How do you measure influence? What is notability? It might seem that before the social ranking site Klout came along to assign people numbers by cold, numerical, social media calculation, the only way to rank people's importance was by hunch and opinion. Your top 100 might be different from my top 100, and who was to say which one captured the truth? But long before the age of Klout, there was psychologist James McKeen Cattell and his 1903 paper, "A Statistical Study of Eminent Men."
Cattell wanted to develop a measure of social importance that would move the study of great men from the realm of literature into the realm of science. In order to put a number on greatness, he first had to determine what, exactly, should be measured. Men could be important in different ways:
"We have men of genius, great men and men merely eminent. Thus many a genius has been a 'mute inglorious Milton' lacking the character or the circumstance for the accomplishment of his task. Washington was scarcely a genius, but was truly a great man. Napoleon III was neither a genius nor a great man, but was eminent to an unusual degree. But if we simply take those men who have most attracted the eyes and ears of the world, who have most set its tongues and printing presses in motion, we have a definite group."
So Cattell decided the number he needed was to be found in the measurement of "the motion of tongues and printing presses." He came up with a strategy to discover the set of men who had been most talked about. First, he took the 2000 longest articles from each of 6 different encyclopedias (English, French, German, and American), narrowed them down to the list of those that appeared in at least three of the encyclopedias, and then from that list chose those with the greatest average number of lines devoted to them over the whole set.
The top 25 men
The end product was an ordered list of the 1000 most eminent men. The top 25 were Napoleon, Shakespeare, Mohammed, Voltaire, Bacon, Aristotle, Goethe, Julius Caesar, Luther, Plato, Napoleon III, Burke, Homer, Newton, Cicero, Milton, Alexander the Great, Pitt, Washington, Augustus, Wellington, Raphael, Descartes, Columbus, and Confucius.
The bottom 10, as expected, are much less recognizable to us today: Otho, Sertorius, Macpherson, Claudianus, Domitian, Bugeaud, Charles I (Naples), Fauriel, Enfantin, and Babeuf.
Once he had the list, Cattell endeavored to unlock some of the secrets of greatness by analyzing factors like era, nationality, and what the greats were known for. For example, France was first in eminence, followed by Britain, Germany, Italy, Rome, Greece, America, Spain, Switzerland, Holland, and Sweden.
The real point of all this was to provide support for Cattell's ideas on eugenics. He used the statistics on nationality to argue for the unsavory conclusion that race and heredity were the primary factors in greatness; he reckons, for example, that the fall-off in Greek eminence after the classical period was due to "racial mixing."
At the same time he undermines his own point by cautioning against reading too much into France's numbers, arguing that "the French Revolution brought into prominence many men not truly great" and asserting that "in so far as the curves for the nineteenth century are valid, the promise for America is large." (Yes, Cattell was American.) So I guess he thought circumstances did have something to do with who ends up on the list? Still, the paper ends with an ominous call for science to gather more quantitative data that would help society figure out how to "improve the stock" and produce more great men.
What about the eminent women?
Cattell had not intended to leave women out of his analysis. A few did end up on his list of 1000. He explained that by "eminent men" he really meant "eminent people," but since women did "not have an important place on the list" there was no reason not to just say "eminent men" and be done with it.
However, ten years later, a student of Cattell's named Cora Sutton Castle decided to use his measurement technique to study eminent women for her doctoral dissertation. Needless to say, she came away with a slightly different conclusion about the role of different factors in eminence.
The top 25 women
Castle intended to work with a list of the 1000 most eminent women, but after applying the encyclopedia strategy and removing women of the Bible from the list, she was left with only 868. The top 25 were Mary Stuart, Jeanne d'Arc, Victoria of England, Elizabeth of England, George Sand, Madame de Staël, Catherine II of Russia, Maria Theresa, Marie Antoinette, Anne of England, Madame de Sévigné, Mary I of England, George Eliot, Christina of Sweden, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Madame de Maintenon, Josephine of France, Catherine de Medici, Cleopatra, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charlotte Brontë, Charlotte Corday, Marie Roland, Jeanne Pompadour, and Barbara Krüdener.
You can see Castle struggle to extract conclusions similar to those of her advisor from her breakdown of the data, but the "race" angle (which was really nationality) didn't yield much. She does find it interesting that the ratio of eminent women to the population in general increases so much (and far more than it did for men) over the course of history, and notes that one reason for the recent spike may be that "ability in women is more readily and willingly recognized at the present time than formerly."
"Who knows," she asks in an aside about ancient Greece, "but that her women were as potentially as great as her men, and if Plato's theory regarding the education of women had been universally applied, the curve might not have risen higher?" She concludes the thesis with a hypothetical question that she clearly knows the answer to: "Has innate inferiority been the reason for the small number of eminent women, or has civilization never yet allowed them an opportunity to develop their innate powers and possibilities?"