Subhadra Das 0:00
Most people associate the term eugenics with the Nazis and the horrors of the Holocaust. But the story of eugenics, a sociopolitical movement, which wanted to use science to create a better society actually starts in Britain. And the scientific justifications for it were kept alive by scientists at some of the most prestigious universities in the UK. Eugenics was built on the foundations of science from the Enlightenment, including the mistaken idea of race, which is that a person's physical appearance defines abstract traits by character and intelligence. Eugenics also contained a racist political ideology, a false hierarchy, in which some races were superior to others. While it may seem as though the rhetoric of racial superiority is no longer maintained at institutions of higher education today, that is not necessarily the case.
Subhadra Das 0:53
In December 2018, University College London, also known as UCL launched an inquiry into the legacy of eugenics within its walls. The inquiry was led by Professor Iyiola Solanke, who was chair of EU Law and Social Justice at Leeds University.
Subhadra Das 1:10
The inquiry's aim was to understand the relationship between one of the world's leading research universities and eugenics from UCL's historical role in establishing eugenics as a science to the contemporary celebration of eugenics by naming buildings after them. In part, the inquiry also wanted to understand what it meant that UCL had been chosen as the location for a secret eugenics conference.
Subhadra Das 1:35
A few months before the inquiry was set up, a story broke in the national press that a group of researchers were meeting at UCL, they called themselves the London Conference on Intelligence. This invitation only event brought together individuals who wanted to discuss research on the genetics of intelligence, including the connection between race and intelligence. In other words, it was a conference about eugenics. The conference which had been held four times at UCL happened in secret without UCL's permission. And when it came to light, students and staff were horrified that a conference like this had been held at our campus.
Subhadra Das 2:15
The fact that the conference took place here has significance because of UCL's, particular past relationship with eugenics. The inquiry wanted to know, was UCL different to other UK universities? Or was the role that it played in the creation of eugenics unique? What does that history mean for those of us who study and work here today?
Subhadra Das 2:35
Over the course of a year, the inquiry heard from staff and students at UCL who spoke about their research, teaching and their experiences of life on campus. Based on this, the inquiry has also looked into how eugenic ways of thinking laid the foundations of contemporary barriers to access, particularly for people of color, disabled people, and disabled people of color.
Subhadra Das 2:58
This inquiry is part of a wider critical conversation about eugenics at UCL. For example, in 2017, an exhibition about the buildings named for eugenicists was installed around the campus, accompanied by a podcast walking tour. There are many researchers, teachers, students and museum curators at UCL who have looked critically at the history of eugenics, writing books and articles, staging protests, curating exhibitions, and hosting seminars and conferences, in order to lay bare UCL's past and consider what this means for our future.
Subhadra Das 3:30
I am one of those people. My name is Subhadra Das. I'm curator of UCL Science Collections and have spent the last eight years researching and engaging people with the history of eugenics at UCL. And that is the goal of this podcast. I'm going to be uncovering the history of eugenics and the role that UCL played in its journey from idea to scientific discipline to hidden past. I'll be talking to researchers from UCL and other universities. Were going to piece together this history and try to answer the question, what happens next?
Subhadra Das 4:10
What is eugenics? Over the years I have discovered that there is no single answer to this question.
Tom Fearn 4:17
It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
Tom Shakespeare 4:20
I think the thing with eugenics is that it means a lot of different things.
Adam Rutherford 4:24
When we talk about eugenics, are we talking about the concept as defined by Galton in 1873? Or are we talking about the application of similar techniques through the 20, the early 20th century, in Sweden, in America and other countries? Are we talking about the Holocaust in Nazi Germany? Or are we talking about biological techniques that we use today, which don't get labeled as eugenics but adhere to similar principles for the removal of suffering for specific diseases?
Subhadra Das 4:54
Sometimes the difference in these definitions depends on the academic discipline through which someone has encountered eugenics. Ask a geneticist, and they might say...
Lucy van Dorp 5:02
I think it's great, you're asking this because it's a really poorly defined term. And it's often misused. And in some ways we can think of it as a social or political term rather than anything to do with science. So the term eugenics is derived from the Greek word "eu" meaning well, or good and the suffix "genis". So really, it's referring to the good born. And eugenics in its simplest form is the idea that some selective breeding of human populations can somehow improve society.
Subhadra Das 5:29
Or a psychologist...
Daniel Richardson 5:31
Er, eugenics would be the set of beliefs that there is pervasive differences between what they would identify as races of people, and because of those differences, we should do something about that to improve the human race. So there should be policies or practices that on the basis of that, improve us through selective breeding through some sort of social program.
Subhadra Das 5:55
Or a historian....
Debbie Challis 5:56
Eugenics is generally defined as selective breeding to create, you know, based on pseudo-scientific principles to create a better sort of human race or human beings. I would define it slightly differently because I would say it's about inferiority and superiority because essentially, it's about who decides who can breed and who can't breed. And that is based on bias.
Subhadra Das 6:22
Or an education researcher.
Amanda Moorghen 6:26
So I would define the word eugenics as being a field of people who were interested in whether or not they could affect what sorts of genes were floating around in the population for good or for bad. And to do that they did a little bit of something you might call science, but you might not. And they made a lot of assumptions, and there's some guessing.
Subhadra Das 6:50
So who is right? What's the real definition of eugenics? Well, in a way they all are, to understand how we need to go back to the beginning. In 1883 the British scientist and statistician Francis Galton coined the term eugenics. Galton was a celebrated British Victorian scientist, probably the most important and influential scientist that most people have never heard of today. He was an explorer, a meteorologist, a mathematician. And in all of those things, a statistician. Galton and Charles Darwin were cousins. And Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection had a huge influence on Galton and his science. Galton believed the race of British people would successively be improved from generation to generation. "We greatly need" he wrote in 1883, "a brief word to express the science of improving stock". The word eugenics, he thought would sufficiently express this idea.
