Odds and quads

This tin box of glass eyes mounted in aluminium, which attempts to classify a wide variety of colours into 16 categories, forms part of the Galton Collection at University College London.

September 30, 2010

The box was purchased from Germany by Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), a leading Victorian polymath whose inherited wealth allowed him to do pioneering work in geography, meteorology, fingerprinting and statistics. He was also a passionate believer in eugenics, committed to the notion that "degenerates" should be prevented from breeding, and devoted much of his time to collecting data to test his theories about inherited physical characteristics and criminality or "deviancy".

The UCL collection includes death masks, composite photographs, head spanners, whistles to test differences in hearing, and thousands of forms filled in with the measurements of individuals as well as Galton's own papers and personal memorabilia. Even today, further documents occasionally turn up in dusty cupboards within the university.

Although the collection is of major historical importance, the association between eugenics and Nazi "racial hygiene" mean that it is also very sensitive and raises acute moral issues.

Researchers can consult the collection by appointment, but it is not on public display.

Send suggestions for this series on the treasures, oddities and curiosities owned by universities across the world to: matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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