How does a university deal with its legacy of eugenics?

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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.”



Reflecting critically about the past of our institutions is necessary to redress the problems of the present. As a UCL student (it's my fourth year here...) I found the event organised by Nathaniel striketrough-Coleman last autumn about race@UCL and the legacy of eugenics really important and eye-opening. This work should be continued and the issue should not be swept under the carpet!


I've worked at UCL for 50 years, and during that time I've heard endless discussions about Galton and eugenics. I'm baffled by people who say they've never heard of it. I guess that I've had time to learn some history.

Please remember that it's an era that ended 70 years ago. Neither was it confined to UCL. It was a world-wide thing. It was implemented in the USA in a far worse way than ever happened in the UK.

The reasons for the rise of the eugenics movement are fascinating for historians, and I'm all for them investigating it. But to suggest that anyone condones it now is too conspiratorial for my taste.

When this problem first surfaced, I met Nathaniel. I liked him and respect his views a lot. But he couldn't explain to me the sense in which the curriculum in mathematics or pharmacology was "white".


The “science” of Eugenics bears considerable responsibility

for the creation of the “norms” which dictate the unquestionable shape of the world today. Revisiting the source and
significance of Eugenics especially in the context of “British History” is an imperative step in the process of unravelling the twisted history of the world. This step is important to all of our global futures and Nathaniel has had the foresight to identify it as such.

Shikha Dilawri

A much needed effort to interrogate histories too often sanitized in the stories we are told, at times in egregiously named lecture theatres. Yet, simply renaming these spaces won't prevent the retelling of these stories or address the pernicious legacies they occlude: what is needed is their disavowal and dismantling (not only at UCL...!). This is exactly what Critical Eugenics at UCL will help to achieve.


UCL celebrates figures like Galton, Pearson and Petrie in the university's learning space but are questioning whether eugenics should be critically studied? This is a perfect illustration of the #WhiteCurriculum
Given Galton's connection with UCL and eugenics, a course on Critical Eugenics is owed to the students.

Martin Richards

A way to confront eugenics is to better understand the history of its rise and fall.Why did eugenics become a prominent creed among progressive thinkers and biologists of the day ( including socialists and feminists ) ? What was done , or not done, in the name of eugenics ? Why did its prominence begin to decline in the 1930s ? How did eugenics play out in post war Britain ? For anyone wishing to explore that history I would suggest a short reading list.

An institutional history of the (UK) Eugenics Society;

P.Mazunder.1992. Eugenics, Human Genetics and Human Failings. Routledge. A wider UK/USA history;

D.J.Kevles. 1985. In the Name of Eugenics. Harvard Univ Press. A cultural history;

R.A.Soloway.1990. Demography and Degeneration. Eugenics and the Declining Birthrate in Twentieth Century Britain. University of N Carolina Press.

A world wide overview;

A.Bashford and P.Levine(eds). 2010. The Oxford Handbook of the history of Eugenics.Oxford Univ Press. An ethical autopsy;

A.Buchanan et al.2000. From Chance to Choice. Genetics and Justice. Cambridge Univ Press.


I am an Indigenous (Red River Métis) woman from Canada finishing a doctoral program in the UK. One of the most devastating legacies of British colonialism in Canada are the methods through which British and Canadian actors actively disrupted Indigenous families, kinship and Indigenous women's reproductive rights. Eugenics were actively employed by the State in my home province of Alberta from 1928 until 1972 ( This is not a distant legacy, but in fact one that still viscerally impacts people living in Canada today. As an Indigenous person studying in the UK, I stand firmly in support of efforts to engage critically within academic institutions with the ongoing impacts of British colonialism (which was enacted through many means, including British academic processes) upon peoples around the world. The efforts proposed here to develop a critical eugenics program which will develop research that examines the relationships between Eugenics, racism, colonialism, British Empire and British Universities like UCL are necessary. This is a fundamental conversation that must happen in order acknowledge decolonization within the societies/nations which were subjected to the colonial order but also will help to decolonize thinking and intellectual life within the UK as well.

Annabel Crowley

I had attended events at UCL for nearly a decade without knowing its legacy of eugenics until I attended a #UCLFacesRace event in the Galton lecture theatre, on invitation from Nathaniel Adam Tobias (strikethrough)Coleman. I had spent many years in an unnameable discomfort in academic institutions until I started engaging critically with race and learning to put a name to my own experiences and understandings of institutional racism. My time in formal education did not teach me to engage in this way, though I wish it had. I fully support the #DTMH initiative - the MA programme is designed to equip students with the conceptual tools to unpick and challenge the realities of white supremacy. As an adult educator, I know that students' experiences and understandings of racism are often raised in the gaps between lectures and tutorials - these are the unofficial conversations that need to be acknowledged, encouraged and brought to the foreground, and Nathaniel (strikethrough)Coleman is proposing to do just that. UCL must be honest and transparent to be able to deliver the quality of education that is in demand - we need only look at the attendance of #DTMH events and support for #DTMH online to see that demand. The anticipation for this will not disappear - I have yet to hear of such an exciting opportunity for a UK HEI to address and respond to its own role in reinforcing institutional racism.

