This conversation was recorded on 30th March 2021. Host: Subhadra Das, Critical Eugenics Researcher, UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre
Episode 2: Curating Heads
Guests: Alice Stevenson, Associate Professor in Museum Studies at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology // Debbie Challis, Education & Outreach Officer at the London School of Economics’ Library // Mark Thomas, Professor of Evolutionary Genetics in the Research Department of UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment // Tim Causer, Research Fellow at the Bentham Project at UCL Laws
Subhadra Das: Welcome to What Does Eugenics Mean To Us?, a podcast from the UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre. I'm your host, Subhadra Das, and for the last ten years I've been researching the history and legacy of eugenics at UCL, in the sciences and beyond. In this podcast I've brought together some brilliant researchers for some fascinating and insightful conversations across the disciplinary divides. Together, we are going to discuss, examine, critique and explode eugenic thinking. How are racism, ableism, sexism and class warfare embedded in our ways of thinking about and perceiving other people? What can we do to challenge and dismantle those ideas and structures? As a university and a community of researchers: what does eugenics mean to us?
This episode documents and commemorates a collaborative research project at UCL, which brought together geneticists, historians, archaeologists, and museum curators to consider how science mediates the dilemma of death. The project was called Curating Heads and its scientific aims were to use the latest techniques in ancient DNA analysis to sequence the genomes of two historic figures at UCL, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham and the archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie.
Joining me to talk about the project are Alice Stevenson, who was curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology during the run of this project. She is now Associate Professor in Museum Studies at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, and also the co-founder of a brilliant decolonial museum project called 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in 1 Object.
Debbie Challis, a historian and classicist by training, who was Audience Development Officer at the Petrie Museum, where her research, public programmes, and exhibitions are seminal milestones in the history of critical eugenics at UCL. She is now Education & Outreach Officer at the London School of Economics’ Library.
Mark Thomas is Professor of Evolutionary Genetics in the Research Department of UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment. He is also UCL’s ancient DNA researcher to the stars, having worked on aDNA projects on Richard III and Charles Byrne, who was known as The Irish Giant.
Finally, Tim Causer is Research Fellow at The Bentham Project based at UCL Laws and as such one of UCL’s go-to Bentham experts. Together with Professor Phillip Schofield, Tim is an editor of Panopticon vs. New South Wales and Other Writings on Australia, a forthcoming volume of the collection of the works of Jeremy Bentham.
We are gathered here today to commemorate and to reminisce a project that was a UCL Grand Challenges funded project called Curating Heads, and you were all variously thinking about heads at UCL from a scientific and a museological point of view. Tell me about how you all got together and how this project got started.
Alice Stevenson: I think the credit has to go to you, Debbie. I think you were one of the founders of it.
Debbie Challis: Actually, I think it was because I met Mark and he was telling me about how he thought he might be able to get some aDNA from Jeremy Bentham’s nose; I think that’s right isn’t it, Mark?
Mark Thomas: From his bits, I think, yes.
Debbie: From his bits, yes.
Subhadra: So, Mark, what was it particularly about Bentham’s head that appealed to you?
Mark: Well, my memory is all a bit hazy. I’ve been at UCL for a long time, more than 20 years, so he’s always loomed large and being, I suppose, the main person at UCL for quite some time who did ancient DNA, the assumption was that I would probably do it one day. I think I was asked actually about it about 15 years ago and said then wouldn’t be the time because I felt the technologies weren’t good enough to justify destructive sampling, but those technologies changed. And I do remember having conversations with Debbie and Alice about this, that the technologies had improved and so it would be worth a try with Bentham. But I think one of the difficult things about ancient DNA of not so ancient individuals, of individuals for whom there is still some family and so on, is the ethics of sampling them; and with Bentham, it just struck me as that’s an easy one - I think you would be hard pushed to find anybody who would deny that it’s what he would have wanted. So, in that sense, it struck me that this would be a great project.
Subhadra: Tim, it was interesting Mark’s wording there, can you think of anybody for whom this would be an easy option in the same way that it would be for him?
Tim Causer: No, precisely, yes, you’re quite right. He left his body to science to be dissected and then reassembled, and so this is a just furtherance of that object, I think.
Subhadra: Because this was his idea, in terms of his idea of utility, the human body is part of that as well?
Tim: Indeed, yes.
Subhadra: He wasn’t shy about demonstrating that with his own remains.
Tim: Oh, yes.
