Race Matters

How does a university deal with its legacy of eugenics?

Jess Murray and Ollie Phelan, students at University College London (UCL), analyse the legacy of eugenics left to their university by a pioneer in the field. This blog first appeared on the UCL Union student magazine, The Cheese Grater.

A member of the UCL academic board has revealed that they suspect that the thorny legacy of Sir Francis Galton, a prolific nineteenth and twentieth century academic and scientist, will be a subject of major discussion at the university in the coming months and years.

Galton, the university’s resident eugenicist who in fact coined the term ‘eugenics’, worked closely with UCL academics, and the university provided rooms on Gower Street for the Eugenics Record Office from 1904 and for The Francis Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics from 1907. It was only in 1963 that UCL renamed Galton’s Laboratory to move away from the reference to eugenics (it became The Galton Laboratory of the Department of Human Genetics & Biometry). The Galton Chair in National Eugenics, a role funded in part by money Galton left in his will to UCL, survived longer and was held in one form or another until 1996, when it was abolished. The post was then reinstated in 2009, though the current occupant Professor Nicholas Wood has the rather less ignominious title of The Galton Professor of Genetics. Eugenics, though a popular and respected field of scientific research over the turn of the twentieth century and before, was of course widely abandoned following its role in the Nazi supremacist ideals behind the Holocaust.

Given UCL’s commitment to equality initiatives, it has been pointed out that it is inappropriate for the university to continue to celebrate figures such as Galton, who, along with other notable eugenicists, has a lecture theatre named after him. Hajera Begum, UCLU’s Black and Minority Ethnic Students’ Officer, recalled that at the Why isn’t my Professor Black? event last year, Provost Michael Arthur said that we had ‘inherited’ Galton. Begum argues that this response is unsatisfactory and that we should be open about the impact of eugenics and “have a centre - much like they had a whole department for eugenics - where we can be honest about the past and also look to fixing the issues that it caused.”

Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman PhD, Research Associate in the Philosophy of ‘Race’, has put forward an Academic Development initiative titled ‘Critical Eugenics at UCL: Research, Teaching and Engagement,’ which suggests going beyond the renaming of buildings, which would effectively sweep the problem under the carpet. The proposal includes a call to emulate universities across the globe, including Yale and Harvard, which are conducting serious academic research into their historic links between racialised slavery and eugenics. However, the scale of the development would entail significant spending, and the proposition is only one of 24 similar proposals under review, and with a limited budget to be allocated. It is entirely possible that UCL may opt to fund projects that would result in less significant soul-searching for the university. Dr. Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman said: “It will come down to whether UCL believes facing up to its invention and institutionalisation of National Eugenics, and, crucially, to all the legacies of those wrongful actions, is something worth prioritising and paying for.”
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