Subhadra Das 7:44
I spoke to Dr. Debbie Challice, a historian of race who works at the London School of Economics Library, about Galton and his work.
Debbie Challis 7:51
So Galton, he was taking ideas from Darwin, Charles Darwin, around evolution but also about inheritance between generations of families. And Galton actually was really interested by animal breeders and pigeon fanciers and that kind of thing. So he thought he could map the same way of breeding kind of different sorts of species the same onto human beings. Now we now know through genetic coding that, you know, we are all the same, you know, there is no such thing as race biologically. But Galton wasn't so aware of that. So wasn't aware of that in the same way that we are now. He was also racist. So he had this idea that although the races weren't different, in a poly kind of racial way, he thought that they were different tendencies in a kind of different dog way if you like.
Subhadra Das 8:44
Along with understanding that they needed to encourage the right kind of people to breed, eugenicists also believed the wrong kind of people needed to be stopped from having children. So one of the things that we've heard is that the UK never enacted any kind of eugenic policies, but we came close and I'm wondering...
Debbie Challis 9:01
Well we kind of did, I mean. It is true that Britain almost passed a sterilization law in around 1930. But arguably there was a policy before, the 1913 policy around mental health and putting, essentially institutionalizing, people who had mental health disorders as they were seen at the time, or they were "feeble minded idiots", that kind of stuff, "imbeciles" I think, was the other category.
Subhadra Das 9:28
Which were scientific terms at the time.
Debbie Challis 9:32
These were in law, I believe, and, you know, this affected women disproportionately particularly unmarried mothers, who would often have their children taken away from them and could be institutionalized. I mean, this is covered this is not unknown. So it did affect us and to say it didn't affect Britain, I find actually really problematic because I just think about all those women who were institutionalized and had their children taken away, who you know, who were effectively not allowed to breed because they were segregated.
Subhadra Das 10:03
The historian and disability rights activist Professor Tom Shakespeare has researched how disabled people were treated in eugenic programs across the United States and Europe. And he spoke about this in his lecture, Lives Unworthy of Life: Disability Pride Vs Eugenics in January 2020.
Tom Shakespeare 10:20
But I wonder whether, in the case of disabled people, the lack of recognition, lack of coverage, the lack of memorial relates to a deeper down feeling that perhaps mercy killing of people with severe mental or physical in payments is somehow more justifiable, less illogical, than the murder of people on the base their race, religion or sexuality. Prejudice against disabled people predated the Nazis. And, you know, there's a continuity between what happened in eugenics in Germany, not euthanasia but in eugenics and Germany made it very difficult to prosecute people after the war, because they could say, 'Well, look, you're doing it in America, why is it different in Germany?' Not the euthanasia but the eugenics. So, there is a, there is a continuity.
Subhadra Das 11:08
Having practised on disabled people, the Nazis then extended their eugenic policies on the basis of race.
Tom Shakespeare 11:15
They went straight from the disability euthanasia, to the Jewish Holocaust, and all of those things that I described, the showers of carbon monoxide, the teeth extractions, the ovens, they'd all been pioneered on disabled people, before being adapted for extermination of Jews and other people in concentration camps. And indeed, 1941 is not the end of what they're doing. As I said, children were being poisoned, killed throughout the war. The Hadamar Centre, for example, continued receiving children from orphanages, juvenile homes, foster cares, other institutions, and then from 1941 euthanasia in the prison camps, same staff, of anybody who's incapable through illness, doing physical work was murdered, up to 20,000 people murdered straight away. And then of course the 6 million following on that.
Subhadra Das 12:08
Historian and archivist Dr. Maria Kiladi, was hired last year by the inquiry, and she has now been appointed Research Fellow in the history of eugenics based in the UCL Science and Technology Studies Department. I spoke to Maria about her role working for the inquiry, and what she was able to find in the UCL archives. Talk me through the work that you've done, and what you've discovered about eugenics, how it happened at UCL, what were the things that happened at UCL.
Maria Kiladi 12:34
Now what we know about the Galton Laboratory, essentially we know that in 1904 Galton approached the University of London and Sir Arthur Rucker, who was a principal about making a donation to set up the eugenics record office, which was the original. And then in 1906, when that fell apart, essentially, a fellow was appointed: Edgar Schuster. In 1906, either he left or his contract was terminated. (Subhadra: It's bit of a grey area), exactly we can't really tell, but in any case, the crucial point here is that Galton turns to Pearson for advice. (Subhadra: This is Karl Pearson, yes?) and this is in 1906. And this when Karl Pearson suggests the Francis Galton Laboratory for the Study of National Eugenics.
Subhadra Das 13:20
Karl Pearson had been appointed Professor of Maths at UCL in 1884. He was such an ardent supporter of Galton that he was often called Galton's disciple.
Maria Kiladi 13:30
Galton again approaches the University of London, we have another gift if you like, which takes the Galton Laboratory essentially to 1911. And in 1911 we have the Galton bequest after the death of Francis Galton. And that's when things really starts taking off a bit, okay, in the sense that we have Karl Pearson bringing their biometric and the Galton Laboratory together and essentially I think it was in 1913 when the department was basically renamed as the Department of Statistics and Eugenics. (Subhadra: so eugenics was in the title of the department.) Yeah, exactly. And I'm quite keen actually, when we discussed this department to make a point that it was Department of Statistics AND Eugenics because then the next question would be what was statistics doing with eugenics? And also, the next question after that would be well, do we need to have a closer look at the statistical papers really, that Karl Pearson was doing? What kind of research was he doing? I think that's very, very important, really.
