Anthropometry and the Biological Sciences in late 19th-century Britain

[Stephen Courtney]

In an article published in the Fortnightly Review in July 1894, the eugenicist, statistician, and social theorist, Karl Pearson presented his vision for the future of biological science:

The trained biologist may discover and tabulate facts, much as the physicist does to-day, but it will need the trained mathematician to reason upon them. The great biologist of the future will be like the great physicist of to-day, a mathematician trained and bred.[i]

The article addressed the misapplication of evolutionary principles by ‘popular writers and the press’, whose descriptive analysis had produced: ‘a fluid so contaminated with the germs of muddle-headedness that it is little wonder if whole classes of the community are poisoned.’[ii] The paper also criticised the work of writers such as Benjamin Kidd and Herbert Spencer, whose shallow understanding of Natural Selection informed a model of universal competition. Pearson suggested that quantitative methods would prevent such misapprehensions, giving social theories a more evidential grounding. However, this intervention was informed by its own political agenda; Pearson’s career was organised around the principle of a biologically interventionist socialist state.[iii] Hidden within the growing body of data being amassed at anthropometric laboratories around the country were the structuring influences of nationalist social and biological ideals. Contrary to the tone of his article for the Fortnightly Review, Pearson’s work as an anthropometric investigator serves to remind us of the human context in which all such measurement takes place.

The definition of metrical units is an exhaustive process involving negotiations between different types of cultural authority. Throughout the 19th Century, attempts to redefine national standards of length and weight with reference to ‘natural’ constants were frustrated, and manufactured standards of reference substituted.[iv] Alongside this, measurement is underpinned by the identity of the observer. Considerations of procedure and performance affect the integrity of results.[v] Most significantly, measurement requires the definition of a subject and the asking of specific questions about its properties. These questions reflect a specific intellectual context, and produce information with corresponding significance. The data collected by the Cambridge Anthropometric Committee and the subsequent material produced by the Cambridge Philosophical Society, provides a case study in the difficulties and limits of metrology.

In this entry, the process of collecting physical data from university students will be analysed in the context of late 19th-century biological science and eugenics. This form of data collection was an important part of the supposedly pure mathematical science espoused by Karl Pearson. However, contrary to Pearson’s presentation of his own biological research, it will be demonstrated that the questions asked during this process, and the types of answers provided, articulated the values and concerns of a particular time and place.

Francis Galton and Anthropometry

The demand for anthropometric information that motivated the measurement practices of the Cambridge Philosophical Society can be traced back to a high-profile figure within 19th-century science: the statistician and biologist Francis Galton. Galton was the predecessor to Karl Pearson, having established the chair of Eugenics at Imperial College that Pearson would later occupy. Following the publication of his half-cousin Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1859, Galton devoted much of his life to the study of inheritance.[vi] His first major work on the subject, Hereditary Genius, was published in 1869.[vii] Later studies tackled enduring questions about the priority of either inheritance or environment, incorporating observations on unique physical characteristics such as fingerprints or the differences between genetically identical twins.[viii]

Rather than arguing from individual observations, Galton sought to produce quantitative evidence on the nature of inheritance. This became possible with the establishment of an anthropometric committee within the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1875, of which Galton was the chairman. Receiving a succession of grants from the Association between 1875 and 1883, this committee assembled a body of data profiling physical characteristics such as height, weight, and eye colour in various British populations.[ix] Following this, Galton established a temporary laboratory in the main hall of the 1884 International Health Exhibition in South Kensington:

I arranged a long narrow enclosure with trellis-work on which the instruments were placed and where the applicants were tested, and a passage was left between the table and the wall. This gave a quasi-privacy, while it enabled outsiders to see a little of what was going on inside.[x]

At the end of the exhibition, Galton established a temporary laboratory at the nearby Science Museum.[xi] During this period, he published numerous articles in which he called for more comprehensive measurement programmes.


Karl Pearson, The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton, Vol. 2 (Cambridge, 1914), p. 371. Reproduced with kind permission from UCL Special Collections. Galton/Pearson Papers, UCL Library Services, Special Collections (C).

The Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company (CSIC), who produced anthropometric instruments in consultation with Galton, published a list of such apparatus in 1887 together with an explanation of their purpose. In an attempt to encourage popular interest in anthropometry, it was claimed that regular measurements were an important means of managing personal health: ‘They draw attention to faults in rearing, to be diligently sought for and remedied lest the future efficiency of the child when it grows to manhood or womanhood be compromised.’[xii] More significant for Galton, however, was the perceived value of such data for discovering and demonstrating societal trends. This, too, it was argued, was in the interests of the participant: ‘Anthropometric records, when treated statistically, show the efficiency of the nation as a whole and in its several parts, and the direction in which it is changing, whether for better or worse.’[xiii]

The language used in official publications, periodical or newspaper articles and scientific papers, sheds light on the intellectual context in which anthropometric measurements were produced. The CSIC’s use of the word ‘efficiency’ to describe both the physical characteristics of subjects and of the nation as a whole, illustrates the influence of mechanical schemas across the natural sciences. Both the individual’s body and the national body politic were interpreted as energy systems. Following the success of dynamical science in the 19th Century, during which principles such as the conservation of energy were defined, similar analytical models were applied to various aspects of the natural world, including labour, economics, and biological systems.[xiv]

Another term adopted by anthropometric practitioners to describe physical characteristics was ‘power.’ In a paper to the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1887, Galton suggested: ‘So far as the individual is concerned, measurements teach him to know his own powers at any given time.’[xv] Ambiguous terms like ‘efficiency’ and ‘power’ highlight the problems of communication and protocol faced by new fields of study. New analytical categories and an accepted register of terms had to be established. Unclear phrases like ‘power’ and ‘efficiency’ also point towards a theoretical problem at the heart of Galton’s anthropometric mission. In both cases, practitioners sought a way to describe the quantity of characteristics that were not qualitatively defined.

In his paper to the Anthropological Institute, Galton described a very different set of priorities to those outlined by the CSIC in their official publication. Referring to the purpose of his anthropometric measurements, he said: ‘The chief object of them, as it seems to me, is to define the individual or the race, and to show in what way, and to what extent, he or it differs from others.’[xvi] This statement provides further clues as to the context in which Galton was working. Firstly, he had an embodied conception of the human: individuals could be ‘defined’ through measurement. Secondly, his measurements were intended primarily for use in the categorisation and taxonomy of sample populations, rather than the production of explanatory models. Thirdly, his was a science heavily predicated on concepts of race.[xvii]

Anthropometry at the Cambridge Philosophical Society

At a meeting of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, held in the spring of 1888, the secretary of the Institute, Dr John Venn, presented a paper on a programme of anthropometric research underway at Cambridge. Venn described how, having been appointed the Rede Lecturer at Cambridge in June 1885, Francis Galton had delivered a talk on the quantitative estimation of human faculties. Following this, he had attempted to inspire his audience to conduct their own anthropometric research:

In order to perpetuate such interest as was excited by the results of this lecture Mr. Galton presented a set of instruments, similar for the most part to those which had been in use for South Kensington, to a small Committee at Cambridge, for corresponding use there.[xviii]

The selection of a location for conducting measurements proved more difficult than the provision of instruments. As at the 1884 Health Exhibition, considerations of privacy and publicity were both important: ‘unless some room could be found the position of which should bring the subject prominently under the notice of the students, no very extensive results could be hoped for.’[xix] After a short period at the Union Society, the instruments were moved to the library of the Philosophical Society where the librarian conducted measurements on visiting patrons.

To standardise the practice of measurement, and make recording more efficient, the Philosophical Society produced a series of cards on which to enter results. These cards were produced in different varieties, their categories reflecting ideas about what were important questions to ask and the instruments available for performing measurements. In doing so, they tell us a great deal about the social and cultural context of 19th-century anthropometry. For example, throughout much of his life Francis Galton was committed to the idea of a correlation between skull capacity and intelligence.[xx] The cards reflect this, incorporating space for numerous cranial measurements. Rather than searching for correlations between arbitrary sets of data, assumptions about the relationship between physical and mental characteristics shaped the information produced through measurement.

close sides

Anthropometric Data Cards CPS 12/1/10, reproduced by permission of the Cambridge Philosophical Society (C)

Whilst this is revealing in itself, the cards’ composition also highlights the limitations of the anthropometric data available. Linear measurements were recorded for the height, length, and breadth of the head. From these figures a number of ratios were calculated, including the cephalic index.[xxi] However, the human skull presents significant obstacles to this sort of regularised procedure. It is neither regular nor symmetrical, and practitioners accepted that ratios such as the cephalic index were highly approximate figures. Galton made reference to these problems in a paper on the design of anthropological instruments, delivered in 1887:

Craniologists, who are able freely to manipulate a skull, and have no trouble about varying thickness of skin and density of hair, and who see all the markings of the skull, have been long in coming to a general opinion, even if that is already reached, as to the best way of measuring it.[xxii]

