Popular Science Monthly/Volume 59/June 1901/A Study of British Genius V




THE tendency to celibacy among men of preeminent intellectual ability has frequently been emphasized by Lombroso and others. It is well illustrated by British men of genius. We may probably assume that by the age of fifty scarcely more than 10 per cent, of the male population remain bachelors, if we take the whole population into consideration. (This is the case in Hungary, and it can not be very far from the truth, so far as Great Britain is concerned.) It is true that, as Kórösi and others have shown, among the well-to-do classes men marry both later and seldomer, and that the subjects under consideration largely belong to those classes. We can, however, well afford to leave a margin on this account. We have information concerning the status as regards marriage of 819 of the preeminent men in our list; of these, seventy-two, being Catholic priests or monks (ten of them since the Reformation), were vowed celibates, and 160 others never married. We thus find that 28 per cent, never married, and even if we exclude the vowed celibates, 21 per cent. It must, of course, be remembered that a certain, though not considerable, proportion of the unmarried were under fifty at death, and some of these would certainly have married had they survived. It may be added that about two-thirds of the women were married, though several of those (especially actresses) belonging to the unmarried third formed liaisons of a more or less public character, and in a few cases had several children.

It must not be supposed that all these eminent men who lived long lives in celibacy were always so absorbed in intellectual pursuits that the idea of matrimony never occurred to them. This was not always the case. Thus we are told of Dalton, that the idea had crossed his mind, but he put it aside because, he said, he 'never had time.' In several cases, as in that of Cowley, the eminent man appears really to have been in love, but was too shy to avow this fact to the object of his affections. Reynolds is supposed only once to have been in love, with Angelica Kauffmann; the lady waited long and patiently for a declaration, but none arrived, and she finally married another; Reynolds does not appear to have been overmuch distressed, and they remained good friends. These cases seem to be fairly typical of a certain group of the celibates in our list; a passionate devotion to intellectual pursuits seems often to be associated with a lack of passion in the ordinary relationships of life, while excessive shyness really betrays also a feebleness of the emotional impulse. Even in many cases in which marriage occurs, it is often easy to see that the relationship was rooted in the man's intellectual passion.[1]

The average age of marriage among the men in our list, taking one hundred cases, is found to be thirty-one years, the most frequent age being from twenty-eight to thirty-two inclusive. Of these, four were under twenty, and thirteen over forty at the date of their first marriage. This proportion of late marriages is abnormally high, especially when we remember that the marriages of widowers are here excluded. The proportion of early marriages is somewhat low, as compared with the general population in England to-day. The, average age, thirty-one years, is distinctly late, more especially when we remember that it only includes first marriages. The average age of marriage for all males during recent years in England is between twenty-eight and twenty-nine years, and at the other side of the world, in New Zealand, though later, it is still below thirty. The most frequent age of marriage also falls much earlier. In estimating the significance of these figures as regards men of genius, we have to remember, on the one hand, that the well-to-do classes, to which men of preeminent intellectual ability largely belong, marry later than the general population, and, on the other hand, that the general tendency to marry late is of recent growth. If we are entitled to believe that these conflicting tendencies balance each other, the data still indicate that British men of genius have shown a tendency not only to marry seldom, but to marry late.