Maria Kiladi 14:26
And so essentially, I mean, the department stays until 1933, I think, when Karl Pearson retires, and we have Fisher coming up. And then obviously, things become to get a bit more complicated with various renaming to take us all the way to now.
Subhadra Das 14:41
As with many other universities, the names and functions of individual academic departments change over time.
Maria Kiladi 14:47
The Galton Laboratory record that we have at Special Collections, that's when you go through the catalogue and you search for Galton Laboratory. We have a very comprehensive history of how the department's developed and, to be completely honest, that was the way to understand was essentially me putting it down in writing because it was so many renaming and a lot of people coming in and it was very difficult to really understand how the department's developed in this case. So, yeah, I mean, as I said, we know that in 1933 we have Pearson leaving and Fisher taking over. The department was then split into so we have the Department of Eugenics in one side and on the other side, we have a Department of Statistics which was led by Pearson's son Egon, Egon Pearson, (Subhadra: keeping it in the family, okay.) Yeah. He was actually part of the Galton Laboratory as well, previous to that, which was quite interesting.
Maria Kiladi 15:44
So Fisher retires in 1944. He was succeeded by Lionel Penrose, who becomes Galton Professor (Subhadra: these are all sucessive Galton Professors, arent' they?) Yes, he was. Yes. Then we have JBS Haldane who was Professor of Biometry at UCL already since 1929, he became director of the Department of Eugenics Biometry and Genetics. So this is the first time that we have eugenics and genetics as part of the title of the department. And he was suceeded by Penrose in 1958, after he retired. Now in 1965, was actually the first time that the word eugenics was removed from the department. That's when Penrose essentially retires and we have Harry Harris taking over. In this time, the department is called Human Genetics and Biometry. We also have the renaming of the chair now it's Galton Professor of Human Genetics. And then this continues until 1975 when EB Robson takes over as head of the Department of Human Genetics and also Galton Professor until 1994. So essentially, we have a department that developed quite a lot. you had eugenics, you had it removed, you had biometry, you had biometry removed and then you had genetics genetics been defined than ad human genetics.
Maria Kiladi 16:59
And I think in this context it would be quite interesting to kind of investigate why all this renaming happened. Was this an administrative decision? I mean, from what I could tell in 1933 it looks like it was pretty much a decision from the admin side of the university that there is no need now for these things to be together, let's split them. But even (Subhadra: that's in the aftermath of Pearson retiring as well. So we've got him as an interesting character and how much his personality was driving the whole thing.) Yeah. So I think from this point of view, it would be quite interesting at some point to see at which point exactly eugenics stopped being appropriate for being part of a title of a department if you see what I mean.
Subhadra Das 17:36
So Galton was instrumental in setting up the eugenics faculty at UCL, but once it got here, other researchers continued the work. Over time the scientific tools developed in eugenics have become fundamental to a lot of science carried out today. I spoke to Tom Fearn, who was professor of Applied Statistics at UCL to try to understand the importance of these tools, and how the contributions of researchers like Galton and Karl Pearson are seen today.
Subhadra Das 18:02
I know that you've learned a lot about the history of eugenics and its association with some very famous names in your field of statistics. Can you tell me what names like Galton and Pearson meant to you before you were familiar with this history? How were you familiar with them?
Tom Fearn 18:19
Pearson, in particular, was one of the people who invented modern statistics. He invented things like correlation coefficient, things like Pearson chi squared, which are sort of staple tools of modern statistics. I'm absolutely still using them today.
Tom Fearn 18:42
So I knew Pearson as the inventor of modern statistics I knew Galton, his name's associated with regression. He's also, I think, for me, even before I started reading some of his writings, he was a bit of an eccentric he had he was obviously very intelligent. He had lots of left field ideas, and some of them were slightly dodgy. And I think that's probably, that sort of knowledge is what a lot of statisticians will have. They'll know, of Pearson as a very famous statistician of Galton who was somebody associated with him, and maybe have a slight feeling that there are cupboards somewhere with skeletons in them that are better not opened.
Subhadra Das 19:33
If this is how eugenics is perceived today, have things changed since the Eugenics Records Office opened in 1904. I spoke to Dr. Georgina Brewis, the most recent editor of the World At UCL, and a historian of student voices to try and answer this question.
Georgina Brewis 19:49
All the sources that I've looked at indicate that there's a great deal of kind of being very welcome being very supportive of this decision, both to connect UCL to the eugenics lab that has been founded already Gower Street. And then in 1911, when Galton dies, his bequest to create an endowed professorship, but also to donate his kind of material culture. So he's kind of objects and his books and things. And everywhere that's mentioned, particularly in the UCL calendar, and its speech days, which takes place every kind of summer term, that is really done in a very kind of praiseworthy way. They're very kind of happy about that.
Subhadra Das 20:25
I asked Maria Khiladi, the same question. Was there any resistance to this work being done here that you've been able to find?
Maria Kiladi 20:32
No, I couldn't find any resistance really, from anywhere. But then again, if you think about it, this is a wealthy individual approaching the university offering a significant amount of money to set up a laboratory that obviously won't be a financial worry for the university, at any point, because the money's just provided. Then we also have Karl Pearson that we know, I mean quite apart from being a very driven individual. I mean, during the history of the laboratory, we're definitely between 1901 and 1925 he launched about 10 publications. So different titles, essentially. He had numerous members of staff at some point, I think, about 11 for quite a few years. And this of course, he achieved by employing primarily women that cost him less. So essentially what the university could see was a self-funded laboratory that had a lot of members of staff working, producing a lot of publications.
