He was a pioneer in eugenics, coining the term itself.
[This book's] intention is to touch on various topics more or less connected with that of the cultivation of race, or, as we might call it, with "eugenic"1 questions, and to present the results of several of my own separate investigations. 1 This is, with questions bearing on what is termed in Greek, eugenes, namely, good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities. This, and the allied words, eugeneia, etc., are equally applicable to men, brutes, and plants. We greatly want a brief word to express the science of improving stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating, but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognisance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had. The word eugenics would sufficiently express the idea; it is at least a neater word and a more generalised one than viriculture, which I once ventured to use.
As an investigator of the human mind, he founded psychometrics (the science of measuring mental faculties) and differential psychology and the lexical hypothesis of personality. He devised a method for classifying fingerprints that proved useful in forensic science. He also conducted research on the power of prayer, concluding it had none by its null effects on the longevity of those prayed for. His quest for the scientific principles of diverse phenomena extended even to the optimal method for making tea.
He was cousin of Douglas Strutt Galton and half-cousin of Charles Darwin. Both families had Fellows of the Royal Society and members who loved to invent in their spare time. Both Erasmus Darwin and Samuel Galton were founding members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, which included Boulton, Watt, Wedgwood, Priestley, Edgeworth. Both families were known for their literary talent. Erasmus Darwin composed lengthy technical treatises in verse. Galton's aunt Mary Anne Galton wrote on aesthetics and religion, and her autobiography detailed the environment of her childhood populated by Lunar Society members.
Galton was a child prodigy – he was reading by the age of two; at age five he knew some Greek, Latin and long division, and by the age of six he had moved on to adult books, including Shakespeare for pleasure, and poetry, which he quoted at length. Later in life, Galton proposed a connection between genius and insanity based on his own experience:
Men who leave their mark on the world are very often those who, being gifted and full of nervous power, are at the same time haunted and driven by a dominant idea, and are therefore within a measurable distance of insanity.
According to the records of the United Grand Lodge of England, it was in February 1844 that Galton became a freemason at the Scientific lodge, held at the Red Lion Inn in Cambridge, progressing through the three masonic degrees: Apprentice, 5 February 1844; Fellow Craft, 11 March 1844; Master Mason, 13 May 1844. A note in the record states: "Francis Galton Trinity College student, gained his certificate 13 March 1845". One of Galton's masonic certificates from Scientific lodge can be found among his papers at University College, London.
A nervous breakdown prevented Galton's intent to try for honours. He elected instead to take a "poll" (pass) B.A. degree, like his half-cousin Charles Darwin. (Following the Cambridge custom, he was awarded an M.A. without further study, in 1847.) He briefly resumed his medical studies but the death of his father in 1844 left him emotionally destitute, though financially independent, and he terminated his medical studies entirely, turning to foreign travel, sport and technical invention.
In his early years Galton was an enthusiastic traveller, and made a notable solo trip through Eastern Europe to Constantinople, before going up to Cambridge. In 1845 and 1846, he went to Egypt and travelled up the Nile to Khartoum in the Sudan, and from there to Beirut, Damascus and down the Jordan.
In 1850 he joined the Royal Geographical Society, and over the next two years mounted a long and difficult expedition into then little-known South West Africa (now Namibia). He wrote a book on his experience, "Narrative of an Explorer in Tropical South Africa". He was awarded the Royal Geographical Society's Founder's Gold Medal in 1853 and the Silver Medal of the French Geographical Society for his pioneering cartographic survey of the region. This established his reputation as a geographer and explorer. He proceeded to write the best-selling The Art of Travel, a handbook of practical advice for the Victorian on the move, which went through many editions and is still in print.
In January 1853, Galton met
Louisa Jane Butler (1822–1897) at his neighbour's home and they were married on 1 August 1853. The union of 43 years proved childless.