptly demoted to a lower class in Latin. In fact, while Francis was unquestionably bright and curious, his "prodigious" feats were more impressive for show than for their actual scholarship. Adèle was very much an amateur teacher, who could never teach more than the barest rudiments of the classics. In his autobiography written from the perspective of old age, Galton summarized his education by Adèle this way:

She hailed my arrival into the world as a fairy gift, and begged hard to be allowed to consider me as her sole ward, and in her simple way educated herself as best she could, in order to be able to teach me. Her idea of education at that time was to teach the Bible as a verbally inspired book, to cultivate memory, to make me learn the merest rudiments of Latin, and above all a great deal of English verse. This she did effectually, and the result was that she believed, and succeeded in making others believe, that I was a sort of infant prodigy (Galton, 1908, p. 13).

Adèle's pedagogy did not compare with that provided to the most famous prodigy of 19th Century Britain - John Stuart Mill - whose teacher-father was himself a professional scholar. In fact, I have argued elsewhere that Galton's and Mill's widely differing personal experiences as "child prodigies" helped produce their diametrically opposed social and psychological philosophies in adulthood (Fancher, 1985).

In any event, Galton's eight years in classically-dominated preparatory schools were filled with much misery and mediocre performance. Only the secondary subject of mathematics provided a bright spot; here Galton did quite well, and at age 15 he became almost obsessionally concerned with his chances of finishing second in his school's final math examination. He carefully compared himself to his competition, observing in a letter to his father:

I have found out that a boy who is doing trigonometry will be counted of [my] class, so he will be certain of the prize, having done what we are doing oftener than us and of course far superior than us in equations through practice.... But however I am working harder at mathematics than before to give me a good chance [of finishing second], for there are three very equal, myself and two other boys. They know what they do more perfectly than I do but then I have learnt many more proofs and can work Algebra and Deductions faster than they can - so it is very doubtful who will come in for [second place].

Since family records say nothing about his actual performance, he probably did not finish second. But for the following two years his obsessions about examination competition continued in a new venue, when his family removed him from ordinary school and registered him as as a medical student in Birmingham and London. In the spring of 1840 he wrote Adèle: "Hurrah! Hurrah!! I am 2nd Prizeman in Anatomy and Chemistry. I had only expected a Certificate of Honour. Hurrah!" Soon after, he wrote his father about "something new, which probably will shortly fall to my lot, which you won't dislike to hear of, hurrah!" He was referring to the forthcoming Forensic Science examination, in which he expected to finish first. When he actually finished second, he explained: "I am much vexed at not being first, but there was much more competition than usual. One of the men (I am above him) got a Certificate of Honour in For. Med. last year. As you understand the circumstance in which I was placed as regards juniority, I shall not attempt further to justify my failure." Seventy years later, Galton misremembered this event when he wrote in his autobiography: "I think the only prize I ever got all to myself was in the minor subject of Forensic Medicine, in which I delighted" (Galton, 1908, p. 42). This wish-fulfilling slip of the memory undoubtedly reflects the intensity of his youthful academic ambition.

In autumn of 1840, Galton changed educational course once again, as he was deemed old enough at 18 to matriculate at Cambridge. His first letter home related that he had bought a bust of Isaac Newton for his room, and that he had admired from a distance one of the university's "Senior Wranglers." (The term "Wrangler" was Cambridge jargon for anyone graduating with honors in Mathematics; the Senior Wrangler was the person who finished first, and who was therefore a local celebrity.) Galton showed that he was familiar with phrenological terminology - perhaps picked up while a medical student - when he added, "My organ of veneration is so strong I doubt when I shall dare to address him" (quoted in Pearson, 1914-1930, Vol. 1, p. 143).

Veneration aside, Galton still harbored intense academic ambition. Although he knew he had no chance in classics, he still hoped to fulfill his childhood dream and become a high Wrangler himself. His sister put on added pressure from the beginning, writing to Francis that his father was "building castles in the air that you will turn out so clever that you will have enough to spare for [your brothers] also."

To become a Wrangler, Galton would eventually have to get high marks on the University's notorious Mathematical Tripos examination, a 44-hour ordeal undergone in the third year by all honors candidates. Galton did well enough in the first year's preliminary examinations to keep his hopes alive, and at the beginning of his second year was accepted for private study by William Hopkins, Cambridge's most famous "coach" of mathematics students. He now became keenly attentive to the examination procedures themselves, and noted approvingly that in the marking scheme for the Tripos, the very top Wranglers generally obtained scores far ahead of the rest of the pack, virtually in a class by themselves. Thus he wrote his father that in the class ahead of his own, the first and second Wranglers "were very far superior to the rest.... [The second Wrangler] was 1000 marks ahead of the 3rd Wrangler, and the getting of 500 marks only entitles a man to be a Wrangler." Galton would recall this observation many years later, while arguing that "natural ability" falls in a normal distribution, with a dwindling tail at the upper extreme.