Subhadra Das 21:26
Of course, none of this research was going on in isolation. Eugenics research was being carried out at a number of different British and then American and European universities. Tom Shakespeare...
Tom Shakespeare 21:38
I think in the early 20th century, there was a fear of racial degeneration. This sometimes had just racist elements in terms of people from Southern Europe or traveller families, who would so-called worsen than the gene pool. There is a fear of the working classes. This was the era of mass democracy and what happens if these "unregulated, ill disciplined, uneducated" people reproduce more than ruling classes, and particularly there was a fear of people with intellectual disabilities and other disabilities, that this new era where there's more health, more hygiene, meant more people survived, but that they might be of a so-called "inferior" quality and ideas of social Darwinism are intertwined with ideas about eugenics and social Darwinism, of course, Herbert Spencer, is very much that survival of the fittest, we have to have the best, we must let the inferior, you know, die or help them. These are very, very damaging ideas that were around in this era.
Subhadra Das 22:52
I asked Debbie Challice about how these perceptions of racial degeneration will manifest in UK universities in the early 20th century.
Debbie Challis 23:00
You know, realistically, having worked in institutional history throughout my research, I know that all institutions, if they're formed at certain points are going to have, you know, stories of empire and eugenics and, you know, various histories that, you know, we may not be so proud of today. So I mean that that's, you know, that's there. I think there's a movement at LSE last year, which is still going on Decolonizing LSE. And they approached the library about doing an event around material in our collection that would be pertinent to thinking about colonialism in the history of LSE, and in our collection, and race, of course, as well. And myself and the curator Indy Bhullar, sort of had a look around the archives and to my surprise, I found the cards the anthropometric laboratory cards of Sidney Webb, which had been taken by Galton and listed all his measurements.
Subhadra Das 24:00
Sidney Webb is one of the founders of the LSE.
Debbie Challis 24:03
So Sidney Webb is a Fabian. So he's married to Beatrice Webb, I can't remember her maiden name so I won't say it, but he's married to Beatrice and, of course a lot of the Fabians were also eugenicists. Sidney Webb wrote a paper on population control and yes he campaigned against the Poor Law but he was campaigning on more on the kind of "positive eugenics", if you'd like to call it that side. But they were very much opposed to Karl Pearson at UCL. The two institutions are poles apart in many, many ways. Which isn't to say they're eugenicists, it's just that you have different types of eugenicists.
Subhadra Das 24:42
Yeah, eugenics is a more complex thing than perhaps other stories that we're more familiar with. So this work is going on at least two universities at UCL and the LSE. Eugenics is a is a driving, was a driving force for research at lots of other places, Oxford and Cambridge. How much more do you think of this story is there still to be uncovered? You uncovered a bit of the story here at UCL, you're looking at the story at the LSE. How much potential is there for other universities to find this aspect of the story which has been hidden up until now?
Debbie Challis 25:17
I think I mean, there's much more to be seen. And I think it depends on your university or when it is founded really, I think there's a lot more that could probably be seen in population control and ideas around population developments often had its origins in eugenics.
Subhadra Das 25:44
I spoke to geneticist and broadcaster Adam Rutherford to find out why eugenics fell from favor after World War II. He explained that scientific views about what it is that makes us human moved from an idea that we are biologically determined to a more complex idea about how our environment affects our identity. This was a development of the concept of nature versus nurture, a term Francis Galton himself had coined.
Adam Rutherford 26:09
Well a better way of phrasing it is nature via nurture. So how our genes, how our innate biological characteristics are expressed through the environment in which in which we exist, not just that we're raised in which we exist. As we're moving into the 80s, sociology and behavioural psychology appear to be much more dominant in the sort of broad intellectual discourse about human behaviour. And then genetics begins to get a foothold again, between new techniques for better understanding of genetics. And so you see this sort of pendulum swing.
Subhadra Das 26:46
What we're really interested in is understanding the story about eugenics and how it happened at UCL. I'm not looking for you to be a historian of UCL. But what I'm interested in is the story that you just told us in terms of the science of moving away from or thinking about eugenics in different ways. Who were the people that UCL that you know of, who did that work? What was their attitude to this history after the Second World War? What were the things that they that they contributed and that we work with now?
Adam Rutherford 27:18
Well, that's a hell of a question. Can I give a sort of broader question, a broader answer? Because one thing is that I don't think that anyone was specifically addressing the question of whether eugenics worked or not I don't don't think this was necessarily a focus of anyone's work in the post-war era. I'm going to sit down and here's my research project it is does eugenics work? As far as I'm aware, that wasn't really a project. But we see the continuing development of genetics of biology and in general, biology becomes molecular, a lot of the fusion of evolutionary biology and mathematics and genetics occurs, you know, 30 yards from where we're sitting and a lot of that is derived from well, initially, Galton's work, followed by Pearson's work and we're sitting in the Pearson building recording this, followed by Ronald Fisher's work, who was the next Galton professor.
Adam Rutherford 28:15
A lot of the people after the war at UCL, if we mine their what they said enough, sometimes even superficially, it's very easy to find things that are culturally unacceptable today, which include race and racial epithets, and plenty of misogyny, and so on. But I think it is fair to say that there is just a general movement away from rigid adoption of eugenics and racist policies.
Subhadra Das 28:44
It was the development of the science and it was the continue, the continuing act of carrying out that research that meant that we were able to look at this critically.
Adam Rutherford 28:51
I think that's right.