Subhadra: So, here was a good example, Mark, the technology had come to a place where it was useful, and then it turned out that there was more than one head, if you forgive this image, floating around the university. Alice, Debbie, do you want to fill us in a bit on Flinders Petrie, for whom the Petrie Museum is named, the father of modern archaeology, a famous Egyptian archaeologist. First of all, he wanted his head preserved, definitely, but there is a very interesting context in terms of how he wanted that to happen, and also then how it came about, and the mystery that then ensues. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Debbie: Yes, I want to step back a bit actually, because I think part of why we got to Petrie’s head as well as Bentham’s, is because Alice and I were talking a lot about heads, like you do.
Alice: Over a cup of tea and cake.
Debbie: We did actually, I think. We were talking a lot about heads and actually how the Petrie Museum is quite odd for a museum of Egyptian archaeology that didn’t have a whole mummy. It had bits of body parts, or human remains, if you like. I prefer to call them bodies, as I think Alice does too.
So, we were kind of wondering why we have these heads and the skull, and various things - it seemed like this obsession with heads. We were kind of looking at that and looking at how revolutionary, literally, that Bentham leaving his head and his body to science was, and thinking about the revolutionary context of that.
Alice: Yes. So, at the Petrie Museum, we have these collections of not just skulls but there is also this racial typology of heads, and the fine Roman portraits - lots and lots of heads, as Debbie says. But Flinders Petrie’s actual head, or what is presumed to be his head, is held by the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. He died during the Second World War in Palestine, I should add. So, he left working in Egypt in the 1920s and he'd spent the rest of his career working in Palestine, where he died during the Second World War.
When his head eventually made it back to Britain, after all of the chaos of war, it sort of entered a collection that had suffered incredible damage through the Blitz. We believe it’s his skull rather than his head, just to go into the gory details, it is a head that is still, indeed, covered in flesh, it was never de-fleshed. And this is one of the other issues that we had to deal with – his head, in a jar, has sat in the Royal College of Surgeons but without being grounded within any other part of the collection, because all of these other skulls, from Egypt and other parts of the world, had been decimated and blown up.
So, now, there was just a head in a jar that had no other relevant collection around it, documentation sort of got separated, members of staff, there was a turnover of staff at the Royal College of Surgeons over the years, and so doubts had started to creep in that this head in a jar was, in fact, Petrie’s. There was quite a lot of uncertainty.
Subhadra: I would like to tease out a little bit more in terms of motivations. We know that Bentham left his body to science and Petrie was also leaving his body to science, but that there was a very particular kind of science that he was interested in; there was a frame to that. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Debbie: This is something that I think Mark and I talked about at the beginning of this project, about this relationship between eugenics and genetics, and it’s a historic one but of course not really a scientific one. Basically, Petrie was a racist, he was a racial theorist and he applied these ideas to himself actually, to be fair to him. I’ll give him due credit there. He thought that his head was a fine specimen of an Anglo-Saxon type, which is how he described himself. So, he was trying to prove that, essentially, he was kind of type you should aspire towards being, through breeding and through inheritance. But it’s never straightforward. These ideas are never straightforward, as we know, because he also believed in intermixing of different races, as long as they were the right races. So, he was what you might call a Philo-Semite. In the thirties in Palestine, as Alice says, one of the last things I’m aware of that he wrote was a letter to the Jerusalem Post about the Nazis, basically, in Germany making loads of mistakes with Kristallnacht and the Jews, 'because the Jews are some of the finest racial types you could ever meet and hope to mate with', essentially.
So, he’s not necessarily going down the path that we think when we tend to think of eugenics, and you might think of Galton and you tend to think of the Nazis. Actually Petrie was a eugenicist, for sure, but he didn’t necessarily follow the sort of right-wing, if you like, political path that you might assume he did. Obviously there is this thing that genetics essentially proves that we’re all human, and that’s why the exhibition in the end came to be about being human. There isn’t a genetic difference between races, like genetics kind of disproves the racist origins that it basically was formed in, if you like. So, it’s kind of almost on the opposite of what Karl Pearson and Francis Galton wanted.
Subhadra: Mark, do you want to speak to that a little bit more, because I think we’re all for the complexity, we’re all for the nuance here. So, it’s about acknowledging there is a commonality in the history between eugenics and genetics but that they are, by no means, the same thing.
Mark: Well, yeah, I think we have to separate eugenics from racial theories and scientific racism, both of which are obviously very real and both of which have collided with each other, but we can see them as quite distinct. The ideas of eugenics are clearly, people who are early influencers in the development of genetics around the turn of the century, some of those are eugenicists. Although I would note that of the three most important ones only one of the three, Fisher, was a clear-cut eugenicist, and the other two main ones, Haldane and Wright weren’t, but they’re clearly in the same domain.
