Francis Galton was a prolific researcher in a wide range of disciplines, most notably in aspects of human evolution. A cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton was inspired by the theory of evolution outlined in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) to carry out his own investigations in the fields of heredity and biological variation - particularly in regard to the human species. Galton’s work in this area would form the basis of the philosophy he named eugenics in 1883.
Galton’s theory was set out in his book Hereditary Genius, published in 1869. These observations were manifested in both positive eugenics, whereby human breeding was manipulated to produce superior people, and negative eugenics, where the quality of the human race was improved by eliminating or excluding biologically inferior people from the breeding population.
This book sparked the beginnings of what became a eugenics movement, which would campaign for various methods of intervention to improve the biological make-up of the species.
Galton himself proposed that limitations should be imposed on breeding amongst those he considered ‘feeble-minded’. Most notably, he suggested that weak and inferior characteristics were being passed down from parents to children in the poorer sections of society and within certain races.
However, he may well have been horrified by some of the measures proposed, and in some cases implemented, in the name of eugenics by the worldwide movement that developed in his wake. These included programmes of compulsory sterilisation in some European countries and several states of America in the early 1900s, and the killing of thousands of disabled patients in Nazi Germany from the late 1930s. Many of the latter were gassed in chambers disguised as shower rooms - providing a chilling foretaste of the Holocaust a few years later.