Subhadra Das 28:52
These ideas that motivated much of the work within eugenics are now some of the primary questions in the field of genetics. It's interesting that the foundations genetics can be traced to eugenics. And yet arguably genetic research has done a lot to disprove eugenic thinking, to see how these two disciplines are distinct, I spoke to geneticist Dr Lucy van Dorp.
Lucy van Dorp 29:11
Okay, so it's really I think about intention. And eugenics is really trying to find heritable traits to find genes and select and improve on those. (Subhadra: because they pass from parents to their offspring). Exactly. And bear in mind that eugenics was really happening before we knew much about, well we didn't know the DNA sequence. So it was based on kind of observations of heritable or perceived to be heritable traits. Whereas genetics is very different, you know, we've got genome sequences were really interested in not improving genes, but actually just studying them, understanding them. And so, genetics is really interested in terms of actually characterizing that link between genotype and phenotype. So what your genes do and what your physical characteristics are.
Lucy van Dorp 29:53
And what's quite interesting is actually by their kind of nature by eugenics and genetics requires studying how populations vary. But like I said, the intention is different. So genetics is looking at how populations are different to each other, but also really importantly looking at how they're similar to each other, and understanding it is biological processes that give rise to the similarities that give rise to these differences. Whereas eugenics is kind of making this explicit assumption that there are variations between populations, and that there could somehow be ascribed some kind of value to those. For example, some populations might be poorer or more prone to be more intelligent, or more likely to be criminals, for example. And where genetics comes in is really understanding the biological mechanisms of genes. You know, we know very clearly that most of those traits, all of those traits have no genetic basis.
Lucy van Dorp 30:43
And so really, eugenics is working on kind of outdated stereotypes and genetics is allowing us to completely debunk those stereotypes and say, actually, we see that traits are complicated that your environment is incredibly important, and that it's almost impossible to pick out genes for some of the traits that eugenists were particularly caring about.
Subhadra Das 31:00
What are the principles in contemporary genetics and in the science that you carry out that now will help us to critique the idea of race?
Lucy van Dorp 31:08
Yes, that's a really good question. It turns out actually, if you look at patterns of genetic variation across humans, and we do vary, there are genetic differences. They're subtle, but they are there. They follow what we term an isolation by distance model. (Subhadra: Okay. Can you explain that a little bit?) Yes, absolutely. So what that means is that the genetic variations that we observe between people can be almost entirely explained by the geographic distance between them. And so, you know, this isn't rocket science, essentially, people throughout history, in fact, people still today are more likely to meet someone and have children, someone who lives around the corner than lives on the other side the world. And our genomes carry that legacy. And so if we look at the genetic variation across global human populations, we find that we can explain it almost entirely using geography. So there's differences but it's just geography, it doesn't really mean very much.
Lucy van Dorp 32:02
So if I take, you know, racially ascribes categories, and I overlay them with a map of genetic diversity, those two things do not marry up. And so I think this is one of the really fundamental contributions that genetics can make to discussions about race. And that actually, you know, there's not a biological basis, but also that there's no such thing really as a pure genetic population. So if you look over, for example, the last 4000 years using computational genetics techniques, you find that virtually every population we've tested is a mix of many others. So really, the idea of a single population a single race just doesn't bear out.
Subhadra Das 32:41
So eugenics was a scientific discipline that caught the public imagination along with an urge to try and control the development of the human race. It found its home here at UCL both because key advocates of eugenics were already working here and the fact that the creation of the eugenics department came with an investment in the university, which only helped to sweeten the deal. Once established in its new academic home, eugenics gained in popularity. Its new status as a science was before, during and after the Second World War, to rationalize some of the greatest atrocities in human history, and its global adoption severely restricted who could speak out against it.
Subhadra Das 33:20
Over time, though, things have been changing. Eugenics and the policies enacted in its name have fallen out of favour. This is in part down to new science. Research conducted in fields such as genetics have changed the ways in which we think about how humans are made and what makes us who we are. In the second part of this podcast, we are going to look at the ways in which UCL remembers its history. And whether or not the legacy of eugenics still affects us today.
Subhadra Das 33:51
As a historian of UCL, Georgina Brewis, has looked critically at the ways in which UCL has remembered its history of eugenics. Is the problem with the way that we have chosen to remember these sorts of histories at UCL, things like the history of eugenics?
Georgina Brewis 34:04
Yeah, I mean, I think that in some cases, though, we have been guilty of kind of over-exaggerating the good things about about UCL in a way that is problematic because it doesn't allow us to actually investigate the real history. So for example, there's a constant claim that, you know, UCL is founded as this place, opening up higher education to this wide range of social classes people from all races (Subhadra, I read that in the syllabus, when I first came to be an undergraduate), yeah, these kind of really quite extreme claims. And I had students in my class the other day talking about how they thought, you know, you said was open to people from deprived backgrounds in the 1820s. And I had to point out to them that no, the 1820s, what was exciting and progressive was the fact that it was open to middle class youth. So it was absolutely a middle class institution, the youth of our middling rich as the founder wanted it to be, and that it was open to people of any religion, or no religion, particularly at the time Jewish people, nonconformists, Catholics, those were the groups that couldn't go to university in England and wanted to come in.
Georgina Brewis 35:03
And that in itself is a really important story of progressive of progression and change. But we, we kind of we deny that story if we talk in much bolder terms that just doesn't stack up historically. And so it's actually kind of, it devalues the actual truth that the story.
Subhadra Das 35:20
The way we remember this history has implications for how we teach the next generation about eugenics. I spoke with Daniel Richardson professor of Experimental Psychology at UCL. Daniel uses objects from UCL's historic science collections to teach his students basic principles of psychology. This includes objects that once belonged to Francis Galton, and to the Eugenics Laboratory at UCL.