And the reason is that eugenics is based entirely on the principle of selective breeding, or selective reproduction, control of reproduction by favouring preferred people in terms of reproduction, or by what we might call it, negative eugenics by stopping / preventing people who are disfavoured reproducing. Now, clearly that’s in the domain of genetics, because selective breeding is in the domain of genetics. So, it’s not really surprising that a lot of the early eugenicists, who tried to provide an academic foundation, were working in the domain of genetics. Having said that, most people who were members of the Eugenics Society in Britain were not, and had very little to do with, and quite clearly very little understanding even of genetics at the time. It’s also definitely true that genetics turned its back on eugenics ideas quite quickly. We didn’t actually have to wait until the end of the Second World War for that to happen.
So, in UCL, various geneticists were recognising that this was problematic before that, but of course, as with most of the rest of the world, people woke up to the particular horrors of eugenics after the Second World War, when of course we were informed about the Nazis and Nazi atrocities. But there have been plenty of eugenic atrocities going on after the Second World War all over the world, including in the United States. And again, mostly since the 1930s and 1940s, but particularly since the 1950s, with things like the UN Statement on Race, that genetics has been at the forefront of discrediting the concept of race as a biologically meaningful category, but undoubtedly, in the early part of the 20th century, there were geneticists who also fundamentally believed in racial superiority and inferiority, I think almost entirely coming from just embedded views within those societies at the time, and what we were beginning to understand about genetics was then co-opted in the service of those prejudices.
Subhadra: Let’s move on to the project itself in terms of what the scientific bit of the project was, so what did that involve? And I think there is still some work outstanding, as far as that is concerned, is that right?
Mark: There was a lot of groundwork done in this project, but we didn’t actually get a great deal of DNA out. We got some, but not a great deal. Actually, the DNA that we go out that was more interesting was DNA from bacteria from his teeth, which still gives very interesting results.
And also with Petrie, we really had to the groundwork, primarily on identifying, getting a DNA sample and getting permission from his relative, so that any sampling of Petrie’s remains, or purported remains, could be done. So, we didn’t actually do any sampling on him yet, because we needed to put all the other things in place. So, that’s where we got with the project. I think we all tried to set it up in such a way that it could be taken to the next stage at another time when funding is made available.
Debbie: I think the most surreal thing for me actually, that my last day of working at UCL was introducing a relative of Petrie to Mark to get the DNA sample. I was like, yeah, I’ve been here for just over ten years and this is my last day, and it seemed to sum it up really in some ways.
Subhadra: Well, we’re not going to read too much into the metaphor of that, I think. So, that’s really interesting in terms of doing the scientific analysis didn’t necessarily produce the reams of genome that we were hoping would turn up, and that we’d know everything there was to know about Bentham and his genome. Nonetheless, you all seemed to manage to make a tremendous amount of work out of this, which was that it was turned into an exhibition called What Does it Mean to be Human? which was on display in UCL’s Octagon Galley in 2017.
Debbie: We realised to do anything actually meaningful, public engagement-wise, we needed more money or some more funding to really do that public engagement aspect. I rather dumped Alice with the project, because I got pregnant and basically went off on maternity leave, having kind of said, ‘Yeah, this is what we should do…’, and then did an abstract, got Tim’s involvement, got your involvement, Subhadra, I’ve got to admit that you do exist, and Mark’s involvement and his team; it wasn’t just Mark, obviously, because it’s a lot of work.
Alice: There was this very interesting possibility of having this direct confrontation with these two individuals through their remains, but we wanted to try and situate that within the history of their own scholarship that led them to leave their bodies to science, and we thought this would be an interesting proposition, particularly in the context of the challenges of displaying human remains.
At the time, this also coincided with UCL Culture had been awarded a HTA, Human Tissue Authority Licence, to display human remains that are less than 100 years’ old. Of course, in the broader scheme of things, there has been a lot of reluctance to display human remains, rightly in a lot of contexts where indigenous, First Nations, Aboriginal campaigners have been advocating for the return of their ancestors. But it’s led to an awful lot of sensitivity, but the diversity of human engagements with bodies can’t be reduced to a single way of dealing with them.
And so here we had two individuals who had deliberately left their bodies to science, both deliberately, as far as we understand their scholarship, wanted to be displayed. So, there was an interesting proposition. And then we have two very different approaches to what you do with those bodies, the meaning of those bodies in collections: Petrie and his eugenics past, and Bentham and his advocacy about using bodies in science, and other philosophical and political agendas. There was lots we could bring in and we had four cases, a very small space, and a lot of ideas for working with this.
