Pre-biography and Pre-history

Understanding the character of creative people and the significance of their achievements requires, in the first place, a study of their pre-biography, together with the pre-history of that branch of science, art or culture where their endeavors have taken place. In other words, the person's biography is a product of both the genealogy and the environment in which his or her professional activity has taken place.

The life and work of George Gallup in this sense are exemplary. In the first place, he belonged to a large family, whose members had vigorously participated in the development of the United States, and whose accomplishments and merits are recorded in the annals of the country. Secondly, even though the modern stage of public opinion research began with the pioneering work of George Gallup in 1935 and 1936, the study of electoral attitudes in the US had a long history prior to that. Accordingly, after examining the pre-biography of George Gallup, we will also review the pre-history of public opinion research.

Tenth-Generation American. Yearly Years and Education

For generations, the large Kollop family resided in Lotharingia (Lorraine). During the Middle Ages some of its descendants moved over to England, retaining the Gollop name. It is believed to have been forged from the German words Gott and Lobe, meaning respectively “God” and “praise”. Over time various spellings of the family name emerged: Gallop, Galloup, Galloupe, Gallupe, and Gollop, with the version prevalent in America becoming Gal-lup.

George Horace Gallup was born in Jefferson City, Greene County, in the State of Iowa on 18th November 1901. His character, speech, mannerisms, and attitude to life carried the imprint of this origin. From early childhood, George’s father taught him self-sufficiency and independence. The house kept a farm, and when George was 9 or 10 years old, his father bought a few cows for him and his brother. The boys were supposed to take care of the animals, milk them, find customers for the milk, and make deliveries. The income was theirs to buy clothes with and to pay for their studies. The young farmers made a success of their business. Later, George Gallup used to say that he had been richer than his friends at school were.

The Iowa State University, founded in 1847, by the beginning of the 20th century came to be considered one of the finest universities in the nation, and the best in the Midwest. On 26th September, 1919, at 18 years of age, George Gallup was enrolled in its College of Liberal Arts. On 1 February 1923 Gallup graduated from college with a Bachelor of Arts degree. During that year, the university had inaugurated its School of Journalism, and Gallup, who had not yet turned 22, was offered a teaching position there. He accepted it, at the same time continuing his studies at the university’s graduate college, majoring in August 1928 with a Doctor of Philosophy degree in the fields of psychology and economics.

The University of Iowa has published a newspaper since 1868. Renamed The Daily Iowan in 1901, it became the first daily student newspaper in the Midwest. Initially it had no permanent manager or editors, being run on the principle “make it or break it”. In his memoirs George Gallup explains that this meant that the editor and the general manager undertook covering all running costs and eventual losses themselves, but in case of success, all the returns would be theirs. Few students were willing to accept the job on such risky terms, but George Gallup was not afraid to take it.

By 1923, Gallup had devised and implemented an ambitious plan to transform the The Daily Iowan from a modest student paper into a full-scale urban daily, with himself as Chief Editor. Combining coverage of local events with nation- wide news, the paper attracted a rapidly expanding readership. Accordingly, the volume of advertisements grew too, and the paper became quite profitable.

The Journalist Becomes a Pollster

In a short anthology of studies on the history of advertising published in 1986, George Gallup describes the way his career as pollster began:

‘A summer job as an interviewer in a newspaper readership survey conducted by the D’Arcy Advertising Agency in St. Louis started me on the research road, which I have traveled during the last 60 years. The survey was conducted in 1922 when I was a junior enrolled in the University of Iowa. The questionnaire used was typical of those employed by researchers in this field… I found that a high percentage of respondents claimed that they always read the editorials, the national and international news. Few admitted reading the gossip columns and other features of low prestige… I came ultimately to the conclusion that the best way to find out what they read is to place a fresh copy of the last issue of the newspaper in front of them, and then to go through the entire paper, column by column, page by page, with the respondent to see what he or she had read in this particular issue… I discovered that the attempts to shortcut this process (for example, by taking out a single page of the newspaper or by concentrating only on the advertising) failed to produce the same accurate results. The survey findings brought to light an interesting fact. The most important articles published in the newspapers attracted far fewer readers than shown by the typical questionnaire procedure. Conversely, the comic strips, the love advice features, and the like had considerably more readers.’

The psychology department of the University of Iowa agreed to accept this test of the method as a suitable Ph. thesis in that department.

The legacy bequeathed by Gallup has ensured him an indelible place in the history of science, culture, and politics. Decades and centuries will pass, but the scientific study of public opinion and of the dynamics of human attitudes will continue to find important reference points in the work and the writings of George Gallup.