The married women on our list form too small a group to generalize about with safety. One notable fact, however, emerges. They show a tendency to marry either before or after the period at which the majority of married women marry, but not during that period. In England during recent years the average age at which women marry has been about twenty-six years. But among British women of genius very few marriages take place during the period of great reproductive energy; the large majority of such marriages fall outside the period between twenty-three and thirty-four years of age. In the majority of cases marriage took place before this period, the relationship, from one reason or another, being very often dissolved not long afterwards; but in a very considerable proportion of cases, marriage never took place until after this period. Thus, Fanny Burney married at forty-one, Mrs. Browning at forty, Charlotte Brontë at thirty-eight, while George Eliot's relationship with Lewes was formed at about the age of thirty-six; these names include the most eminent English women of letters. It would thus appear that there is a tendency for the years of greatest reproductive activity to be reserved for intellectual development, by accelerating or retarding the disturbing emotional and practical influences of real life. This tendency might still be beneficial, even when the best work was not actually accomplished until after a late marriage. We have now to consider the fertility of the marriages formed by men of preeminent intellectual ability. Lombroso and others have insisted on the tendency to sterility among men of genius, but have always been content merely to cite a few cases in proof. This method can at the most raise merely a presumption in favor of the dictum laid down. The present investigation, covering a very large group of men of the highest intellectual eminence, furnishes more conclusive evidence as to the actual facts. It confirms only to a limited extent the belief in the relative sterility of men of genius, though we have to remember the very high mean age of the individuals we are considering. The married men of intellectual ability in our list number 587; of these, 448 had children; seventy-six are definitely stated by the national biographer not to have had children; sixty-three cases remain in which the point is passed without mention, or in which it is stated that the marriage was not fruitful, but that there were illegitimate children. It appears, so far as I can judge, that in the majority of the sixty-three doubtful cases, there were really no legitimate children; this has most often been found to be the case when I have checked the national biographer by other sources of information. In a certain proportion of cases, however, the facts regarding children are not known, and in others the children have apparently been ignored. We may probably conclude that nearly two-thirds of these sixty-three doubtful cases were really unfruitful. (I may add that, even if we exclude the doubtful cases altogether, the proportion of unfruitful marriages remains very abnormally large.) We then find that about 20 per cent, of the marriages of British men of genius have been unfruitful. In this case we have not much difficulty in obtaining a normal standard of comparison. Karl Pearson, manipulating the data furnished by Howard Collins, has found that during the past century among the middle and upper classes chiefly of British race, or belonging to the United States—a class fairly comparable to those in the present group—the total sterility is about 12 or 13 per cent., rather less than half of this (t. e., about 6 per cent.) being due to what is termed 'natural sterility'; while the remainder (i. e., 6 or 7 per cent.) must be set down to artificial restraints on reproduction. If, again, we turn to New Zealand, where the methods of death registration enable us to form an approximate estimate of the proportion of childless marriages among the whole population of somewhat mixed British race, with a high standard of living, we find that the proportion of marriages in which there are no surviving children at the father's death is about 16 per cent. With due allowance for the earlier death of the children and for the ignorance, in a certain proportion of cases, of those who filled in the death certificate, it is probable enough that this result is not really larger than the other. In any case there is an excess of sterility among the group of intellectually eminent men, this excess being the more marked when we remember that in very large majority they belong to a period when the artificial restraint of reproduction had scarcely begun to be widely practiced.

It is somewhat remarkable that, although the number of infertile marriages is so large, the average fertility of those marriages which were not barren is by no means small. We have fairly adequate information in the case of the marriages of 214 of these eminent men. I have not included those cases in which the national biographer is only able to say that there were 'at least' so many children, nor have I knowingly included any cases in which there were two or more marriages. Whether the number of children represents gross or net fertility, it is, unfortunately, in a very large proportion of instances, quite impossible to say. It is probable that in a large proportion of cases only the net fertility, i. e., the number of children who survived infancy and childhood, has been recorded. It is, therefore, the more remarkable that the average number of children in these 214 fertile families is 5.45. Thus, although our data are probably imperfect, they show that the fertile marriages of British men of genius have produced families which contain on the average one child more than the fertile marriages of ordinary people of the same race during the nineteenth century; in New Zealand the average number of children left by fathers of families (whether as the result of one or more marriages) dying between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-five, is 4.81, which indicates a much larger gross fertility. It must, of course, be remembered, on the other hand, that the eminent men in our group lived to a very high average age, and it is obvious that.men who live to an advanced age will have a better chance of leaving large families than those who die young.[2] This consideration somewhat diminishes our estimate of the fertility shown by British men of genius, while, if we take barren marriages into account, the fertility is greatly pulled down, but still remains well up to the average. This normal average is thus attained by a conjunction of an abnormal proportion of sterile marriages, together with an abnormally high proportion of children among the fertile marriages.

There would appear to be a considerable resemblance between the fertility of genius families and of insane families. We have seen previously that our eminent British persons belonged to families of probably more than average fertility; we now see that they themselves produced families of probably not more than average size, owing to a greater prevalence of sterility. In France, Ball and Régis, confirmed by Marandon de Montyel, appear to have found reason for a similar conclusion regarding the insane. They state that natality is greater among the ascendants of the insane than in normal families, but afterwards it is the same as in normal families, while they also note the prevalence of sterility in the families of the insane.[3] The question, however, needs further investigation.

