The past, present and future of eugenics and UCL

A brief history of eugenics at UCL, and why renaming is a necessary step in the right direction.

Writer: Molly Martin
Editor: Sophie North
Artists: Patrick Marenda and Doheon Kim

UCL has a racist legacy. 

Across the campus, several buildings are named after prominent historical figures to honour their contributions to academia. These include the Galton Lecture Theatre, the Pearson Building and the Petrie Museum. Francis Galton, Karl Pearson and Flinders Petrie were some of Britain’s greatest scientific pioneers. They were respectively responsible for creating the concept of correlation, coining the term ‘standard deviation’, and developing sequence dating for archaeological objects. However, their roles in the foundation, development, and promotion of eugenics are often overlooked. Members of UCL should be encouraged to understand the University’s history with eugenics and challenge its indisputably racist past by lobbying for change to create a more equal, diverse, and inclusive environment.

Eugenics comprises the belief and practice of improving the genetic quality of the human species. Most people associate the term with Hitler’s effort to create a superior Aryan race; however, modern eugenics emerged in late 19th century Britain, considerably predating Nazi Germany. Francis Galton is widely presented as the father of the eugenics movement. He was inspired by the theory of evolution developed by his cousin, Charles Darwin. Galton believed that desirable human qualities, such as intelligence, were hereditary traits and he aimed to ‘improve human stock’ by pursuing policies intended to secure the success of some races over others. In 1883, Galton named his research ‘eugenics’, meaning ‘well-born’ in Greek. By 1904, he had established the Eugenics Record Office, which was reconstituted as the Galton Laboratory as part of UCL by Karl Pearson in 1907.

Pearson was a mathematician and biostatistician who directed research at the Galton Laboratory. He was captivated by the application of statistics to natural selection and evolution, and had ambitions to provide data that would validate eugenics. Pearson’s views were even more radical than Galton’s. He praised the Nazi ‘race hygiene’ programmes and claimed that Jewish immigrants in Britain would ‘develop into a parasitic race’. These egregious racist and classist beliefs about superiority suggested eugenics was more than just a science to Pearson – it was a philosophy.

Flinders Petrie was a strong believer in human superiority and had pro-eugenics views. These even influenced his academic opinions. Petrie was convinced that the sophisticated culture he had uncovered from his archaeology studies in Ancient Egypt could not have been of African origin. He theorised that a Caucasian dynastic race must have conquered ancient Egyptians based on racist experiments involving skull measurements. His controversial views gained acceptance as they were thought to be ‘scientific’, and thus superior to any counter-arguments.

Galton, Pearson and Petrie are just a handful of the many scientists that contributed to the widespread embrace of eugenics. Several countries implemented overtly eugenic policies with the aim of improving their populations’ genetic quality. These included the encouragement of healthy, ‘superior’ individuals to reproduce, and discouragement of those deemed ‘unfit’ to reproduce through forced sterilisation and marriage prohibitions. However, once eugenics became associated with Nazi Germany, it began to acquire its negative connotations. The movement was discredited as unscientific and racially biased, and consequently many eugenic policies were abandoned.

Following an ‘Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL’, which you can read about here and here, the Pearson Building, Pearson Lecture Theatre, and Galton Lecture Theatre have all been renamed. While these changes may on their own sound trivial, they contribute to the ongoing discussion concerning the history of science, and how it is taught and presented at UCL. The renaming of these buildings is a step in the right direction, as there is no merit in commemorating Galton and Pearson, whose views are simply indefensible. These buildings caused undeniable harm, as they served as constant reminders of the racist motivations of their namesakes. By making both students and staff feel unwelcome and uncomfortable at UCL, there was strong moral justification to rename. The University has since released a formal public apology, acknowledging its role in eugenics and specifying actions that will be taken to address this association.

Of course, some academics are of the opinion that there were valuable reasons to preserve the building names. Often mentioned is the fact that we rely on the legacy of many eugenicists, and that we must recognise their contributions to science despite their unpalatable opinions. However, names of buildings do little to teach us about the advances made by these scientists. In reality, the inquiry and subsequent renaming have likely increased discussion and knowledge of these prominent eugenicists and their work, more than the buildings’ names ever could have. Others believe that renaming buildings could contribute to the erasure of history. Yet the purpose of renaming is not to attack history ‒ it is to represent a community’s changing attitude towards creating a more inclusive environment. 

Ultimately, a supportive and welcoming environment, which acknowledges its troublesome past without celebrating it, is far more important than the commemoration of any historical figure. Thus, the next step UCL must take is the renaming of the Petrie Museum, followed by a university-wide review of its other commemorative acts. Only then can we begin to strike a balance between condemning eugenics, and honouring the scientific work of Galton, Pearson and Petrie.

By what standards do we judge who should no longer be commemorated? This question is one that universities and societies at large will undoubtedly continue to face in the coming months and years.

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