History of eugenics at UCL

The long-discredited science written into university buildings

A great deal of scientific progress is represented in the names now immortalised on UCL’s buildings. So are a great deal of racist, classist and ableist ideologies.

1. Galton Lecture Theatre

Widely considered the father of the movement, Francis Galton coined ‘eugenics’ as the science of ‘improving stock’. In 1904, Galton set up the Eugenics Records Office, legitimising the science and establishing UCL as its centre. Eugenics, with the lofty goal of ‘bettering the human race’, sought to ‘weed’ society by imposing racist and classist ideas about superiority. Galton, who advocated for the segregation of ‘elite’ humans from those considered unintelligent or deviant, thought eugenics not just a science but a philosophy.

2. Pearson Building

If Galton was the father of eugenics, Karl Pearson was the dedicated disciple, providing statistical data to corroborate its claims. A mathematician and biostatistician, Pearson was also directed the research of Galton Laboratory and set up a Chair of National Eugenics. Pearson was even more radical than Galton, stating ‘superior and inferior races cannot co-exist; if the former are to make effective use of global resources; the latter must be extirpated.’

3. Darwin Building

The former site of Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics was replaced in1984 with the Darwin Building, home of biological sciences, due in part to the decline in popularity of eugenics. However, eugenics history still persists in its title.Whilst difficult to dispute Darwin’s commemoration, it is noteworthy that Darwin was not necessarily opposed to the eugenics movement– Darwin praised Galton’s work, stating ‘I have never read anything so interesting and original.’

4. Petrie Museum

Housing the collection of Egyptologist William Petrie, this building is already problematic for its contribution to Britain’s legacy of appropriating other cultures’ artefacts. However, of present concern is its namesake’s obsession with a superior ‘Dynastic Race.’ Petrie was convinced that the sophisticated culture behind his uncovered artefacts could not have been African in origin. Petrie theorised that a ‘Caucasoid race’ from northern Europe conqueredAncient Egypt and introduced a superior culture, drawing on racist experiments on skull measurements.

5. Medawar Building

If Peter Medawar, while esteemed for his contribution to the development of organ transplants, also advocated that eugenics could eradicate ‘bad genes’. Medawar’s beliefs, then-popular among scientists, were conceptually separate from the goal of a ‘superior’ human, which has been described as ‘positive eugenics.’Medawar’s interests lie in the field of ‘negative eugenics’ – eliminating traits perceived to be the cause of suffering. He discouraged procreation among those with ‘genetic abnormalities,’ suggesting they shouldn’t be allowed to marry.

6. J.B.S. Haldane Room

Called ‘the cleverest man I ever knew’ by Medawar, Haldane was a geneticist, socialist, and renowned eccentric, whose views also mirrored the contemporary left-wing support of state intervention on family planning. Whilst ostensibly re-moved from the racist and classist features of eugenics, Haldane’s views still attempt to limit the rights of certain groups to pro-create. Haldane believed in the potential to eliminate disease and suffering and held the popular assumption that the upper classes had a ‘superior’ genetic make-up.

7. Francis Crick Institute

The Francis Crick Institute, a biomedical research centre founded in 2015, is named for the famous contributor to the discovery of DNA. Crick also supported eugenics, radically proposing the potential of artificial insemination to ‘licenses’ for procreation in order to discourage the poor from having children, and that only babies with certain genetic criteria should be al-lowed to live.

8. London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Initial location of the Eugenics Records Office, set up in 1905 at UCL by Galton and Pearson. In an article for the Times, the establishment of the Eugenics Records Office was described as an act which turned ‘what had for the previous 20 years been nothing more than a gentleman’s obsessive hobby into the academy’s official discipline’.

9. Marie Stopes House

Whilst not UCL-affiliated, Stopes House is named after an alum. Stopes, a scientist and women’s advocate, studied and lectured at UCL before resigning in 1920 to set up the ‘Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress,’ and campaign for a birth control clinic. However, racist and ableist beliefs motivated her campaign—she wrote that babies had the right to ‘be given a body untainted by any heritable disease, uncontaminated by any of the racial poisons,’ something achieved with birth control.

10. R.A. Fisher Centre for Computational Biology

R.A. Fisher, an important statistician and geneticist, was also the second Chair of Eugenics and founding member of theCambridge Eugenics Society. Given his conception of the notion of heritability, Fisher’s role as ‘an ardent eugenicist’ is unsurprising. Fisher believed that human divisions differed in their innate ‘quality,’ writing that civilisations fail because people of  ‘low genetic value’ procreate more than people with ‘high genetic value’.

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