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One of my ‘heroes’, Francis Galton, spent a lot of time tracing the family connections of eminent people. Gifted people often have gifted relatives, and Galton believed this helped prove that ability was hereditary.

I’m not so sure about that, but I still make a note of interesting (post-Galton) cases when I come across them. I have a lot of 20th century British examples, and some Continental ones, but few American examples, outside the fields of politics and acting. This probably reflects my own ignorance, and I’m hoping that American readers can help remedy that.

British cases are common, and easy to trace through the Dictionary of National Biography and its supplements, but I will list a few of the more interesting or less obvious ones:

The philosopher GILBERT RYLE (The Concept of Mind) was the cousin of the Nobel Laureate astronomer Sir MARTIN RYLE.

The Archbishop of Canterbury MICHAEL RAMSEY was the brother of the philosopher F. P. RAMSEY, who died tragically young.

The novelist NAOMI MITCHISON was the sister of the biologist J. B. S. HALDANE.

The philosopher G. E. MOORE (Principia Ethica) was the brother of poet and artist THOMAS STURGE MOORE.

The Prime Minister STANLEY BALDWIN was the cousin of writer RUDYARD KIPLING.

Charles Denning was a shopkeeper with five sons. Two of them were killed in World War I. Of the other three, one became a general in the Army, one became an admiral in the Navy, and the third became LORD DENNING, Britain’s most famous 20th century Judge. But Lord Denning claimed that the most gifted of the five brothers was one of those who died in the War.

Since the 18th century, six successive generations of the Darwin family have included Fellows of the Royal Society. The current representatives are the physiologists R. D. KEYNES and H. B. BARLOW, great-grandsons of Charles Darwin.

The Darwin family have also shown literary and artistic gifts. Among the grandchildren of Charles Darwin, BERNARD DARWIN was a popular writer, GWEN RAVERAT was an artist, and FRANCES CORNFORD was a poet. In the next generation, ROBIN DARWIN and CHRISTOPHER CORNFORD were artists, and JOHN CORNFORD was a poet. Among more distant relatives, the composer RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS was a great-nephew of Charles Darwin.

It is well-known that the novelist ALDOUS HUXLEY (Brave New World)and his brother the biologist JULIAN HUXLEY were grandsons of T. H. HUXLEY. It is less well-known that their half-brother ANDREW HUXLEY is a Nobel Laureate physiologist.

The mathematician ROGER PENROSE is the son of geneticist LIONEL PENROSE and nephew of the painter and art theorist Sir ROLAND PENROSE. Roger’s brother OLIVER PENROSE is also a mathematician, and his brother JONATHAN PENROSE is a chess grandmaster and former British chess champion.

The novelists A. S. BYATT and MARGARET DRABBLE are sisters. (Some sources describe them as half-sisters, but according to Who’s Who they have the same mother and father. ‘Byatt’ is a married name.)

The painter LUCIAN FREUD is the grandson of SIGMUND FREUD. Lucian’s daughter BELLA FREUD is a novelist.

The naturalist and broadcaster DAVID ATTENBOROUGH is the brother of Oscar-winning film director RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH (Gandhi). Less well-known, their father FREDERICK ATTENBOROUGH was an authority on Anglo-Saxon history and Principal of Leicester University College.

Turning to Continental examples:

The great German novelists THOMAS and HEINRICH MANN were brothers.
Thomas’s daughter ERIKA MANN was an actress and writer, his son KLAUS MANN was a novelist, and his son GOLO MANN was a noted historian.

The German family of BRENTANO had several distinguished members:
CLEMENS BRENTANO was a famous playwright; his sister BETTINA VON ARNIM was a poet; their nephew LUDWIG BRENTANO was an economist; and another nephew, FRANZ BRENTANO, was a philosopher.

The Austrian economist LUDWIG VON MISES was the brother of mathematician-philosopher RICHARD VON MISES.

The Hungarian-born scientist-philosopher MICHAEL POLANYI was the brother of economist KARL POLANYI. Michael’s son JOHN C. POLANYI is a Nobel Laureate chemist.

The Nobel Laureate Dutch biologist NIKO TINBERGEN was the brother of Nobel Laureate economist JAN TINBERGEN. So far as I know, this is the only case of close relatives winning Nobel Prizes in different subjects.

The great French mathematician HENRI POINCARE was the cousin of French President RAYMOND POINCARE.

The film director JEAN RENOIR was the son of the painter AUGUSTE RENOIR.

The Nobel Laureate physicist MAX BORN had numerous distinguished relatives, going back to Martin Luther. More bizarrely, the Australian singer-actress OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN is his granddaughter. (Not sure what Galton would have made of that.)

As I said, I know of few American examples outside politics and entertainment. Going back to the turn of the century, there is the famous case of novelist HENRY JAMES and his brother the philosopher-psychologist WILLIAM JAMES. Around the same time, the sociologist THORSTEIN VEBLEN (Theory of the Leisure Class) was the uncle of the mathematician OSWALD VEBLEN.

I hope that readers can contribute other American 20th century examples.



  1. The Olivia Newton-John / Martin Luther connection is my favourite

  2. Esther Dyson is the daughter of Freeman Dyson.

  3. Nicholas Negroponte’s brother was (or perhaps is) the U.S.’s ambassador to the UN…

  4. Adam Bellow’s upcoming book “In Praise of Nepotism” documents the rising tide of dynasticism in American life. For example, the number of second and third generation major league baseball players is now about an order of magnitude greater than 25 years ago, and that’s an extremely meritocratic career. He told me that he’s including appendices of all the examples he’s found.

  5. Funding and a marketable name are important factors in automobile racing, but the dominance of second and third generations in U.S. circle track racing is worthy of note.

    Jerry Garcia’s daughter from his first marriage is a classical violinist who plays in a Bay Area symphony orchestra; Jerry’s own father was a dance band leader during the ’40s.

  6. I remember reading a book a number of years ago on Bill Gates. Apparently his father was some big-wig laywer and either his grandfather or great-grandfather was someone of importance – i think a very successful entrepreneur.

    I also read on a link on the mega society/CTMU website that Chris Michael Langan’s (one of the smartest men in America) mother came from a very prominent family and herself was very intelligent.