Annabel Crowley, University of the Arts London


UCL's role as a proponent of racist ideologies and practices wasn't an isolated moment in history, nor should addressing it be so. It would be great to not only see more critical discussions of race at UCL like this, but also for the institution to back up nice words about equality with serious resource provision, such as the proposed initiatives here.

Ben Fulford

Critical Eugenics at UCL presents a way for UCL to develop a vital excellence in institutional critical reflexivity, building on the DTMH initiative. British HE institutions need to ask these questions of themselves as responsible educational establishments in order to understand their present challenges in light of the past and for the sake of their students and staff. With this proposal, UCL could pioneer the critical interrogation of processes of racialisation in UK HE and lay the groundwork for addressing the marginalisation of non-white scholars and texts in many disciplines. Dr Ben Fulford, Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology, University of Chester.

Rajinder Dudrah

Saddened to read that the proposed MA related to this area was turned down - why? what was the justification given? Surely, this was a much needed MA helping to develop this field and the work that could emerge from it...? Rajinder Dudrah, University of Manchester


UCL as a university definitely needs to go further than simply detaching itself from an uncomfortable legacy. As long as institutions and societies continue to see race as an outside issue as opposed a facet of the human self research into the whitewashing of academic literature and education will remain unexplored. As a student there I find the legacy deeply uncomfortable and believe that the way to dismantle it entirely is to behave as academics do -- to question, research and investigate, not just eugenics but race. It is central to human existence and plays an insidious role in the academic experience. Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias [strikethrough]Coleman's proposal is a promising one; I hope the university proceeds with it.

Jonathan Webber

The proposed Centre for Critical Eugenics would be an excellent way for UCL to develop its commitment to the academic study of the roles of explicit and implicit racial categorisation in academia, science, and the wider culture, allowing UCL to lead work on this deeply important question.

Diane Leedham

I come to this blog and the challenging research work of Dr Coleman as a white teacher, not as a student or an academic. I cannot emphasise enough the transferable professional insights I have gained from my contact and interaction with the developmental projects 'Why is My Curriculum White' and #DTMH. Each has not only had impact on my own thinking and practice but reached beyond academia to many other colleagues interrogating the positionality and 'perks' of racialised identities in order to address educational repair and forge better social equity in educational institutions and teacher training.

As evidence for this reach, I would particularly like to draw attention to 1. Popular teacher blogs

and http://valuediversity-teacher.... which embed the film 'Why Is My Curriculum White' in the context of promoting discussion to

develop better cultural literacy in schools. 2. A Teacher Educator blog which also embeds the film in the context of documenting

a programme designed to develop a better professional understanding of individual identities and privilege and impact on

pedagogy. https://teachnorthern.wordpres...

The BERA Manifesto for Fair and Equal Education, launched March 2015, bears witness to both a growing understanding in education of the onging impact of the colonialisation of knowledge and a commitment to address its toxic aftermath. For schools to tackle social and racialised inequity effectively, it is essential to focus on the legacy systems and structures which caused it. This is exactly what Dr Coleman's work does so perceptively and accessibly. I am very grateful for what he and Adam Elliott-Cooper have achieved in such a short a time and looking forward to the next chapter.

Alfred L. Brophy

This gives us another chance to talk about how the wealthy and well-educated thought about and talked about the rest of us. It can be part of learning about the long, long history of the academy's role in promoting ideas from slavery to Jim Crow segregation to sterilization.

Valentina Astral Migliarini

Although the topic may cause, at first, discomfort within academic establishments within the UK and, more generally around Europe, I believe that it is essential to have a platform to critically engage with
thorny issues as eugenics- especially at UCL, that has a heterogeneous audience of students and an international respectability.

I totally agree with the proposal made by the UCLU’s Black and Minority Ethnic Students’ Officer and by Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman of having Critical Eugenics at UCL; it seems to me the best

solution to address and metabolize the issue and to repair to scientific wrongs.

Michel Prum

In France the Lyon « Faculté de médecine », which had been called after Nobel prize winner and eugenicist Alexis Carrel, was also renamed (Laennec) in 1996. I fully agree with Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman that changing the name without further investigations into the past of an institution is not enough. Funding the critical eugenics initiative would be a precious help for all the researchers in Europe who think that the history of the British Eugenic movement should be revisited.

Prof.Michel Prum

Université Paris Diderot, Sorbonne Paris Cité

Groupe de Recherche sur l’Eugénisme et le Racisme (GRER).

Alex Watson

This subject should continue to be explored and uncovered. it is highly relevant, and will not be swept away in spite of the discomfort it may cause. The role academia has played historically in elevating and perpetuating some of our darkest episodes, cannot be forgotten. This is uncomfortable for most academic establishments, especially the oldest and most well established, because most of them were neck deep in the perpetuation of racist ideologies. This needs to be faced in some way shape or form imho. You cannot change the word Eugenics into Genetics...and eradicate the intent of someones modus operandi.

