Approaching UCL’s history with eugenics

Is changing the names of a couple of buildings at UCL enough?

Writer: Ebani Dhawan
Editor: Maria Stoica

“I can’t breathe.” 

With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, this phrase now has a double meaning ‒ the last words of those killed by COVID-19 and the last words of George Floyd, an African American man killed at the hands of policemen.

The world has had enough. Protests are occurring on the streets of London, Lyon, Stockholm, Tokyo, Atlanta and more, filled with passionate pleas to end the systemic racism and police brutality that plagues our society. The Black Lives Matter movement has never mattered more. Corporations that have typically kept a low profile during protests like these in the past are now taking action to change the status quo. Adidas has committed to filling 30% of new positions with people of colour. The Quaker Oats Company declared it was ending its famous Aunt Jemima brand.

For UCL, it’s pushed the university to take a stringent look into our history with eugenics. In early 2018,  it was revealed that the London Conference of Intelligence had been running secretly for at least three years on the UCL Bloomsbury campus. Hosted by James Thompson, an honorary senior lecturer, this invitation-only conference with neo-Nazi links discussed research on controversial aspects of intelligence, including race and eugenics. It featured speakers such as US-based “unapologetic eugenicist” Richard Lynn. Initially, it may seem odd that UCL was chosen to be the venue for such a gathering. 

However, it begins to make sense as you walk around the campus. You’re surrounded by history. Buildings and spaces are named after prominent scientists ‒ the Wilkins Building, Darwin Lecture Theatre, Galton Lecture Theatre and Pearson Building. We celebrate these scientists for their accomplishments and their connection to UCL. But, before 2018, UCL did not do much to acknowledge that Francis Galton and Karl Pearson were prominent eugenicists in the early 20th century. Not much to celebrate there. 

Eugenics, a term coined by Galton in 1883, was built on the mistaken idea that race can influence abstract traits such as intelligence. It also encompasses a false hierarchy where some races were superior to others. Inspired by Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, Galton believed that desirable human traits were hereditary and that human character was completely determined by genetics. Galton was key in the building of the Eugenics Faculty at UCL that Pearson, his disciple, was heavily involved in. Galton’s influence is still felt today. His bequeathment was used to create the first Chair in Eugenics, now known as the Galton Professor of Human Genetics, marrying racism and science at UCL. Pearson, on the other hand, sought to develop mathematical theories and statistical reasoning to evolution, founding the first modern statistics journal, Biometrika. 

Continuing to recognise these eugenicists undermined the trust BAME students had in UCL. UCL seemed two-faced: on one hand, priding itself on equality and diversity, and on the other, still celebrating the academics who believed in a racial hierarchy. UCL’s eugenic past reminds us of stigmatisation, the idea that those who don’t fit the racial ideal don’t belong here. This is reflected in student statistics. Only 6.1% of graduate students in 2018-19 were Black. Larger surveys found that Black academics make up 2% of the total working at UK universities. The stark contrast between words and action went unnoticed for too long. 

The discovery of the London Conference of Intelligence triggered an inquiry into the rooms booking process to investigate how Thompson could bypass protocol to hold the conference secretly. More importantly, it triggered an inquiry into UCL’s history with eugenics. President and Provost Professor Michael Arthur established a committee in 2018 with University of Leeds’ Professor Iyiola Solanke chairing. Members spanned from UCL Student Officers to Professors and Department Heads. Published in February 2020, the report proposed recommendations to tackle diversity and equality issues, including the renaming of the Galton Lecture Theatre and Pearson Building. 

But, this inquiry has its flaws. 

More than half of the members in the committee did not sign the final report, saying that it had not gone far enough and had not investigated the London Intelligence Conference. According to The Guardian, an anonymous member of the inquiry team said: “We definitely should have talked about these meetings. But the big issue is not how a member of staff booked a room, but why someone with his views was a member of staff at all.” In the end, the inquiry reads more like a history report, simply detailing the facts and figures of Galton and Pearson’s history with UCL and eugenics. It does not dive into how this history links to or influences the current inequalities and disparities within our community. 

As of 19 June 2020, the Galton Lecture Theatre, Pearson Building and Pearson Lecture Theatre have been denamed and their signs will be taken down with immediate effect. Although this was proposed in February, it seems that the process only sped up in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

But, is this enough? 

We cannot change history. We cannot change what Galton and Pearson believed. 

However, we can repurpose their influence. We can openly criticise it, saying that although this is our history, this is not what we believe in. We can repurpose Galton’s endowment to support and empower BAME groups at UCL. And, most importantly, we have to be proactive. It is not enough to be following and chasing movements of equality. We have to create them. 

Here are some resources where you can learn more about UCL’s eugenic past: 

An insightful podcast piecing together UCL’s history with eugenics. 

This is the final report of the inquiry published in February 2020.

A unique audio tour around the various UCL buildings, unveiling their history and connotations.

An earlier Kinesis article summarising the events of a UCL Town Hall.

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