Subhadra Das 35:40
How much of the history of eugenics did you know about before you started working here? Were you aware of the particular history of UCL and eugenics before you started working here?
Daniel Richardson 35:51
No, not at all. I was aware that there was a lot of sort of energy and interest in this. That was driven mainly by London and America as well and that it was tied into early understanding of things like mental retardation. People try to tie to genetics and try to think about racial differences as well. So I knew there was these two sort of centers that were trying to push the ideas forward, but I didn't specifically realise they were tied so concretely to UCL
Subhadra Das 36:22
Do you, and I'm mindful of always making people representative of kind of a larger group that they don't necessarily speak for, but I'm interested to know in terms of your profession, and in terms of psychology more broadly, how much is this history, how much is it something people are aware of? Is it something that you learn about when you're studying? Is this something you were taught in the same way that you're teaching your students now?
Daniel Richardson 36:46
No, not at all. Maybe it's that I don't remember what I was told as an undergraduate. But I certainly don't have a memory of us looking at that when we learned about personality. And of course, there's only so much you can teach, right? So what they tend to do is to tell us what is the case now, what they didn't go into is what are the intellectual roots of those things? What are the political forces that shaped some of those views?
Daniel Richardson 37:12
Another way in which the legacy of eugenics is still with us at UCL is in the names of some of its buildings. Tom Fearn can tell us it firsthand about how some of the buildings came to be named. You said that you were part of a conversation which resulted in naming the Galton Lecture theatre as such in the statistics department. When did that happen? And how did that decision come about?
Tom Fearn 37:33
So I can date fairly precisely because the department was in from its inception was in the Pearson building until the year 2000. And over over the millennium, new year, we were moved to 1 to 19 Torrington place. And so the renaming would have happened exactly then and it was for a decision that was actually quite an important one and has upset a lot of people, it was a very casual decision. So lots of decisions were being taken. We were completely refurbishing one floor of 1 to 19 Torrington place, making all sorts of decisions about office sizes who would go where, and all sorts of other important decisions. And I guess the motivation was we wanted to take a bit of our history with us because the department's proud of its history, it had been here in the Pearson building for a long time. There's a Pearson Lecture theatre here. We couldn't take either of those names with us, because the Pearosn Lecture theatre still exists for the moment. So we were just looking around for a name that captured some history. And of course, Galton gave the money through his will that founded what was the first Department of Statistics in the world. (Subhadra: That was a known fact.) And that was a known fact and so it seemed reasonable to some people, to many people to just name the new lecture theatre after Galton.
Tom Fearn 39:05
I wasn't responsible for the naming, but I could have stopped it. And I feel sad now that I didn't.
Subhadra Das 39:11
That's kind of the nature of how these things happen, isn't it? They're not necessarily deliberately meant to be hurtful or or bad. It's just this is the way things happened in a large institution.
Tom Fearn 39:21
Yes, that's right. I mean, of course, one of the things that might have happened is that there might have been some institutional come back on that and there was none. Nobody queried it at all.
Subhadra Das 39:33
With that in mind, and so knowing now what you know now and possibly your colleagues are more cognizant of this history and the things that things that Galton and Pearson, did and wrote about, do you think that a similar conversation would have the same outcome today?
Tom Fearn 39:47
Yeah, absolutely Not. Certainly not if I was involved in and I think, not, if not from other people being involved. I think things have changed. It was a mistake 20 years ago, but it would be a much more unforgivable mistake now.
Subhadra Das 40:02
What do you think has changed?
Tom Fearn 40:04
What people know? And perhaps the balance between how we value Pearson's contributions as a statistician and how we view his contributions to eugenics. And that's changed, I think. And I think that's changed partly as a result of pressure from students. I mean, pressure from people like Nathaniel Coleman, who's made us actually stand back and look at it.
Subhadra Das 40:28
Dr Nathaniel Coleman worked at UCL to engage students and staff with the legacy of eugenics, and particularly the work of people like Galton and Pearson. The work of Dr Coleman and others highlights that it's not just the buildings that are the legacy of UCL, but the science within them.
Tom Fearn 40:54
I have thought about this one because because I've listened to people arguing that these methods are tainted by their association. And the only thing that I can think of that may have resulted from the early history is that statistics has what I would see as a bit of an obsession with looking for differences, doing p values proving things are different. And, and maybe and this is just my personal view, it's not I'm not a historian, maybe that's associated with the early history of statistics, where what they were trying to do was prove racial differences, for example, identify subgroups. So you could say, look, we're a different group and therefore, we should not mix with this group.
Subhadra Das 41:38
Adam Rutherford 41:39
We talked about the phrase, how science is standing on the shoulders of giants and that is an important maxim because it shows that we are, knowledge is not gained afresh, we build on on the past, but it's also really important to remember that we stand on the shoulders of a bunch of racists too and to know that history is really important because the percolation of those ideas from the 17th century onwards into the modern era is still present. It is present in science to a much lesser extent, but it is certainly present in society.
Subhadra Das 42:11
And of course, the legacy of eugenics extends well beyond abstract academic thinking. I spoke to education and oracy researcher and practitioner, Amanda Moorghen, about education policy in the UK, and how it has been informed by eugenic thinking and how it affects our lives in very real ways today.
Amanda Moorghen 42:29
Yeah, so I suppose the perspective I'm coming from is that my the charity that I work with, along with lots of charities in the education sphere, is interested in narrowing the gap. And that gap, who that gap is between varies from charity to charity. But broadly, it is to do with the fact that, in the UK at the moment, your educational outcomes are determined often by the circumstances of your birth, so it's by how rich you are or how posh you are or how many books are in your house. Not sort of something about you and your abilities, whatever that might be. Your inate abilities.