Similarly resistant to quantification were the facial features of anthropometric subjects. The detail requested for this category of information highlights the social and cultural significance of the face as an identifying feature. In his first published work on inheritance, Galton identified a series of associations between facial types and individual character: ‘the face of the combatant is square, coarse, and heavily jawed. It differs from that of the ascetic, the voluptuary, the dreamer, and the charlatan.’[xxiii] He further argued that the role of heredity in shaping these facial features implied that the associated aspects of character were also inherited:

There are certain marked types of character, justly associated with marked types of feature and of temperament. We hold, axiomatically, that the latter are inherited (the case being too notorious, and too consistent with the analogy afforded by brute animals, to render argument necessary), and we therefore infer the same of the former.[xxiv]

Alongside their association with personal character, Galton’s interest in facial metrics was related to their association with ethnicity. In his articles for Macmillan’s Magazine, Galton speculated on the value of defining ‘the typical features and characters of different races of men.’[xxv] This area of interest informed a separate course of research undertaken by Galton. A photographic technique called composite photography was developed, in which supposedly normative portraits were produced for isolated populations by overlaying numerous individual pictures.[xxvi] As with the measurement of individual facial features, composite photographs were envisioned as a way of defining various societal groups.

A consistent metric adopted in anthropometric surveys was that of standing height. The measurement was simple and convenient, and had the advantage of reducing the subject to a single linear quantity from which other physical characteristics might be reasonably predicted. However, standing height was also an unstable characteristic, varying within individuals according to age, time of day, posture, weight, and the measurer. This is reflected within the Cambridge Philosophical Society’s data cards, which contain instances of variation in the recorded height for subjects measured more than once. The importance of standing height measurement was related in part to the social and cultural meaning associated with stature during the late 19th Century. These can be witnessed most clearly in the fears of national degeneration that emerged during the Second Boer War, in which the average height of recruits was found to be lower than expected.[xxvii]

A wide variety of published material during the Victorian period suggested an association between height and social class.[xxviii] There were, for example, investigations highlighting different median heights between populations sampled from institutions such as prisons and universities.[xxix] An interesting insight can be gained from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in which the protagonist adopts an altered character and physicality simultaneously.[xxx] Dr Jekyll is described as ‘a large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty.’[xxxi] By contrast, his alter ego, the savage and uninhibited Hyde, is described as short and powerful, with an ‘ape-like fury’.[xxxii] The height of subjects was also a central aspect of the social analysis of populations throughout the British Empire.[xxxiii] Earlier in the century a series of surveys had been conducted on Indian populations by the surgeon John Shortt, whilst the Indian Civil Servant Herbert Risley produced an extensive anthropometric survey of the population of Bengal in 1891.[xxxiv]

Close Up with vignette

Anthropometric Data Cards CPS 12/1/10, reproduced by permission of the Cambridge Philosophical Society (C)

Not only were the physical measurements produced by anthropometric practitioners framed by the epistemic aims and instrumental techniques they used, but the application of such analytical apparatus was guided by the physiological schemas and prejudices of men like Francis Galton and Karl Pearson. Height was investigated due to implicit associations with race and class, facial features were subject to scrutiny in the search for physiognomic associations, and skulls were carefully manipulated in the search for an embodied correlative for intelligence. In all cases, the human body resisted attempts at measurement, evading quantification through its irregularity and asymmetry.


The detailed anthropometric data provided by the Cambridge Philosophical Society provided evidence for a number of studies produced by Karl Pearson in the late 19th and early 20th Century. For example, on 23 January 1902, he read a paper to the Royal Society evaluating his investigation of the relationship between head size and intellectual ability.[xxxv] Pearson argued that the cranial dimensions of undergraduates could be usefully compared to parallel data of academic performance. The cephalic index, length of head, and breadth of head, were compared to the degree quality of students, in an attempt to uncover a correlative relationship. A similar investigation had been conducted previously by the mathematician and statistician Dr Alice Lee, who worked in Pearson’s biometric laboratory.[xxxvi] Pearson’s data reflected the same conclusions as this previous study: ‘So far then as our Cambridge results go, they thoroughly confirm Dr. Lee’s investigation as to the capacity of the skull. There is no marked correlation between ability and the shape or size of the head.’[xxxvii]

Pearson’s envisioned approach to biological research, in which analogical reasoning was to be replaced by purely quantitative methods, rarely produced the clarity and insight that he had imagined in his 1894 article in the Fortnightly Review. As is demonstrated by a study of his investigations, attempts at making biological science more objective by reducing its methods to matters of quantity and correlation were compromised by the human context in which such work was conducted. Whilst producing huge volumes of data relating to their subjects, the measurement practices of late 19th-Century anthropometry reveal far more about the practitioners themselves.

