Francis Galton at the Birmingham General Hospital

Marja Berclouw
Melbourne, Australia


Francis Galton, 1840
Octavius Oakley
National Portrait Gallery, London

Long before he found fame, first as an explorer in Africa and ultimately as a scientist in many fields, Francis Galton was, briefly, a medical student. His parents, Violetta Darwin (1783-1874) and Samuel Tertius Galton (1783-1844) had always provided the best education for their precocious youngest son. Violetta, herself the daughter of a famous physician Dr Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) and half-sister to another eminent medical man, Dr Robert Darwin (1766-1848), hoped that Francis too would follow in the Darwin family tradition and enter the medical profession. Thus, at the age of sixteen in 1838, young Francis Galton became a student at the Birmingham General Hospital. Dr Joseph Hodgson (1788-1869,) the Quaker physician who had attended at Francis’ birth, would introduce him to the world of medicine. His father also organized for him to first accompany Hodgson’s talented pupil Dr—later Sir—William Bowman (1816-1892), “the great oculist” on a European study tour to observe the latest developments in continental medical practice and engage in a little sightseeing before the commencement of the autumn term.1 1838 promised an exciting year. Princess Victoria would be crowned Queen in June, and Francis accompanied his sisters Elizabeth and Emma to London to take part in the festivities. In July, he set off for the continent with Bowman, visiting Belgium, France, Germany and Austria combining, hospital visits with museum tours. He returned to England and in October, his medical studies began.

An intense program followed, as he set out to master pill-making, bone-setting, dissection and post-mortem. The latter experience he regarded as quite unnerving, particularly when asked to dissect a woman he had previously attended: “Horror—horror—horror!” he confided in a letter to his father, “I do not know when I shall get over the impression.”2

The duties gradually imposed on me were to go with the surgeons on their morning rounds, always to attend in the accident room, where person suffering from accidents were received whether in the night or day, and to help dressing them, also to be present at all operations, and to take part at every post-mortem examination, of which there were perhaps two or three weekly. The times . . . were long before those of chloroform, and many long years before that of Pasteur and Sir Joseph Lister. The stethoscope was considered new-fangled; the older and naturally somewhat deaf practitioners pooh-poohed and never used it . . . Broken heads from brawls were common accidents at night; then it was my part to shave the head, using the blood as lather, which makes a far better preparation for shaving than soap. The wounds were stitched together with a three-cornered “glove needle,” which cuts its way through the skin.3

Birmingham General Hospital

A year at Birmingham was followed by a year at the hospital at King’s College London. It was here, he later recalled, while gazing out of a college window, that “a passion for travel seized me as if I had been a migratory bird.”4 Again, his father arranged an excursion. This time accompanying a young Birmingham chemist William Allen Miller (1817-1870), on a Continental tour beginning in July 1839. Galton and Miller travelled down the Danube and overland to Turkey returning via Greece, Italy, and France. Before leaving, Francis confessed to his father that he was more interested in studying mathematics than medicine. To press his case he enlisted the help of his cousin Charles Darwin, and wrote to his father that he had “spoken to Charles Darwin about Cambridge, who recommends next October to read Mathematics like a house on Fire!”5

His father agreed and decided that the following year Francis could interrupt his medical studies to undertake a degree in mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. He began at Cambridge in October 1840, but in his third year, he suffered from an illness marked by palpitations and an inability to concentrate. He blamed the demanding curriculum and his tendency to overwork. He also worried about Samuel Tertius’ health. His father’s “originally fine constitution, long tried by severe asthma and gout, had at length given way.”6 Francis attended to his father, gave up studying for an honors degree, and settled instead for an ordinary degree. He graduated with a BA in January 1844. His father’s death in October 1844 left him “with a sufficient fortune to make me independent of the medical profession . . . I abandoned all thought of becoming a physician, but felt most grateful for the enlarged insight into Nature that I had acquired through medical experiences.”7



  1. Francis Galton, Memories of My Life (London: Methuen, 1908), 24.
  2. Karl Pearson, The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton. 3 Vols. (London: CUP, 1914-1930), 1:100.
  3. Galton, 29, 30.
  4. Ibid, 48.
  5. Pearson, 1:110.
  6. Galton, 82.
  7. Ibid.



MARJA BERCLOUW, MA, PhD graduated with a degree in psychology and a PhD in education from La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia in 2002, and with an MA in history from the University of Melbourne in 2010. She is a registered psychologist. Her interest, particularly in the nineteenth-century history of literary and scientific personalities in the Victorian period, developed during her previous work as an art and museum educator. In the future, she would like to do more research and more writing on the medical experiences of Victorian literary figures.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Fall 2013 – Volume 5, Issue 4
Fall 2013  |  Sections  |  Physicians of Note