Investigation: Moving forward from Galton’s UCL

Investigation: Moving forward from Galton’s UCL

Georgina Bartlett explains UCL’s historical connections to eugenics in light of recent revelations surrounding the London Conference on Intelligence

On 10th January 2017, UCL was forced to confront its past. That day, London Student revealed that the London Conference on Intelligence – a conference on eugenics – has been held annually at the university since 2014. First used in 1883, the term eugenics refers to the ‘science’ of selective breeding with the intent of making ‘positive’ changes to human populations. It also forms the basis of Social Darwinism, an ideology with potentially devastating implications for whomever is considered genetically inferior by those in power. At its conception during the height of the British Empire, eugenics was inseparable from colonialism. During the 1930s, it formed the ‘scientific’ basis of Nazism, but today, in addition to the racism, ableism, and classism married to eugenics, it is often referred to by geneticists as a pseudoscience.

As such, the exclusive conference was attended by Toby Young, who stepped down from a role with the Office for Students a day before the article’s publication. Another individual present, Emil Kirkegaard, is an anti-Semite who has previously attempted to rationalise child rape by suggesting that there would be no harm done if paedophiles only targeted children under the influence of sleeping drugs.

UCL Main Quad (image: Wikimedia Commons)

In response to the situation, UCL has claimed to have been unaware of the conference taking place on its premises, and has launched an urgent investigation into how those involved were permitted to do so. And yet, as the exposé details, the conference’s now-deleted YouTube channel boasted the UCL insignia. Regardless of official support, the university continues to give its name, as well as its platform, to the cause of eugenicists. Some may question why the attendees considered UCL a suitable setting to present their discourse. The simple answer is that the lecture was organised by honorary senior professor James Thompson, taking advantage of his ability to book rooms on campus.

The real question, however, is why such people may have felt entitled to the space of “London’s Global University”. We need only visit the Bloomsbury campus to find our explanation. Is it really so surprising that the conference selected UCL as its backdrop, given that the university commemorates three central pioneers of eugenics within its walls?

Sir Francis Galton, who gives name to the Galton Laboratory and Lecture Theatre, is arguably history’s most significant eugenicist. Often described as one of the Victorian era’s greatest scientific polymaths, Galton drew ideas from his cousin Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to forward the idea that human intelligence is genetically inherited, forming the basis for what he coined as eugenics. In 1884 at the International Health Exhibition in London, Galton established an anthropometric laboratory, used to measure people’s physical characteristics and determine their heritage. Like many liberal progressives of his era, Galton was interested in how science could be used to improve society, and considered Britain’s growing underclass a cause for concern. The UCL Senate was receptive to Galton’s request for a legitimate establishment in which he could research the burgeoning field of eugenics. While Galton was neither staff or student at UCL, his relationship with the institution was secured in 1904, when he established the Eugenics Record Office at 88 Gower Street. Galton went on to fund the UCL Galton Eugenics Laboratory in 1907, as well as endowing a Fellowship in National Eugenics. His collection of inventions and accumulated items was left to the university following his death in 1911, and is today found at the Galton Collection.

Closely connected to Galton is statistician Karl Pearson, celebrated in the form of the Pearson Building, so named in 1980. Appointed professor of mathematics at UCL in 1884, Pearson made significant contributions to the field of statistics, most notably the chi-squared test. As an supporter of Galton and his work, Pearson continued his legacy by becoming UCL’s Chair of Eugenics, a £45,000 position funded by Galton’s wealth. Pearson’s biometric laboratory at UCL allowed him to measure human features and characteristics, and it was here that he carried out studies on the children of Jewish immigrants, using the same instruments as anti-Semites in Nazi Germany.

Exterior of the Petrie Museum (image: Wikimedia Commons)

Another figure who had a close working relationship with Galton was Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, often considered the father of scientific archaeology. In the early stages of his career, Galton proved to be of great assistance to Petrie’s work. He is similarly commemorated by the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology on Malet Place, and parts of Petrie’s body can be found preserved in the Octagon Gallery, accompanied by a short narrative on his so-called “race science”. In its own words, the exhibition “considers his archaeological work on ancient faces and the – now discredited – eugenic principles he advocated” and draws a comparison between the work of Petrie and that of Oswald Spengler, who significantly influenced “white supremacists and alt right views”.

That the names of these figures litter a map of UCL suggests the institution looks upon them with pride, at the expense of marginalising the history behind them. Discussing the issue with UCL history students, however, it becomes clear that the roots of eugenics at UCL are not in the realm of common knowledge. Rhianna Betts, who began studying at UCL last September, questioned, “How can we ever fully get rid of racism if we don’t ever understand its history? Covering it up instead of creating discourse is shady rather than progressive. As a non-white person, I’d like to know about my university’s racist past.” Jessica Badgery commented, “I think the relationship between UCL and eugenicists needs to be publicised. Most people are unaware that they support an institution which has a legacy of undermining people of colour and others affected by the kind of hateful rhetoric allowed on this campus.” The fact that the prevalence of UCL’s eugenicist past is not common knowledge amongst students provokes questions about how we remember this university’s history: the chapters that we champion, those which we bury, and the implications that this can have for recognising inequalities in our place of study and work today.