Subhadra: In those terms, Tim, Bentham really comes to the fore here, not only in terms of leaving his body to science, but also in terms of framing a lot of the philosophical aspects and a lot of the actual policy around how human bodies are treated, in UK society certainly. Alice mentioned the Human Tissue Authority licence that affected how things can be displayed at UCL. Bentham was influential in an earlier iteration of that, which is the 1832 Anatomy Act.
Tim: Bentham thought about leaving his remains to be dissected by scientists since he was 21, so all the way back to 1769 here. In his first will he left it to a chemist called George Fordyce who, incidentally, a couple of decades later, his daughter married Bentham’s younger brother, Samuel, which is a nice coincidence. He refreshed his will several times, but it’s only in 1824 when he wrote a codicil to an already existing will when he talks about the dissection, the preservation of his head, and the reassembly of his body, but he doesn’t the word Auto-Icon, self-image. That comes in his last will and testament where, in addition to his will, he writes a pamphlet called Auto-Icon; or, Farther Uses of the Dead to the Living, which is a play on Thomas Southwood Smith’s article of several years earlier called The Uses of the Dead to the Living. And Southwood Smith was campaigning at that time, he was a surgeon himself, for greater access to human bodies for surgeons to actually understand how the body worked, and he was a utilitarian, he was a disciple of Bentham’s, and a great friend.
And Bentham took up the cudgels of this fight and in 1826, Bentham approached the then Home Secretary, Robert Peel, to present him with this draft of what he called A Body Providing Bill. This was to ensure a regular supply of bodies to surgeons so they didn’t have to rely on resurrectionists. At its most basic essence, it meant that if a person entered a hospital, it was on the understanding that, if they died, their body could be requisitioned for dissection, with various caveats depending upon family permission and so forth.
But Bentham walked the walk, so to speak, as Southwood Smith said in his oration over Bentham’s body a few days after his death at the Webb Street School of Anatomy. He said that Bentham was unwilling to propose something that he wouldn’t have done to himself, and here we have the sort of dissection of Bentham’s body in front of an audience of his friends. So, it’s sort of a practical manifestation of his philosophy, that he’s doing this to promote the greatest happiness. He says specifically in his will that he’s attempted to contribute to human happiness during his life and he hopes to continue to do so after his death. He died just around the time of the passage of the Anatomy Act. Strangely enough, none of Bentham’s friends followed his example. Despite his best efforts to try and get them to do so, he was the only one.
Subhadra: You’d require quite a forceful personality, I think.
Subhadra: I want to pick up on something you said there, because I think it’s a profound question in terms of him saying people should be able to make that decision, and I think that that was kind of an underlying theme of the exhibition altogether, is who has agency to be able to make particular decisions, who gets to say what happens to them, both in life and in death, and to me, that speaks to the history of eugenics.
Debbie: I guess you’re talking about consent, is that right? Informed consent, because I think, going from what Alice said, that's something we really wanted to address with this exhibition, in that these two figures, who are really important to UCL’s history, both gave informed consent. As Mark said, we knew in terms of the ethics of Bentham, we were safe ethically with Bentham. We thought we were with Petrie, if that is indeed his head, but then that’s the thing we need to find out, or you need to find out, I should say.
And because of the work that was being done within UCL Culture at the time for this pathology museum and the HTA, but also the work Alice was doing at the Petrie Museum in terms of the human remains, the body parts that were there - I mean, there’s body bits all over UCL actually. We were trying to pull this together and think about these two men gave their informed consent, but most people didn’t, that’s the thing. I think sometimes there is a tendency to almost brush it under the carpet and not address it, if that makes sense. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to say, and these are the ways you can give informed consent, and this is how you find out, but this is why informed consent is useful - not just useful, it’s why informed consent is important.
Alice: At the time there was also a parallel project to better rehouse the various parts of humans that were sort of scattered across the museum, to bring them into one place, to enact the respect. So, when you start working with various ethical guidelines around how you work with human remains and collections- so the Department of Culture, Media & Sport, after the Alder Hey scandal, there had been a lot of work done in the early 21st century of bringing together a working group and they produced this guidance for human remains in collections, and most museums model their ethical approach on that.
And in keeping with that and the International Council of Museums, they all this word ‘respect’, make sure that you treat human remains with respect, in display, in how you give access to it and all the rest, but there is actually very little guidance on what respect means in practice. The exhibition provided this opportunity to open up this dialogue, and to negotiate and really, really problematise, but also try and find some practical solutions to move forward because these collections are here, and we wanted to find ways to do something meaningful and practical with them rather than just put them back in the cupboard and move on, because that’s not going to solve anything.