With regard to the distribution of families of different sizes, the results, as compared with the figures already given, are as follows:

Size of Family 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Normal Families 12.2 14.7 15.3 14.1 11.1 8.6 7.8 6.3
Genius-producing Families 6.2 6.2 11.0 8.4 10.6 10.2 11.7 6.9
Families of Men of Genius 12.6 14.5 10.3 13.6 8.8 6.5 10.3 4.7
Size of Family 9 10 11 12 13 14 over 14
Normal Families 3.9 2.7 1.4 1.0 .5 .2 .1
Genius-producing Families 5.5 4.4 5.8 4.0 2.9 1.8 4.0
Families of Men of Genius 5.1 2.8 3.2 .9 2.3 1.4 2.3

Allowing for certain irregularities due to the insufficient number of cases, the interesting point that emerges is the return towards the proportions that prevail in normal families; it will be seen that in all but a few cases the families of men of genius differ from genius-producing families by approximating to normal families. It must be remembered that in neither of our groups are the data absolutely perfect, but as they stand they confirm the conclusion already suggested that men of genius belong to families in which there is a high birthrate, a flaring up of procreative activity, which in the men of genius themselves subsides towards normal proportions. The slightly larger average size of the families of men of genius as compared with normal families is merely due to the presence of a few families of excessively large size.

It will be noticed that the families of sizes ranging between three and six, both inclusive, are unduly few. It might be supposed that this is due to the artificial limitation of families, more especially since, as Karl Pearson has pointed out, in the normal families themselves there is already a deficiency in those groups, probably due to this cause. I am, however, inclined to doubt whether that is so in the case of families of men of genius, although to some extent it may be so. There seems some reason to suppose that from the present point of view the group may not be homogeneous, but made up in part of men with feeble vitality and a tendency to sterility, and in part of men with a tendency towards unusual fecundity, thus leading to a deficiency of medium-sized families.

In the case of 147 families of men of genius, it has been possible to ascertain the number of children of each sex. This is found to be 100 girls to nearly 103 boys. This is almost the normal proportion of the sexes at birth at the present time in England. If, however, I am right in supposing that in a certain proportion of our cases the biographers have stated not the gross fertility, but only the net fertility (or the surviving children), we are not entitled to expect so close an approximation to the proportions at birth, since the preponderance of boys begins to vanish immediately after birth. The figures thus suggest that the families of men of genius show the same tendency to excess of boys, which we have already seen to be clearly marked in the case of the families producing men of genius. The data are too few to indicate whether there is any corresponding excess of girls in the families of women of genius.


IT has long been a favorite occupation of popular writers on genius to estimate the ages at which famous men have died, to dilate on their tendency to longevity, and to conclude, or assume, that longevity is the natural result of a life devoted to intellectual avocations. The average age for different groups, found by a number of different inquirers, varies between sixty-four and seventy-one years. One writer, who finds this highest age for certain groups of eminent men of the nineteenth century, argues that here we have a test from which there is no appeal, proving the preeminence of the nineteenth century over previous centuries, and its freedom from 'degeneration.' It did not occur to this inquirer to ask at what age the famous men of earlier centuries died. I have done so in the case of a small group of ten eminent men on my list, dying between the fourth and the end of the thirteenth centuries—including, I believe, nearly all those in my list of whose dates we have fairly definite information during this period—and I find that their average age is exactly seventy-four years. So that, if this test means anything at all, the freedom of the nineteenth century from 'degeneration' is by no means proved.

In reality, however, it means nothing. If genius were recognizable at birth there would be some interest in tracing the course of its death-rate. But it must always be remembered that when we are dealing with men of genius, we are really dealing with famous men of genius, and that though genius may be born, fame is made—in most fields very slowly made. Among poets, it has generally been found, longevity is less marked than among other groups of eminent men, and the reason is simple. The qualities that the poet requires often develop early; his art is a comparatively easy one to acquire and exercise, while its products are imperishable and of so widely appreciated a character that even a few lines may serve to gain immortality. The case of the poet is, therefore, somewhat exceptional, though even among poets only a few attain perfection at an early age. In nearly every other field the man of genius must necessarily take a long period to acquire the full possession of his powers, and a still longer period to impress his fellowmen with the sense of his powers, thus attaining eminence. In the case of the lawyer, for instance, the path of success is hemmed in by tradition and routine, every triumph is only witnessed by a small number of persons, and passes away without adequate record; only by a long succession of achievements through many years can the lawyer hope to acquire the fame necessary for supreme eminence, and it is not surprising that of the thirty-four preeminent lawyers on my list only four were under sixty at death. Much the same is true, though in a slightly less marked degree, of statesmen, divines and actors.

