It’s about time UCL scrubbed Galton’s name off its lecture theatres, but let’s never ignore the history of eugenics

In my first year at UCL, the Bricks + Mortals exhibition tour showed archaeology students how a history of racism it etched into our campus. I knew little about eugenics before this tour, outside of the context of the Nazis. I was shocked that UCL had buildings named after famous eugenicists, long after their ideas had been condemned. These included the Galton Lecture Theatre, Pearson Building and the Petrie Museum of Egyptology – named for Francis Galton, Karl Pearson and Flinders Petrie; all eugenicists.

Outraged, I signed petitions asking the management to change these names and to condemn a eugenics conference hosted (supposedly unknowingly) at UCL. But for long I was never directly involved in the campaign, largely headed by Professor Joe Cain, until now.

It’s ridiculous that it took global anti-racism protests

When UCL sent out its statement on Black Lives Matter in early June, claiming to support its BAME students (without specifying Black students) and to address “racial injustice and disadvantage”, I decided to make my own petition. UCL’s foot-dragging attitude is ironic. Diversifying the teaching staff and increasing the number of Black applicant may take years. But changing the names of buildings could feasibly occur overnight.

Before launching the petition I discovered that UCL had said they would look into changing the names back in February. But the university had not acted since.

I am glad that the provost last week formally asked the Buildings Naming and Renaming Committee to immediately begin reviewing the names of the spaces named for Galton and Pearson. But I find it ridiculous that it took global anti-racism protests and yet another petition for him to take action. Almost 2,700 people have signed the petition, but we have more work to do.

My petition remains online to demonstrate that UCL students and staff and the general public believe these changes should occur. Additionally, the provosts review does not address the Petrie Museum. This is perhaps the easiest name to change; it could simply become the UCL Museum of Egyptology. It is not difficult to find worthy alumni to name the other spaces after. So there is no need to perpetuate legacies of white supremacy and selective breeding.

Eugenics: from UCL to the USA and Nazi Germany

I believe that changing the names of buildings should not mean erasing UCL’s history of involvement with eugenics. We will still discuss Galton, Pearson and Petrie due to their contributions outside of eugenics. We should challenge them and discuss their contributions critically. The ideas cultivated at UCL influenced eugenic policies in the USA including the forced sterilisation of Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, criminals, mentally ill and disabled individuals. Charles Davenport, who pioneered eugenics in the USA in the early 20th century and supported the German Nazis, was a huge fan of Galton and Pearson.

Indeed, Galton and Pearson had introduced Davenport to eugenics and he was co-editor for Pearson’s journal Biometrika. California’s eugenicist sterilisation programmes then inspired the Nazis and led to the introduction of the 1933 Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring. This racial purity programme instituted preconditions for the Holocaust, including gas chambers. Around the turn of the century Germans also developed racist “science” independently. But several of Galton’s works were translated into German and disseminated there in 1906.

Maybe Galton, Pearson and Petrie never intended eugenics to lead to forced sterilisation and genocide (although Pearson did praise the Nazi racial hygiene programme at a dinner in 1934). However we cannot ignore that their work preceeded the US and German eugenicists, which enabled their atrocities to occur.  

This is an uncomfortable truth. Eugenics is not a part of the university’s history that should be ignored and swept under the carpet. Galton set up his Eugenics Record Office at UCL. Pearson became its director and Petrie supported it. UCL is as complicit in advancing the so-called “science” of eugenics as Galton, Pearson and Petrie were as individuals. We must confront this legacy and publicly condemn it at every available opportunity.

Removing Galton while retaining his history

In 2014 Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, then a research associate in philosophy at UCL, argued that changing names does not remove Galton’s heritage and does even less to teach us about this heritage. I disagree with this view. Most students never look up who a building was named after. We simply assume that the named individual has done something worthy to achieve their name on it. In Galton, Pearson and Petrie’s case, removing their names makes a public statement that these individuals are unworthy of this honour.

Of course, renaming buildings is only the first step in the much-needed overhaul of the university’s culture and systems. UCL needs to address its appalling lack of diversity amongst staff and students. It is located in one of the most diverse cities in the world. In Bloomsbury – a neighbourhood historically linked to radical thought. Yet it is stagnant in condemning and fighting racism.

The legacy of renaming

The publicity that surrounds a name change also calls their legacies into question. Students and staff and the general public have a perfect moment to learn about eugenics and make it clear that this legacy is not to be tolerated.

Publicly naming and condemning UCL’s links with eugenics and making the Bricks + Mortals tour a compulsory part of staff and student education are ways that the university must note its problematic past and implement the recommendations made by the Enquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL back in February.

I am well aware that some might consider renaming buildings as an empty gesture. But if the university cannot even do this how can anyone begin to hope that it might address its deeper roots of systemic racism? It is not enough to listen to the provost say he will do something and then not hold him accountable to this. Likewise it is not enough for us white students and academics to be outraged during protests and revert to complicity through inaction when racial injustice is no longer headline news.

Jules Fynn is an archaeology student at UCL and started a petition to rename UCL’s buildings named after eugenicists.

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