For a short while Galton nurtured hopes that he might turn out to be one of these academic giants towering above the rest, but these hopes dissipated following the "Little Go," the major second year examination preparatory to the Tripos. He finished in the second class, a result that would have satisfied many undergraduates, but which for Galton was devastating. Most of his peers who had worked with Hopkins took firsts. Within a week of learning his standing, Galton withdrew from a forthcoming scholarship exam on grounds that he now knew he had no chance of winning. Soon after that he suffered a severe emotional breakdown marked by obsessional thoughts, and dizziness whenever he tried to study mathematics. With all zest for academic competition lost, he withdrew from honors competition altogether and settled for a non-honors, "poll" degree the following year. At his disappointed father's urging, he returned to medical training, but without enthusiasm. His father died the following year, and when Galton learned that he would inherit a substantial fortune and not have to work for a living, he withdrew from medicine as well. His formal academic career ended on this undistinguished note. Far from having proved himself as a "genius," Francis Galton had failed to achieve almost all of the academic goals he and his family had set.


Encounter with a Phrenologist

Galton now drifted disspiritedly for a period of time that Pearson has called his "Fallow Years." As an independently wealthy young man he dabbled in travelling, hunting, and gambling, until gradually he became sick of his idle life. Finally in April of 1849, at the age of 27, he took himself and his problems to a London phrenologist named Donovan, for a personal reading.

Desperation may have played some role in this decision, but it is clear that at this point both Galton and his family - like many of their contemporaries - knew something about phrenology and regarded it with some seriousness. Thus family records describe an incident in which an amateur phrenologist examined the teen-aged Francis's head and remarked, "This boy has the largest organ of causality I ever saw in any head but one, and that is the bust of Dr. Erasmus Darwin" (Pearson, 1914-1930, Vol. 1, p. 157). He did not know the doctor was Galton's grandfather, and the family were impressed. We have already seen that Galton used phrenological terminology easily and familiarly in his "organ of veneration" comment from Cambridge, and he made at least two further references to the subject in later letters. During a summer holiday from Cambridge Galton met socially a doctor who was "a great phrenologist and I got him to paw my head; he gave me I think a very true character (self esteem was remarkably full)." The following summer Galton and his sister visited the Dresden home of a man he described as "mad on the subject [of phrenology]," with a wife "whose face is not comely, but the bumps on her head are undeniably good" (Pearson, 1914-1930, Vol. 1, pp. 156-157, 180).

There is a half-jocular quality to these remarks, but Galton would also have known from his medical study that phrenologists had made some genuinely important discoveries about the anatomy of the brain. The most general tenet of phrenology - that individual differences in the structure of the brain produce differences in talent and character - had an inherent plausibility. Professional phrenologists as a class were relatively well educated, and in many respects they filled a social role similar to that of today's psychologists and vocational testers. Further, phrenologists had more to go on than simple head measurements in making their assessments. Like psychological testers today, they had opportunities to interview their clients and get to know them as people. Able to draw on comparative information from large numbers of clients, they were often accomplished students of human nature quite independently of their phrenological theories. Thus there is every reason to believe that Galton approached Donovan with some serious expectations.

In any case, Galton carefully saved Donovan's four-page report on his character, which is still preserved among his papers. The document contains a number of shrewd statements undoubtedly derived from more than the shape of Galton's head. Some represent what Walter Klopfer (1960) has called "P. T. Barnum" characterizations - statements which sound impressive and highly particular to their subject, but that in fact would be accepted as true of themselves by virtually anybody. But Donovan also pinpointed some of Galton's qualities with fair precision. His report began by asserting that "Men of this class are likely to spend the earlier years of manhood in the enjoyment of what are called the lower pleasures; and particularly those which the followers of the prophet Mahomet believe to form the chief reward of virtue in the realms above." Even though the exact extent of Galton's youthful erotic escapades is uncertain, the statement must have hit home at least in a general way. For he had in fact devoted the previous four years to the undisciplined pursuit of diverse "lower pleasures," and his uneasiness over the fact had been steadily growing.

Donovan's report went on forthrightly to describe a certain prickliness and stubbornness in Galton's social personality:

Very amiable, conciliating, yielding, modest, retiring - this gentleman is not. Nor is he calculated to gain good will on a brief acquaintance. But I think he is too honest, too selfrespectful, and too moral and kind, in general, not to be well-liked by those who really know him, despite of his apparent tendency to selfpreference in various small ways.... In conclusion, as to the moral character, I think it will work well in conjugal and social life, particularly if those who have to cooperate [with it] do not irritate by opposition and illtimed independance [sic].

