Over the course of writing a book chapter, I’ve come up with a delightful little nugget: some of the earliest rankings of universities originated in the Eugenics movement.
The story starts with Francis Galton. A first cousin to Charles Darwin, Galton was the inventor of the weather map, standard deviation, the regression line (and the explanation of regression towards the mean), fingerprinting, and composite photography. In other words, pretty much your textbook definition of a genius.
At some point (some believe it was after reading On the Origin of Species), Galton came to believe that genius is born, not made. And so in 1869, he wrote a book called Hereditary Genius in which, using biographical dictionaries called “Men of Our Time” (published by Routledge, no less), he traced back “eminent men” to see if they had eminent fathers or grandfathers. Eventually, he concluded that they did. This led him into a lifelong study of heredity. In 1874, Galton published British Men of Science, where he explored all sorts of heritable and non-heritable traits or experiences in order to better understand the basis of scientific genius; one of the questions he asked was whether each had gone to university (not actually universally true at the time), and if so, where had they gone?
Galton soon had imitators who began looking more seriously at education as part of the “genius” phenomenon. In 1904, Havelock Ellis – like Galton, an eminent psychologist (his field was sexuality, and he was one of the first scientists to write on homosexuality and transgender psychology), published A Study of British Genius. This work examined all of the entries in all of the (then) sixty-six volumes of the Dictionary of Biography, eliminated those who were there solely by function of birth (i.e. the royals and most of the nobility/aristocracy), and then classified them by a number of characteristics. One of the characteristics was university education, and unsurprisingly he found that most had gone to either Cambridge or Oxford (with a smattering from Edinburgh and Trinity). Though it was not claimed as a ranking, it did list institutions in rank order; or rather two rank orders, as it had separate listings for British and foreign universities.
Not-so-coincidentally, it was also around this time when the first annual edition of American Men of Science appeared. This series attempted to put the study of great men on a more scientific footing. The author, James McKeen Cattell (a distinguished scientist who was President of the American Psychological Association in 1895, and edited both Science and Psychological Review), did a series of annual peer surveys to see who were the most respected scientists in the nation. In the first edition, the section on psychologists contained a tabulation of the number of top people in the field, organized by the educational institution from which they graduated; at the time, it also contained an explicit warning that this was not a measure of quality. However, by 1906 Cattell was producing tables showing changes in the number of graduates from each university in his top 1,000, and by 1910 he was producing tables that explicitly ranked institutions according to their graduates (with the value of each graduate weighted according to one’s place in the rankings). Cattell’s work is, in many people’s view, the first actual ranking of American universities.
What’s the connection with eugenics? Well, Galton’s obsession with heredity directly led him to the idea that “races” could be improved upon by selective breeding (and, conversely, that they could become “degenerate” if one wasn’t careful). Indeed, it was Galton himself who coined the term “eugenics”, and was a major proponent of the idea. For his part, Ellis would ultimately end up as President of the Galton Institute in London, which promoted eugenics (John Maynard Keynes would later sit on the Institute’s Board); in America, Cattell wound up as President of the American Eugenics Society.
In effect, none of them remotely believed that one’s university made the slightest difference to eventual outcomes. In their minds, it was all about heredity. However, one could still infer something about universities by the fact that “Men of Genius” (and I’m sorry to keep saying “men” in this piece, but it’s pre-WWI, and they really were almost all men) chose to go there. At the same time, these rankings represent the precursors to various reputational rankings that became in vogue in the US from the 1920s right through to the early 1980s. And it’s worth noting that the idea of ranking institutions according to their alumni has made a comeback in recent years through the Academic Ranking of World Universities (also known as the Shanghai rankings), which scores institutions, in part, on the number of Nobel Prize and Fields Medals won by an institution’s alumni.
Anyway, just a curio I thought you’d all enjoy.