Medicine Men

Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911)


Sir Francis Galton was a powerhouse of science, producing over 340 books and papers on a variety of subjects including hereditary genetics, inheritance of intelligence, and anthropological studies into characteristics of the human subject. He conducted one of the first mass data collections on the ‘subject’ through the use of surveys and data analysis, attempting to chart hereditary behavioural patterns.

Galton’s grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, and his half cousin was Charles Darwin. The Galton’s were a distinguished family of Quakers who were mostly bankers and gun-makers. Galton however, who was something of a child prodigy, was instantly drawn to the study of science, the body and mathematics. He studies both medicine and mathematics before his father died in 1844. This left Galton financially independent, and he was able to explore several avenues of scientific exploration. He also travelled extensively, from Eastern Europe, Eygpt, the Sudan and down the Jordan. He began to publish books about his adventures, some of which proved very popular, and one (‘The Art of Travel’) is still in print today. 

In 1853 Galton met and married Louisa Jane Butler (1822-1897) but the couple did not have any children. 


For me the most fascinating aspect of Galton’s varied professional life was his studies into human variation and his theory of Eugenics; which is now viewed as rather absurd but proved very popular at the time. Galton was inspired by Darwin’s 1859 publication ‘The Origin of the Species’ which hinted on this subject when discussing the breeding of domestic animals. Galton’s fascination with the idea of the survival of the fittest inspired him to undertake large scale data analysis. He surveyed thousands of people, producing theories from the data he meticulously collated.

Most of these subjects came from the lower classes, who had had little or no contact with the state before. They had very little visibility beyond records of their birth and death, with very little statistical evidence to plot any trends in the life, health or reproduction of these lower classes. Therefore there was a certain amount of anxiety from the middle classes about their apparent lawlessness, poverty and ill-health.

Visualisation of the subject in this way was facilitated by the vast expansion in state controlled hospitals, schools and prisons. Although set up with the intention of providing for the public’s needs, these state apparatus recorded each patient, student or convict as they entered the institutions, therefore increasing the visibility of the subject. They recorded ages, heights, addresses, and any previous convictions. This information was then used freely, and without the subject’s prior knowledge, to make hypothesis about any hereditary characteristics that they might be passed on to any current or future offspring. 


Galton himself coined the term ‘Eugenics’ in 1883 in his book ‘Inquiries into Human Faculties and its Developments’. The term refers to the the belief that the genetic population of the world can be consciously improved. Those considered ‘positive’ citizens, hard-working with no genetic or hereditary health problems, would be encouraged to reproduce. Those considered ‘negative’ citizens, the homeless or unemployed, those with a mental or physical disability, would be actively or forcefully encouraged not to reproduce. Galton gave examples of this group of people, ‘the lunatic, idiot and pauper asylums, the prisoners, the patients in hospitals…the crippled, the congenitally blind.’ Galton encouraged these lower echelons of society, the ‘residuum’ not to reproduce.  This was described as ‘Negative Eugenics’. These people would be encouraged to live apart from the ‘normal’ sections of society. They would be encouraged or forced into sterilisation. As the popularity of the Eugenics movement grew, this did begin to happen, but it was never a universal policy in Britain. Eugenics proved to be rather popular with the middle classes, who were anxious about the apparent barbarism of the lower classes. By claiming that these sorts of people were lost causes, they could feel better about their complete lack of sympathy or practical aid to help them out of their position. 



Galton used photography to try and categorise was he called the ‘Criminal Type’. By collecting a vast number of photographs and creating a composite by merging the images together, he thought he had caught an image of what a criminal type looked like. The plan was to use this to stop future crimes. Of course such a scientific proposal would now be thought of as laughable. Indeed Eugenics received continual criticism despite its popularity amongst the middle classes. Its lack of scientific proof and the fact that it was a clear attack people’s human rights meant that it was considered by many to be a dangerous movement. Its policies mirror those of the Nazi party in their treatment of ‘undesirables’ during the Second World War. Indeed after the war, the popularity of the Eugenics movement would never recover.



In 1909 Galton was knighted, and he continued to work on his theories until his death two years later. University College London holds most of Galton’s papers and his composite photographs. Having recently been open again to academics, it provides a wealth of research opportunities into Galton’s life and theories. 



Categories: 20th Century, Medicine Men | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

John Snow- Physician (1813-1858)



By Joe Gardener

There’s an old water pump on Broadwick Street in London’s West-End that you’d probably quite rightly walk by without a second thought if you didn’t know of its significance.  After all, there are rusty old relics like that all over London, aren’t there?

In actuality, the pump is one of the most significant mementos of modern medicine, and it isn’t actually as old as it looks either, it’s a replica.

In the Summer of 1854 cholera was rife in London, killing over five hundred residents of the Central region within two weeks and continuing to spread.  Prominent physicians of the day immediately linked the disease to the ‘Miasma Theory’ that noxious gases in the air were the cause of the disease (Miasma being the Greek word for pollution).


Local physician John Snow, who was already one of the pioneering doctors in the field of anaesthesia, was sceptical towards the Miasma Theory.  However, with no immediate evidence to the contrary (Louis Pasteur’s ‘Germ Theory’ of disease having yet to be developed), Snow would have had to undertake a little local detective work of his own in order to deduce the real cause of the outbreak.  He did just that.  Through conversations with Soho residents, Snow successfully traced the cholera outbreak to an old water pump on Broadwick Street (then known as Broad Street).

While his closer studies of the water from the pump failed to conclude it as the source of cholera, his work nonetheless convinced locals who subsequently removed the pump’s handle.  A dot map that Snow drew up helped his cause; the map displayed all of the cholera cases in the area as clusters of dots atop the location in which they occurred, with the heaviest clusters centreed around the pump. 



Ultimately, it has never been completely concluded that pump was the direct cause of the outbreak because although cases rapidly declined after its removal, many residents had already begun to leave the area through fear of cholera.  However, it is to this day widely assumed that John Snow’s water pump was indeed the cause.  Later research found that the pump was placed in close proximity to an old, dilapidated cesspit which had begun to leak faecal bacteria due to neglect.   Furthermore, the nappies of a baby who had contracted cholera from another source had also been disposed there.

Like all thwarted criminals, the pump was ultimately removed.  Snow went on to refer to the Soho cholera outbreak as “the most terrible outbreak of cholera which ever occurred in this kingdom.”

The pump which currently stands on Broadwick Street is a replica of John Snow’s pump, complete with a plaque commemorating the physician’s hand in ending the outbreak.  Thankfully, it doesn’t function.



The nearby Samuel Smith’s public house was eventually renamed The John Snow in his honour and local legend even tells of a resident ghost; that of a sickly looking man with red eyes and a sallow face who sits in the darkest corner of the pub.  A former victim of the outbreak or simply a regular who’s had a bit too much?

 John Snow was born in York in 1815 to William and Frances Snow and from the age of 14 studied in Newcastle, where he first encountered cholera through a severe and fatal outbreak in the nearby town of Sunderland.  In 1837 he moved to London where he lived on Frith Street, a short walk from the cholera water pump.  He lived as a teetotal and vegetarian for much of his life and never married.  John Snow died in 1858 from a stroke at the age of 45.

Every year, the John Snow Society remove and replace a water pump handle to symbolise the continuing struggles faced in the study of public health.

Categories: 19th Century, Medicine Men | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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