[Dr Stephen Courtney, History and Philosophy of Science]


[i] Karl Pearson, ‘Socialism and Natural Selection’, Fortnightly Review 56 (1894), p. 2.
[ii] Op. cit. 1, p. 2.
[iii] Bernard Semmel, ‘Karl Pearson: Socialist and Darwinist’, The British Journal of Sociology 9 (1958), pp. 111-125; Bernard Norton, ‘Karl Pearson and Statistics: The Social Origins of Scientific Innovation’, Social Studies of Science 8 (1978), pp. 3-34.
[iv] George Airy, ‘Account of the Construction of the New National Standard of Length, and of its Principal Copies’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 147 (1857), pp. 621-702; Simon Schaffer, ‘Accurate Measurement is an English Science’, in Bernard Lightman, ed. The Values of Precision (Princeton, 1995), pp. 137-72; Simon Schaffer, ‘Metrology, Metrication, and Victorian Values’, in Bernard Lightman, ed. Victorian Science in Context (Chicago, 1997), pp. 438-474; Terry Quinn and Jean Kovalesky, ‘The Development of Modern Metrology and its Role Today’, Philosophical Transactions 363 (2005), pp. 2307-2327.
[v] Graeme Gooday, ‘Instrumentation and Interpretation: Managing and representing the working environments of Victorian experimental science,’ in Bernard Lightman (ed.), Victorian Science in Context (Chicago, 1997), pp. 409-437; Graeme Gooday, The Morals of Measurement (Cambridge, 2004); Robert Sokolowski, ‘Measurement’, American Philosophical Quarterly 24 (1987), pp. 71-79; Brigitte Falkenburg, ‘Incommensurability and Measuremnt’, Theoria 12 (1997), pp. 467-491; Conrad Heilmann, ‘A New Interpretation of the Representational Theory of Measurement’, Philosophy of Science 82 (2015), pp. 787-797.
[vi] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London, 1859); Francis Galton, Memories of My Life (London, 1908); Ruth Cowan, Sir Francis Galton and the Study of Heredity in the Nineteenth Century (Michigan, 1969); Michael Blumer, Francis Galton: Pioneer of Heredity and Biometry (London, 2003); Efram Sera-Shriar, ‘Anthropometric portraiture and Victorian anthropology: Francis Galton’s photographic work in the late 1870s’, History of Science 53 (2015), pp. 155-179.
[vii] Francis Galton, Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences (London, 1869).
[viii] Francis Galton, Finger Prints (London, 1892); Francis Galton, Fingerprint Directories (London, 1895); Francis Galton, ‘The History of Twins, as a criterion of the relative powers of nature and nurture’, Fraser’s Magazine 12 (1875), pp. 566-576; David Burbidge, ‘Francis Galton on Twins, Heredity and Social Class’, British Journal for the History of Science 34 (2001), pp. 323-340.
[ix] Francis Galton, et al, Final Report of the Anthropometric Committee, consisting in 1882-3 of Mr. F. Galton (Chairman), Dr. Beddoe, Mr. Brabrook (Secretary), Mr. Frank Fellows, Mr. James Heywood, Professor Leone Levi, Dr. F. A. Mahomed, Mr. J. E. Price, Lieut.-General Pitt-Rivers, Sir Rawson W. Rawson, and Mr., C. Roberts. Associates, Dr. T. G. Balfour, Dr. J. H. Gladstone, Inspector-General Lawson, Dr. W. Ogle. Drawn up by Mr. C. Roberts and Sir Rawson W. Rawson (London, 1883).
[x] Francis Galton, op. cit. (6), p. 245
[xi] Francis Galton, ‘Retrospect of Work Done at my Anthropometric Laboratory at South Kensington’, Journal for the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 21 (1892), pp. 32-35.
[xii] Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, A descriptive List of Anthropometric Apparatus, Consisting of Instruments for Measuring and Testing the Chief Physical Characteristics of the Human Body (Cambridge, 1887), p. 3.
[xiii] Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, op. cit. (12), p. 3.
[xiv] Iwan Morus, When Physics Became King (Chicago, 2005) Crosbie Smith, The Science of Energy (London, 1998).
[xv]Francis Galton, ‘On Recent Designs for Anthropometric Instruments’, The Journal for the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 16 (1887), p. 4.