Robbie Shilliam

UCL cannot wish this history away, not in the current climate nor in the foreseeable future. It needs to make a bad thing good. The way to do that is to fund the critical eugenics initiative. In doing so, UCL will not only be creating a world-leading academic project, but will also be supporting an initiative that is integral to its own aspirations to become London's "Global University". It is a win-win situation.

Dr Robbie Shilliam

Reader in International Relations

Queen Mary University of London


I've taken 2 genetics modules during my BSc at UCL and in both modules lecturers made a point of not only discussing Galton's contribution to our understanding of inheritance, but also informing the class about his role in the eugenics movement. I think this kind of balanced approach to teaching should become more commonplace and this initiative will be an important step towards this.

Yasmin Gunaratnam

The work of learning and excavating the ways in which our universities are implicated in racism and other forms of oppression and violence is central, not peripheral to rigorous intellectual inquiry. I have a visceral response to Galton's name. It carries an emotional charge. It disturbs and angers me. It makes me feel unsafe. The re-naming of the building will perhaps spare me and others from these feelings, but it will not intervene in the history of UCL's relationship to Eugenics or extend the boundaries of our critical knowledge. It will be a decorative displacement, adding to layers of institutional and cultural denial and avoidance of the traumatic history of race science. Research into these relationships is not only vital but has the potential to contribute to innovative methodologies and ways of finding out about how cultural values are embedded in scientific knowledge production and what the long term consequences of this are.

• a year paul havemann
The genocidal impact eugenics through law, public policy and ideology in all modern states is a seriously under- examined phenomenon though out the world. Given UCL's past legacy in nourishing and legitimating eugenics UCL must now take a lead in re-dressing this. The Critical Eugenics at UCL initiative is a very useful start to this enterprise. I particularly endorse the networking approach that links scholars of the impact of eugenics around the world together under the umbrella of a critical eugenic project!

Mark Tseng Putterman

Such a violent and influential history cannot simply be swept under the rug through a name change alone without its legacy of racism, imperialism, and misogyny bubbling up and continuing to influence UCL as an institution and community. Needless to say, this unaddressed legacy undoubtedly impacts students of color disproportionately. It seems Nathaniel Adam Tobias [/Coleman]'s proposal would provide a truly active commitment to anti-racist education at UCL in order to counteract this dark history and legacy. Institutions in the US, like Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, with deep ties to eugenics history, have successfully turned an uncomfortable historical association with a refuted movement into an opportunity for education. They've drawn from their own institutional archives to build a public resource dedicated to educating Americans about this too often erased history ( I urge UCL to do the same.

Melissa Ho

It is essential and important that universities critically address their histories and do something about the legacy and effects it has left on its institutions and upon society. UCL creating such a centre and following through with Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman's Academic Development would be the start of much needed social and educational repair.

Ben Poser

UCL wants to take an active role in the local and global community and pioneer important research with social value. UCL wants to promote diversity and equality.
UCL should want to run this course.

Seems pretty straight forward to me but then I don't know what the other proposals are.

I was fortunate enough to take Nathaniel's module in the philosophy of antislavery this year and I have found it to be one of the most informative and engaging parts of my entire education.

The fact that there have been two petitions in two consecutive years to ensure he continues to teach at UCL should speak volumes.

Leah Francis

We can't just change the name of the buildings, this is not an equivocal response to what has been done, UCL needs to take responsibility in leading the discussion and probing into how we can decolonize the curriculum, including our workspaces. Given UCL's past, it is extremely important and would be only natural that UCL is at the forefront in making reparations, Hajera's comment that we should have a centre seems like an appropriate way in which to consider educational repair, and this Academic Development initiative would at least be a step in the right direction.

Catherine Sloan (@cgsloan)

Really interesting article. It's clear that universities need to engage more with their own histories of education - specifically, the histories of their own departments and faculties. Better, less 'Whiggish', and more critical institutional histories are desperately needed.

Katie Kendig

The history, philosophy, and social studies of science remain incomplete without investigation of the roles played by notable eugenics
practitioners, their practices, and the living legacies that are the result of their research. Vacuum-style intellectual research and philosophical analyses that

claim knowledge without knowers, experiments without those experimented on, and practices without practitioners are only possible with a sustained and

intentional forgetfulness of our race histories that we should want to avoid.


UCL as a university definitely needs to go further than simply detaching itself from an uncomfortable legacy. As long as institutions and societies continue to see race as an outside issue research into the whitewashing of academic literature and education will remain unexplored. As a student at UCL AI find the legacy deeply uncomfortable and believe that the way to dismantle it entirely is to behave as academics do -- to question, research and investigate, not just eugenics but race. Race is central to the human existence and plays an insidious role in the academic experience. UCL should proceed with Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias [strikethrough] Coleman's proposal and face their uncomfortable legacy head-on.

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