by Greg Mayer
What do these three have in common, besides being prominent Victorian Englishmen? The, to me, surprising answer is: fingerprinting! Faithful and informative reader Dom has sent the following picture from the Galton Collection of the special collections at University College London.
Here’s a closeup of Wallace’s fingerprints, with Wallace’s signature below. I can’t quite make out what’s below his signature; I think it is, in part, the date.
Francis Galton was Darwin’s cousin, and perhaps is best remembered for developing the techniques of regression and correlation in his failed attempt to create a statistical theory of genetics in his Law of Ancestral Heredity. The law, unfortunately for Galton, was wrong. There was a long debate between Galton’s statistical school (biometricians) and Mendelians over the nature of inheritance. R.A. Fisher, in 1918, synthesized the two views, showing that the statistical resemblances among relatives studied by the biometricians are exactly what you would expect if the underlying genetic factors were inherited in a Mendelian fashion, thus laying the basis for modern quantitative genetics.
Galton, who was a bit of a polymath, also popularized fingerprints as a means of individual identification, collecting a large number of them and studying their forms and variations; hence, he collected Wallace’s and Gladstone’s. Fingerprints do seem to be individually unique, but because the systems of comparing prints rely upon a scoring of similarity rather than total identity, mistakes can be made, a recent infamous case being the American lawyer from Oregon imprisoned (briefly) for carrying out the 2004 Madrid train bombing. (The mistake was made by the FBI in the US; Spanish police correctly called the fingerprints as not matching.)
William Ewart Gladstone was three times Prime Minister, and his long, unfriendly rivalry with the two-time Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was one of the most prominent features of Victorian Britain. Gladstone once wrote a book arguing that it was the duty of the state to determine what the true religion was, and to promote that religion to the exclusion of others. (The true religion, of course, turned out to be Anglicanism.) He later changed his mind, at least a bit, and supported a bill to redress a bit of the imbalance in state support for Anglican vs Catholic churches in Ireland. But because he had publicly declared his exclusive support for Anglicanism in his book, he resigned rather than vote for the measure he supported!
Gladstone supported the right of atheists to sit in Parliament (MPs were required at the time to take a Christian oath, though some allowances had been made for Jews and Quakers), and attempted to seat the famous Victorian atheist Charles Bradlaugh after the latter’s election in 1880. Gladstone’s Parliamentary maneuverings failed, and Bradlaugh was actually taken from the floor of the house to jail! Despite not being properly seated, Bradlaugh kept getting re-elected, and eventually was sort of seated, and secured the passage of an affirmation bill, allowing MPs to affirm their loyalty, rather than swear on the Christian God, in 1888.