Robin McKie, The Guardian, July 13, 2019
They were some of Britain’s greatest scientific pioneers. Based at University College London, they developed the first fingerprinting methods, the use of statistics in health and genetics research, early birth-control science and many other key technologies of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
But now these trailblazers—who include Francis Galton and Marie Stopes—are under investigation. A committee of inquiry has been set up by UCL to probe their links with eugenic causes and to consider if buildings, lecture theatres and libraries named after them should be re-titled.“UCL has launched the inquiry to ensure that its historical links to eugenics are properly examined,” said a spokeswoman.
Those being investigated along with Galton, who developed the first weather maps, studied the inheritance of abilities, and devised ways to classify fingerprints, and Stopes, who established Britain’s first birth-control clinics, are: distinguished archaeologist Flinders Petrie and Karl Pearson, who founded the world’s first university statistics department at UCL.
All of these researchers were committed eugenicists who believed there were superior races of humans who should be allowed to breed more freely than those from inferior races. Such views are considered deeply racist today and have led to calls for the removal of these scientists’ names from UCL buildings and rooms.
However, the idea has been attacked by Professor Steve Jones, former head of genetics at UCL. “Renaming the buildings and chairs named after UCL luminaries would be a remarkably bad idea,” he told the Observer. “It would lead to mockery in the press and criticism from geneticists, psychologists and statisticians across the world. The individuals we have honoured at UCL are commemorated not on political grounds but for discoveries that laid the foundations of several new sciences.”
But Joe Cain, professor of history and philosophy of biology at UCL, disagrees. He was among the first to campaign for Galton’s name to be removed from a lecture theatre. “Galton’s name has been inextricably linked with racist, misogynist and hierarchical ideologies,” he wrote to the university five years ago.
This whole debate [over these scientists] raises a real problem: how can we redress historical wrongs?
On his website, Cain quotes from a letter from Galton to the Times, in 1873, in which he claimed Africans were “lazy, palavering savages” who didn’t deserve to keep the land of their birth. “That alone is enough, for me, to disqualify a person from honoured status,” states Cain. “I don’t want to teach in a room named for someone with such a view.”
Several attempts have since been made to launch an investigation of the history of eugenics at UCL, culminating in the setting up of the current inquiry. And Cain – who is a member of the committee of inquiry – is clear that its recommendations should include a decision to remove Galton from an honoured status at the university.
But geneticist Veronica van Heyningen, president of the Galton Institute, sounded a note of caution. Her institute is independent of UCL but she has given evidence to its eugenics inquiry. “I fully acknowledge that Galton was a terrible racist,” Van Heyningen told the Observer. “But he also played an extremely important role in developing the science of genetics, and it is reasonable to honour him by giving his name to institutions like the one I now run. However, this whole debate raises a real problem: how can we redress historical wrongs?”
One solution suggested by Van Heyningen would be to install plaques explaining the achievements—and the historical wrongs—of a particular scientist. But their names should not be removed, she added.
Originally scheduled to report in July 2019, the inquiry is not now expected to finish its deliberations until next year. “UCL is giving the inquiry time and space to carry out its important work,” said its spokeswoman.