Amanda Moorghen 43:08
So one of the factors in that debate is, is that question of what is an innate ability. People often think about that as the DNA of that child and then it becomes really messy, right? How do you detangle the fact that you've got your DNA from your parents to the fact that you might have got your you know, love of reading or your interest in science, or, you know, the fact they do the Times crossword every day or whatever, from them as well. And so that debate about how much is nature how much is nurture comes up again, and again.
Amanda Moorghen 43:40
A recent example would be that there was some debate in the press a couple of years ago, about how much of your GCSE outcomes is determined by your DNA. And scientists have done some research on that (Subhadra: is that a question that people are asking in this day and age?) Yeah, I think it's difficult because the question that people in the education field are asking and the question that scientists are asking is really different, but it sounds the same. So an educationalist is interested in, how much can I do? If I'm a teacher, I've got 30 kids, and they all seem a bit different when they start, how much can I do to level the playing field and get them all an A or a C or whatever it is you're trying to do? Whereas a scientist is often asking what is the relative role of the environment and DNA at the moment for some group of people at some point in history? (Subhadra: It's an abstract problem.) And it sounds like it's the same and it sounds like the scientific question could give you the answer to the educationalist question, but often it can't.
Subhadra Das 44:42
So in that scenario, and with different people asking different questions, what does that have to do with eugenics?
Amanda Moorghen 44:48
Yes, I mean, so if we take an example of why the the legacy of eugenics matters for an education policy, let's take the example of like special education. Because of the legacy of eugenics and because of the connection between IQ and making differences between kids and IQ and racism, we know that different people are going to have really different intuitive responses to that. So if I go to middle class parents and and say, you know, "little Johnny, we're just always know he was special, and every child is special, and they all need personalised learning" that middle class parents going to think like, oh, yeah, you know, little Johnny's going to get all the extra special support that he needs to fulfill his potential in the world and become an astronaut or whatever. And that's a very reasonable way for that person to that's a reasonable thing for that person to think. But when you also know that the history of special education in the UK was heavily influenced by the eugenics movement, was heavily influenced by people who were pro-apartheid in South Africa who thought that people who weren't White were inferior, and who thought that people with disabilities were worthless and should never be allowed to reproduce and so on and so forth, it becomes really different.
Amanda Moorghen 46:04
So when you know that, in the world still today, Black Caribbean boys in particular, but also girls are much more likely to be excluded from mainstream education. And when you know that in the 1960s, that was happening at a greatly disproportionate rate, huge numbers of non-White children were being sent to what were then called schools for the "educationally subnormal" or schools for the "maladjusted". And that comes from this history of IQ testing, and so on and the murky waters and the difficulty in the science of being able to pull apart what is something that's to do with DNA and what is something that's to do with the environment. And so, people have attributed all sorts of differences which we should attribute to the environment to something which was inherent within those children they've said because you were rubbish at this test when you were 11 you will never be able to do x y and z when actually, what we know is that all of that test is telling you about is what you're capable of doing at 11, right? What have you experienced has been so far? How well have you been taught to pass that test?
Amanda Moorghen 47:18
It's easier to say that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it than it is to make people take note and truly understand the ways in which eugenics has shaped our modern world. I posed this more practical question to our contributors, as they contemplated what UCL's future might look like starting with Tom Fearn.
Tom Fearn 47:36
I don't know exactly how we talk about it, but I do know it's important we do talk about it. So for a long time, the statistics department had a web page, one page on its website, which had a biography of Karl Pearson, and it mentioned eugenics in about one line. I've taken that down and it needs to go up again and it needs to have a link to a lot of material on eugenics. We can't force-feed this to people, but we can make sure they can see it.
Subhadra Das 48:04
A large part of Tom Shakespeare's work, especially the work he's done with Anne Kerr has been to find answers to this question.
Tom Shakespeare 48:11
I've always been very interested in, in the genome and obviously also in history of eugenics. Anne is a science historian, and what we wanted to do was to tell a story, which many people don't know, about the various tendencies of eugenics and euthanasia, prior to 1945. But also to continue that story, and to try and bring in how the human genome program and contemporary reflective screening is influenced by our eugenic thinking. And by no means are we saying that, for example, the offer of a screening with informed consent is eugenic, that's not what we would say. But those currents are there. And even in our own thinking, we're infected by some of these ideas and we need to understand it, to be aware of it, to have different information about the lives of disabled people, so that people can make truly informed decisions about their families. Which are about quality of life and what they want in their lives and all of these other aspects of individual choice within a society where disabled people are included, where we have choices.
Tom Shakespeare 49:25
I whizz along, I got a bus to work this morning, I went to my accessible office, I whizzed along to this podcast. That's how it should be. I'm very lucky, but more people should be included in those ways.
Subhadra Das 49:44
To conclude this podcast, I asked the contributors why they think it's important we should care about the legacy for eugenics. Let's go back to Amanda Moorghen.
Amanda Moorghen 49:54
This part is not about doing, the bit where you do impact is not about just doing more science. It's not about, like adding up more stuff and doing more experiments. It's about going out into the world and convincing real people that they should do something because of your science. And it's about trying to explain why your science matters. And to do that, you need to know your history, you need to know about eugenics you need to know about racism, and classism and ableism in this country. Because if you don't know that, it's going to be really difficult to have a conversation where you respect people with different histories. And you don't just say they're being silly, or hysterical or unreasonable, or they don't understand the science and that's why they disagree with you.