BAME Officer Ayo Olatunji leading a Decolonise UCL Protest against the London Conference on Intelligence (image: Julian Coleman)

Student protestors have attempted to amplify this history by drawing criticism to the celebration of eugenicists, as witnessed at a 2015 open day protest challenging institutional racism at UCL. For DecoloniseUCL, the naming of buildings after eugenics practitioners is intimately connected to the recent eugenics conference; one of the movement’s aims is to establish an “academic department for the study of Critical Eugenics and Race to further examine UCL’s relationship with these issues.” On 15th January this year, students of DecoloniseUCL demonstrated outside the Provost’s office, led by Black and Minority Ethinics’ Students’ Officer Ayo Olatunji. Calls of “Where is the Provost? Hiding!” and “Shame on UCL!” could be heard through the south quad. In clarifying the intent behind the protest, Olatunji wrote on the event’s Facebook page: “We use the term “decolonize” because Britain and British institutions such as UCL, were and still are the centres of white supremacy and eugenics. They were used to extend and uphold the white supremacist colonial British empire and UCL as we have seen still houses that legacy.”

Provost Michael Arthur previously stated in 2014 that UCL has “inherited” its eugenicist past, but many argue that this does not mean the university cannot and should not challenge that heritage in public discourse. In light of recent events, Arthur has stated, “I personally have no support for eugenics and I regard it as complete nonsense.  I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence. UCL is committed to an unflinching examination of its historic role in eugenics as exemplified by the range of events and exhibitions we have supported on the subject.”

The suggestion that the institution has deeply “committed” to engaging with its history is tenuous at best. However, the Provost is right to point out the valuable work already carried out by staff at UCL, including Dr. Nathaniel Coleman and Dr. Debbie Challis, who have used their positions at UCL to educate; amongst past exhibitions and events are 2014’s ‘UCL Faces Race: why is my curriculum white?’, the ‘Why Isn’t My Professor Black?’ seminar, the ‘Typecast‘ exhibition at the Petrie Museum, and the 2011 Galton Centenary. Just last November, UCL Culture’s Bricks + Mortals exhibition highlighted this “history hidden in plain sight,” marking a step away from erasure for the sake of reputation, and towards confronting the past.

Writer and presenter for Bricks + Mortals Subhadra Das is also the Curator of the UCL Galton and Pathology Collections. In her view, the objects found in the Galton Collection will also encourage conversation about UCL’s historical affiliations with the eugenicist. For Subhadra, the UCL community must commit to understanding the motivations and nuances of the work eugenicists carried out; merely recognising their ‘greatest contributions’ to science on a plaque reduces them to “old dead white guys who did us a favour.” She advocates a critical and holistic viewpoint on UCL’s history, noting that “scientists are socially constructed individuals who bring their social and cultural biases to the work they do.” To do complexity justice, these biases must be addressed by placing the names on UCL buildings in their context. Providing an accessible means of learning about the history behind those names, in all its dimensions, paves the way forward.

Frances Galton, who coined the term ‘eugenics’ (image: Wikimedia Commons)

In terms of future goals, UCL has stated plans to include objects from the Galton Collection in the UCL Introductory Programme, as well as taking responsibility for the establishment of eugenics in a permanent display of the new Object Based Learning Laboratory. A statement released mentioned that “there is an ongoing discussion about UCL’s history at the start of the last century and the role of key figures in eugenics. Although not directly addressing the issue of eugenics, a separate working party is already looking to develop criteria and processes for dealing with the naming and calls to de-name UCL facilities. The President and Provost has also agreed to engage with student union officers and with UCL’s Race Equality steering group to extend this work to cover the wider issues highlighted by this affair and concerns expressed by the wider University community.”

The conference provides an interesting juxtaposition to UCL’s claim to fame as the first university to admit women and individuals of all religions; such a neat anecdote is far from sufficient to counter the parts of UCL’s history which are not marketable, and largely remain unknown.

Now, facing calls to reaffirm its commitment to diversity, UCL will address and dismantle its place in the legacy of eugenics. By confronting its historical affiliations with eugenicists, rather than preserving them unchallenged by way of commemoratory plaque, those within the university community will be better equipped to recognise and combat structural discrimination that remains within this university today.


  1. Avatar January 27, 2018 / 4:51 pm

    This is a topic on which I recently wrote a blog:

    The only bit of the narrative that I contest is the idea that anyone at UCL tries to hide what happened 100 years and more ago, at a time when understanding of genetics had hardly begun.

    It’s now more than 50 years since I started at UCL as an assistant lecturer. In all that time I never heard anyone do anything but condemn eugenics. I’ve heard the matter discussed often. Anyone who claims that it’s covered up hasn’t been paying attention.

    It’s true that Galton and Pearson came from privileged backgrounds: most university people did in their day because scientists were paid little if anything. But it’s often forgotten that in the early part of the 20th Century eugenics also had support from George Bernard Shaw, the Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and and Marie Stopes. They thought that they were doing social good. It is the modern understanding of genetics that has shown their ideas to be totally wrong. And that understanding was the result, in part, of work by geneticists at UCL’s Department of Human Genetics.

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