This description too was on the mark. Even though softened by the Barnum-style assurance that beneath his prickly exterior there really beat a heart of gold, the report here picked up on a certain obstinacy, insensitivity and lack of tact that in fact hindered many of Galton's interpersonal relations throughout his life. And his problems were in fact especially acute with "independent" women, and ambitious men from a social class lower than his own.

The most important sections of Donovan's report, at least from Galton's point of view, concerned his presumably innate intellectual qualities:

The intellectual capacities are not distinguished by much spontaneous activity in relation to scholastic affairs. Men so organized do not attach themselves to literary pursuits by choice, nor do they distinguish themselves in universities. They love bodily exercises and rural sports too much to permit them to devote themselves to philosophy or literature.... In a word, as scholars they are not "fast men" though they are by no means incapacitated from taking good positions, if they will work hard, if they resolve to succeed.... As regards the learned professions, I do not think this gentleman is fond enough of the midnight lamp to like them, or to work hard if engaged in one of them.

But Donovan also described an offsetting strength in Galton's mental constitution, to help compensate for his lack of innate scholarly ability:

There is much enduring power in a mind such as this - much that qualifies a man for "roughing it" in colonizing, and in military service. It is only when rough work has to be done, that all the energies and capacities of minds of this class are brought to light. Consequently, they often repose in inglorious ease, almost as ignorant themselves as everyone else is, of the available, working value which is in them. By work I do not mean literary performances specially but, all that has to be done in the battle of life: and not only done, but suffered....

To me [this gentleman] seems best fitted for the army, in which I think he would do well. For he is a fairly good observer - is practical in his turn of mind - rather than speculative: and has, altogether, a good working intellect.

Galton left no direct word of how seriously he regarded this report, apart from the fact that he carefully preserved it among his voluminous private papers. Nevertheless, it seems significant that soon afterwards he followed its advice - not by joining the army as Donovan had specifically recommended, but by taking up another strenuous, outdoors occupation that could benefit from his natural vigor and endurance, and challenge his practical rather than speculative intellect. He decided in early 1850 to become an African explorer. His subsequent expedition to the southwest African region now called Namibia won the Royal Geographical Society's gold medal for 1853, and brought his so-called fallow years to an end.

Donovan's report probably had other, equally important consequenses by providing a plausible explanation for Galton's previous failures. According to this report, Galton had failed to meet his own and his family's academic aspirations not because he lacked will or moral fiber, but because he lacked the natural endowment to succeed highly. This must have been a comforting thought to the troubled and guilt-prone young man - and must have contributed to his growing conviction that the most important intellectual abilities are innate rather than acquired.

Many years later in his most famous book, Hereditary Genius, Galton likened intellectual to athletic performance. He noted that every trained athlete has an innately given limit beyond which further training makes no difference. Thus high jumpers learn to within an inch or so how high or far they can go, and sprinters learn to the fraction of a second how quickly they can run a hundred yards. And in a passage we can now recognize as poignantly autobiographical, Galton added:

This is precisely analogous to the experience that every student has had of the working of his mental powers. The eager boy, when he first goes to school and confronts intellectual difficulties, is astonished at his progress. He glories in his newly developed mental grip, and [may believe] it to be within his reach to become one of the heroes who have left their mark upon the history of the world. The years go by; he competes in the examinations of school and college, over and over again with his fellows, and soon finds his place among them. He knows he can beat such and such of his competitors; that there are some with whom he runs on equal terms, and others whose intellectual feats he cannot even approach (Galton, 1972/1869, p. 57).

This athletic analogy highlights an important but often overlooked aspect of Galton's nativist beliefs. He did not deny that training and environment can have a powerful effect in enhancing performance: A novice athlete, given the proper training and exercise, may improve rapidly and dramatically. But what impressed Galton more were the differences in performance that remain after training has been applied. Without the requisite innate athletic ability, the very highest levels of performance are out of reach no matter how intensive the training.

And so it was with intellectual and academic performance - as Galton's own life experience had demonstrated. He had come from a wealthy and privileged background, been sent to highly reputable schools, and moreover was highly motivated to succeed. But despite these advantages, he had failed to achieve his goals, and had been consistently surpassed by a small but significant number of individuals whom he could only see as innately superior to himself. Contrary to the "self-serving genius theory," Galton became sensitized to the issue of innate intellectual differences through his experience of his own limitations, rather than his intellectual triumphs. In coming to terms with this, the assurance of Donovan the phrenologist that he had been naturally unsuited for high level academic competition undoubtedly played a major role.


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