Amanda Moorghen 50:40
I think if you want to have a conversation with somebody who, for example, you're advocating for more like individual education and you're advocating for special schools or whatever it might be. And you're doing that because you think the science genuinely supports the position, that children really are different because of something inherent in them because DNA, and that you can't fix that with the environment in any way other than treating some children differently than other children. I think you need to be able to respect the fact that some parents going are to hear that and they're going to remember that legacy of special schools being dumps for poor children, for working-class children, for black children, for disabled children, who the government and who teachers thought would never amount to anything. And that's not ancient history. That's not hundreds of years ago. That's something that could have happened to like my parents. But that is something that's within a generation, that's within grasp, and some would argue is still happening today. So unless you know about that history, and why that came about, you can't have a conversation with that mum who's worried that her kids going to get written off forever, because you know obviously teachers want the best for their children. Obviously, the government wants the best for everyone. But it's not so obvious if you know about that history and that past.
Amanda Moorghen 51:58
And if you're worried that because of the research you're doing, people keep saying you're a Nazi, or they keep saying you're racist or whatever, and you're upset about that. I can see that would be very upsetting. But I think that if you want to make a difference, you have to ask yourself, well, why are people saying that? Well, there might be a reason why people are connecting the research that I'm doing with 150 years of eugenics. And maybe I should do a better job of explaining why that is not the research that I'm doing.
Subhadra Das 52:28
As Georgina Brewis reminds us, being honest about this history is important.
Georgina Brewis 52:33
Who we are today and how we write about who we are today sends a really strong signal to the students and the staff that we work with today. You know, I think that's around, that's kind of obvious if we don't value the stories of say students or say women or say people of colour within the university and in their histories, I think that's, that's problematic. I mean, I've got another kind of example that I did, and it you know, in the World of UCL, I've put in just these tiny little hints, that's all I was really able to do in that book. These tiny little hints of problematic histories. So there's a couple of lines about how in the 1960s students are getting very engaged around anti-racism and particularly anti-apartheid protest. But at the same time, they are also slamming the doors in the faces of black students who are inviting them to sit with them at lunch. And those stories are represented in our student newspapers, but they haven't been investigated and they haven't been told. And that is part of, you know, these problematic troubling histories of progressive politics and anti-racism that we don't always want to accept. But again, there's a lot really there to discuss and to kind of examine.
Subhadra Das 53:42
And if you think we are making this history too personal, I'll refer you to Professor Tom Shakespeare.
Tom Shakespeare 53:47
I think it's inevitable that these stories are personal in a way that, you know, my Jewish friends have lost grandparents to the Holocaust. It cannot be other than personal, but it's more than that. Because it's about a warning from history about how human beings are capable of behaving.
Tom Shakespeare 54:08
My father was in Nazi Germany in 1933 to 1936. He went there every summer to get treatment because he had restricted growth. It was spurious treatment. It would never have helped him. But the doctor who gave him that treatment was a Nazi. Mine is not the only family to be affected by this. I had dinner last week with somebody who's his father's on the Kindertransport, his grandparents were killed in Auschwitz, we are a generation that lives this. I am the second of my line to have received growth. My daughter has restricted growth. I left her sleeping in my house when I came to work. She's pregnant. Her first baby is due in March, and will have restricted growth like me, like her, like my father. All of these things, mark us.
Subhadra Das 54:55
In this podcast, you've heard how eugenics developed from a Victorian scientist's idea for solving society, to being a solid bricks and mortar laboratory at a leading UK University. It was from the scientific foundations that the Nazis built their state and justified their systemic extermination of peoples. Even though scientists came together after the war to disavow the ideas of eugenics, we've heard that change was slow in the making, and that eugenic ways of thinking continue to affect our lives in very real ways today, often in ways we aren't aware of.
Subhadra Das 55:28
At the turn of the 20th century, UCL played an instrumental role in establishing eugenics as a science. At the start of the 21st, from student activism, to reflective teaching to exhibitions and the inquiry into the history of eugenics at UCL, we are trying to raise people's consciousness about this history, and its effect on our present. And while we'd all like to believe that eugenics is ancient history, it's a history we need to be mindful of.
Subhadra Das 55:56
Just as eugenics means different things to different people the history of eugenics means different things depending on your point of view. For scientists working in the fields influenced by eugenics, from genetics to statistics and psychology and beyond, this is a story about what happened when bad science created bad policy. And that what we need to do now is to keep an eye out for bad science. For those of us who are part of a community of people who have been marginalized, discriminated against, harassed and abused on the basis of that science, we know that keeping an eye out for bad science is not as easy as it sounds.
Subhadra Das 56:33
At UCL, we're still at the beginning of the process of understanding how the same history came to affect people differently. It's a history we all have to acknowledge and reflect on if we're all going to live here together.
Subhadra Das 57:11
You have been listening to living with eugenics, a podcast about science and how we remember it at UCL. We are very grateful to all of our contributors who gave up their time and their wonderful insight. They were in order of appearance. Professor Tom Fearn, Professor Daniel Richardson, Dr Adam Rutherford, Dr Lucy van Dorp, Dr Debbie Challis, Amanda Moorghen, Professor Tom Shakespeare, Dr Maria Kiladi and Dr Georgina Brewis. We would also like to thank UCL Communications and Marketing for their support and funding this project.
Subhadra Das 57:48
Living with Eugenics was recorded by Phil Mason from UCL Digital Media, produced by Anna Cornelius, written and presented by myself Subhadra Das, with additional writing from Anna Cornelius and Cerys Bradley. It was edited by Cerys Bradley
Transcribed by https://otter.ai