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London Academia: The Birthplace of Eugenics?

By Ruth Sellin MA Gender Studies and Law

In 2018, University College London (UCL) was subject to an independent inquiry led by professor Iyiola Solanke, investigating its link with the pseudoscientific field of eugenics.The inquiry brought to light the fact that UCL has ties to the originator of eugenics, Sir Francis Galton. In response, UCL has decided to rename buildings that were previously named after Galton and his compatriot in the propagation of eugenics, statistician Karl Pearson.

On 7 January 2021, UCL made a formal apology for its involvement in the ‘development, propagation and legitimisation of eugenics’.

Eugenics is defined by Britannica as ‘the selection of desired heritable characteristics in order to improve future generations, typically in reference to humans’. Despite its idealistic claims of improving the human race, eugenics has often been used to justify racism and genocide.

‘Eugenics is often linked to the beliefs of the Nazis during WW2, however the founder and staunchest supporter of the field, Sir Francis Galton, was an English explorer and anthropologist.’

Eugenics is often linked to the beliefs of the Nazis during World War Two (WWII), however, the founder and staunchest supporter of the field, Sir Francis Galton, was an English explorer and anthropologist. Galton was born in Birmingham in 1822; his cousin, Charles Darwin, used concepts of eugenics to develop his theory of evolution.

Galton financed the first Eugenics Record Office in London in partnership with UCL and left his scholarly collection to the institution after his death in 1911, as well as funding for the position of the Galton Professor of Genetics.

Before WWII, eugenics was a very popular theory amongst many soon-to-be allied nations and garnered support not only from institutions such as UCL, but also from notable figures in British history. Namely, Winston Churchill, who served as the vice-president at the first International Eugenics Congress in 1912 as well as Alexander Graham Bell, one of the directors of the Eugenics Record Office in New York. Further, the International Eugenics Congress links eugenics to another London academic institution as it was held at the University of London.

Hitler’s Nazi Germany demonstrated the horrific consequences the practice of eugenics. The idea of the ‘master race’, anchored in eugenics, was used to validate the persecution of anyone deemed inferior by the Third Riech – most strikingly those of the Jewish faith, by implementing the Holocaust.

Eugenics lost a lot of its support after WWII and the Holocaust, but its impact is still felt today through the propagation of offensive myths around race and class.

Especially poignant now, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter Protests, is the relationship between eugenics and racism. Eugenicists believed that only the brightest and best in society should be able to procreate, thus ensuring the success of humanity through ‘superior’ bloodlines. However, the criteria for superiority often included being white, upper class, and well educated. This consigned people of colour and the lower classes, as well as anyone else eugenicists deemed unworthy, to the status of ‘inferior breeding stock.’

Institutions such as UCL apologising for their involvement in developing the field of eugenics and renaming buildings previously named after eugenicists is a step to delegitimise the formerly embraced ideas of ‘oppression based on racial hierarchy’. But, for Andrew Tettenborn, a professor of law at the University of Swansea, ‘UCL’s badly-drafted apology’ featuring ‘clunky language’ and ‘sloppiness’ was ‘bizarre’ and ‘problematic’.

Cheese Grater magazine’s Riddhi Kanetkar highlighted that the institution cannot fully ‘divorce itself from the legacy of eugenics’. However, she hoped UCL will ‘continue to work with the student body, staff and the Students Union to build a community which truly reflects the values of equality and diversity.’

Photo caption: Independent inquiry, led by professor Iyiola Solanke, reveals London links to origins of pseudoscientific field of eugenics (Credit: @Doug88888).

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