[xvi] Francis Galton, op. cit. (15), pp. 2-9.
[xvii] Raymond Fancher, ‘Francis Galton’s African Ethnography and Its Role in the Development of his Psychology’, British Journal for the History of Science 16 (1983), pp. 67-79. For the context in which Galton worked, see: Douglas Lorimer, Science, Race Relations and Resistance (Manchester, 2013), Ch. 3, ‘From Institutional Foundations to Applied Anthropology1871-1914’, pp. 59-107.
[xviii] John Venn, ‘Cambridge Anthropometry.’ Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 18 (1889), p. 141.
[xix] John Venn, op. cit. (18), p. 141.
[xx] Raymond Fancher, ‘Biographical Origins of Francis Galton’s Psychology’, Isis 74 (1983), pp. 227-233; Harvey Goldstein, ‘Francis Galton, measurement, psychometrics and social progress’, Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice 19 (2012), pp. 147-158.
[xxi] The cephalic index expresses the ratio between maximum head width (‘biparietal diameter’, BPD) and length (‘occipitofrontal diameter’, OPD).
[xxii] Francis Galton, op. cit. (15), p. 5.
[xxiii] Francis Galton, ‘Hereditary Talent and Character’, Macmillan’s Magazine 12 (1865), 318-327.
[xxiv] Francis Galton, op. cit. (23), pp. 318-327.
[xxv] Francis Galton, op. cit. (23), pp. 318-327.
[xxvi] Francis Galton, ‘Composite Portraits, made by Combining Those of Many Different Persons into a Single Resultant Figure’, The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 8 (1879), pp. 132-144.
[xxvii] Richard Soloway, Demography and Degeneration (University of North Carolina, 1995); Dan Stone, Breeding Superman (Liverpool, 2002); John Carey, The Intellectual and the Masses (London, 1992); Dorothy Porter, ‘“Enemies of the Race”: Biologism, Environmentalism, and Public Health in Edwardian England’, Victorian Studies 34 (1991), pp. 159-178; Paul Kennedy and Anthony Nicholls, Nationalist and Racialist Movements in Britain and Germany before 1914 (Michigan, 1981); Geoffrey Searle, Eugenics and Politics in Britain 1900-1914 (Leyden, 1976); George Robb, ‘The Way of all Flesh: Degeneration, Eugenics, and the Gospel of Free Love’, Journal of the History of Sexuality 6 (1996), pp. 589-603.
[xxviii] Dorothy Porter, ‘“Enemies of the Race”: Biologism, Environmentalism, and Public Health in Edwardian England’, Victorian Studies 34 (1991), pp. 159-178.
[xxix] W. R. Macdonell, ‘On Criminal Anthropometry and the Identification of Criminals’, Biometrika 1 (1902), pp. 177-277; Madeline Whiting, ‘On the Association of Temperature, Pulse and Respiration with Physique and Intelligence in Criminals’, Biometrika 11 (1915), pp. 1-37.
[xxx] Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight (Chicago, 1992), Ch. 7, ‘Jack the Ripper’, pp. 191-229.
[xxxi] Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (London, 1886), p. 30.
[xxxii] Robert Louis Stevenson, op. cit. (31), p. 37.
[xxxiii] William Crooke, ‘The Hill Tribes of the Central Indian Hills’, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 28 (1899), pp. 220-248; John Beddoe, ‘Anthropometry in India’, Science Progress 4 (1895), pp. 188-203; John Venn, ‘Correlation of Mental and Physical Powers’, The Monist 4 (1893), pp. 5-19.
[xxxiv] John Shortt, ‘Notes on Differences in Weight and Stature of Europeans and Some Natives of India’, Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London 2 (1863), pp. 213-216; Herbert Risley, The Tribes and Castes of Bengal, vol. 1-2 (Bengal, 1891).
[xxxv] Alice Lee, Marie Lewenz, Karl Pearson, ‘On the Correlation of Intellectual Ability with the Size and Shape of the Head’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 69 (1901-1902), pp. 333-342.
[xxxvi] Alice Lee, Marie Lewenz, Karl Pearson, op. cit. (35), pp. 333-342; Alice Lee, Marie Lewenz, Karl Pearson, ‘On the Correlation of the Mental and Physical Characters in Man. Part II’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 71 (1902-1903), pp. 106-114.
[xxxvii] Karl Pearson, op. cit. (35), p. 336.