Debbie: I remember we were talking to Tim about this, about this idea of coming back to the utility of the body with completely different technology that was around almost 200 years ago, and actually it is completely different technology that was around, as Mark said, 20 years ago. It’s always changing. So, this idea of informed consent, and this idea of somebody who gives their consent almost 200 years ago, we took as still consenting to something that’s only a couple of years old, or a few years old, when they’re doing it.
And peoples’ attitudes towards human remains and bodies change, and how we talk about them, and most people in this country now don’t have so much of a problem with dissection, but they have informed consent around that. Whereas of course, when Bentham died and when the Human Anatomy Act was passed, most people that were Christian in Britain believed in the full body resurrection and salvation. And the thing is dissection was a punishment before 1832, it was an added punishment if you were a murderer. After 1832, historians have argued it was an added punishment if you were poor. And I think that’s an absence that I don’t think we really address so much in the exhibition, because I’ve been thinking about this more recently. That’s quite a hard one to address and I think that was still what was going on with Alder Hey, and that’s partly why people were so shocked and disgusted by it, because I think there is still that feeling that people were being punished, if you know what I mean. Almost being punished because their children had died, or being punished because they didn’t quite know what had happened to those bodies. And there was echoes of that kind of dissection and that Anatomy Act still going on because, in the end, this is institutional care and there is a thing about institutions. That’s why the idea of consent, and respect, and informed consent is so important.
Subhadra: I do have one question for all of you. The question is, how do you think collaborating on this project has influenced your work? It’s difficult to prove in the aftermath, but do you think that some of the things that you’ve done since might not have happened if it hadn’t been for thinking about these ideas and working in this frame? What did you enjoy about working with each other?
Mark: So, I get bored by people in my own subject, not being particularly rude about them in particular as people, they’re great people. But this is why I love interdisciplinary research, I just like working with people who have expertise in areas that I’m clueless about. It’s so much more fun than talking to people that know the same stuff that I know.
Alice: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s the classic echo chamber, particularly when you’re working in a sector and you can echo the same sort of mantras. So, for me, I think getting into discussion with those scientific discourses as well- and I’ve since extended these conversations around dealing with human remains, ancient Egyptian human remain collections, with medics, for example, and equally, it has absolutely changed the way I thought about approaching these from a museum, and really getting very different perspectives. So, I feel much more confident to be able to have those dialogues with people outside the discipline.
Tim: Very much the same from our point of view. The Bentham project has always been, just by the nature of what Bentham wrote about, we’ve always been quite outward looking, because we need expertise from outside the bunch of historians and so forth. And it led to those terrific public engagement events, like the wake for Jeremy Bentham, which widened knowledge of what exactly we were doing to an audience that we wouldn’t have otherwise reached, and probably never would.
Debbie: When I left UCL, ha-ha, honestly, I actually miss science and it has made me think quite differently about some of these issues. I think I would have approached things quite differently now because of having some of the social science perspectives on things like grief, but also things like consent and socioeconomics of class, definitely - I think really that was beyond me at that point. But I miss that kind of, the not so many disciplines talking to each other, if you see what I mean. That’s the big thing that I miss about UCL, is that you can have genetics, statistics, and archaeology.
But I’ve been thinking about this quite recently, because I’ve just been working on a project called Fading Rainbows, about grief and loss and the Covid-19 pandemic, with a group of schoolchildren, and this project came back to me when I was working on that, partly because of the case that I mainly worked on and I remember. I think, for me, what this project has done is, like you say, brought those disciplines together in a different way and make you think differently about how you can put people together in different ways. It just makes you realise how complex these things are, that one person giving consent for their body to be on display, or to be dissected, and you put it in the cultural influence of their time and then you look at it 190 years later and what more you can do with that. Again, it’s just all so complex and there are so many different things at play. That’s why we need all these different perspectives, I think.
Subhadra: That is very much why I wanted to talk to all of you because it just demonstrates my genuine belief in just how inspirational this project is. So, I hope that people listening can take some inspiration from all these amazing cross-disciplinary conversations and collaborations and research. Thank you so much everyone for joining me, Mark Thomas, Tim Causer, Alice Stevenson, Debbie Challis, it’s been an absolute treat to talk to you.
The rest of the team behind Curating Heads, and its accompanying exhibition What Does It Mean to Be Human? were: Dr Elizabeth Dobson, Dr Lucy van Dorp, Dr Tom Booth and Dr Selina Hurley. Nick Booth was the Curator of the Auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham at the time of the project.