The Famous Scientist Who Secretly Graded the Beauty of British Women

The Famous Scientist Who Secretly Graded the Beauty of British Women

Why you should care

Because beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

Like a lot of 16-year-olds, Francis Galton had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. So the indecisive young man, who would become one of the most accomplished scientists of the 19th century, not to mention the “father of eugenics,” sought out his older, more experienced cousin for advice. That cousin, Charles Darwin, had just returned from his now legendary voyage aboard the H.M.S. Beagle and advised him to “read Mathematics like a house on fire.” In turn, the young Galton decided to attend Cambridge University, from which he would embark on a full life of science, discovery and hedonism, punctuated by remarkable insights and the occasional nervous breakdown.

Like Darwin, Galton is considered by many to have been a genius, though a terribly flawed one. Best known for his theories of inheritance, human genetics and selective breeding, he was a polymath who applied his knowledge of math and science to a wide variety of endeavors, from fingerprinting and the efficacy of prayer to his investigations into such perennial British concerns as weather forecasting and how to brew the perfect cup of tea. More than anything, he loved measuring things and helped found the field of statistics. Later in life, Galton, grown bald and sporting monster gray sideburns, took to the streets of Britain to conduct a very unusual experiment.

Galton used the data he obtained from his pricker to map the attractiveness of Britain’s female inhabitants.

 

Wearing a homemade device he kept in his pocket that he called his “pricker,” composed of a needle and paper affixed to the finger and palm of a work glove, Galton toured the country, obtaining data for what would become his Beauty Map of the British Isles. By surreptitiously poking holes in three different sections of the paper, Galton labeled, as he would put it in his 1908 memoirs, “the girls I passed in streets or elsewhere as attractive, indifferent or repellent.”

It was not the first time Galton had blended science and his interest in the female form. As a young man in Africa, he had used a sextant to measure the dimensions of a busty native woman he described as “Venus among Hottentots.” While staying in Vichy, France, he developed a classification system for the women he encountered, grouping them into six sizes, from “thin” to “prize fat.”

Galton used the data he obtained from his pricker to map the attractiveness of Britain’s female inhabitants. “I found London to rank highest for beauty; Aberdeen [in Scotland] lowest,” he observed, without delving into any further detail on his findings there or elsewhere. He did recognize that his results stemmed from a “purely individual estimate” but also believed them to be valid and consistent, “judging from the conformity of different attempts in the same population.”

So while his may have been one researcher’s opinion, Galton apparently put in enough work to feel it was a sound one. “In essence, what he was doing,” says Viren Swami, a professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, “is basically what we all do: go about the world looking at other people and making judgments.”

When Swami came across Galton’s observations, he was intrigued and could find no other research in the literature on how levels of attractiveness or perceptions of beauty might vary by geographic location. So Swami, along with fellow researcher Eliana Hernandez, revisited Galton’s idea a century later but in a more scientific manner; they interviewed a diverse group of nearly 500 men and women across London in an attempt to “compile a more empirical beauty map of London” — one not limited to just the women that Galton preferred to ogle.

Westminster, the City of London, Kensington, Chelsea and Greenwich ranked as the most beautiful London boroughs, with Barking and Dagenham, Bromley, Newham and Haringey among the least attractive. Overall, there was a strong correlation between a borough’s wealth and its perceived level of attractiveness, which the researchers claim could stem from a number of factors, including cultural associations between wealth and beauty, and greater access to beauty-enhancing resources among the affluent.

Given London’s perch at the top of these more recent rankings, do they partially validate Galton’s original findings? Perhaps, says Swami, but it’s very hard to say without more data. Research participants tended to rate as beautiful the areas they were most familiar with. So those, like Galton, who are curious about where to find the most fetching people in Britain will just have to wait until some more intrepid researchers take to the field to gather the necessary data, with or without their prickers.

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