It is, therefore, somewhat an idle task to pile up records of the longevity of eminent men of genius. They live a long time for the excellent reason that they must live a long time or they will never become eminent. It is doubtless true that men of genius—mostly belonging to the well-to-do classes, and possessing the energy and usually the opportunities necessary to follow intellectual ends of a comparatively impersonal and disinterested character—are in a far more favorable position for living to an advanced age than the crowds who struggle more or less desperately for the gratification of personal greeds and ambitions, which neither in the pursuit nor the attainment are conducive to peaceful and wholesome living. This may well be believed, but it is hardly demonstrated by the longevity of eminent men.

At the same time it is of some interest to note the ages of the eminent persons on our list at death. Though the facts may have little significance in themselves, they have a bearing on many of the other data here recorded. Excluding women, and including only those men whose dates are considered by the national biographers to be unquestionable, the ages of eminent British men at death range from Chatterton, the poet, at seventeen, to Bishop Morton, the scholar (born in the seventeenth century), and Sir Edward Sabine, the man of science (born in the eighteenth century), at ninety-five. They are distributed as follows in five-year age-periods:

Age at Death Under 20 20-24 25-29 30-34 35-39 40-44 45-49 50-54
Men of Genius 1 2 5 13 13 29 48 51
Age at Death 55-59 60-64 65-69 70-74 75-79 80-84 85-89 90 and over
Men of Genius 66 84 108 116 86 49 35 14

If we consider the number for each year separately, certain points emerge which are disguised by the five-year age-period, though the irregularities become frequently marked and inexplicable. A certain order, however, seems to be maintained. There is scarcely any rise from twenty-seven to thirty-eight, and even at forty-five only three individuals died; but, on the whole, there is a slow rise after thirty-eight, leading to the first climax at forty-nine, when sixteen individuals died; this climax is maintained at a lower level to fifty-four, when there is a marked fall to a level scarcely higher than that which prevailed between the ages of forty-one and forty-three. This lasts for three years; then there is a sudden rise from seven deaths at fifty-six, to twenty-five deaths at fifty-seven, and this second climax is again maintained at a somewhat lower level to the age of sixty-seven, when the highest climax is attained, with thirty-one deaths. Thereafter the decline is slow but steady, with a final climax of twenty deaths at seventy-eight. It is curious that each climax is sudden, and preceded by a fall.

A noteworthy point here seems to be the very low mortality between the ages of fifty-three and fifty-seven. It seems to confirm Galton's conclusion, based on somewhat similar data, that a group of men of genius is in part made up of persons of unusually feeble constitutions and in part of persons of unusually vigorous constitutions. After the first climax at forty-nine the feeble have mostly died out. The vigorous are then in possession of their best powers and working at full pressure; fifty-seven appears to be a critical age at which exhaustion and collapse are specially liable to occur. The presence of these two classes—the abnormally weak and the abnormally vigorous—would be in harmony with the explanation I have already ventured to offer of the deficiency of medium-sized families left by our men of genius.

The age of the women is ascertainable in thirty-nine cases. The average is extremely high; four died before forty, but nine lived to over eighty, and two of these were over ninety.

  1. Dr. P. Garnier ('Célibat et Célibataires,' pp. 72-.5) has some interesting remarks on this point. He considers that genius is, or should be, celibate, and that a man of genius is not usually able to make a woman's life happy. He mentions that among the eighty-four professors at the medical faculties of Paris, Lyons and Bordeaux—the three chief medical centers of France—fifteen are celibates, and of the sixty-nine who are married eleven are childless.
  2. Even apart from this, there appears to be a connection between longevity and fecundity; see M. Beeton and Karl Pearson, 'On the Correlation between Duration of Life and the Number of Offspring,' a paper presented to the Royal Society of London June 14. 1900.
  3. See, for a summary of these results, Toulouse, 'Les Causes de la Folie,' p. 91; 1896.