For many, the imposing stone structures of University College London signify enlightenment and prestige. And for the most part, this impressive reputation is well-earned.
Initially built as a secular alternative to the theologically grounded universities of Oxford and Cambridge, UCL has long been at the forefront of science; bringing together some of the brightest and most curious scientific minds.
A person would not at first equate UCL – located in leafy, intellectual Bloomsbury – as having anything to do with the horrors of Nazi Germany. And yet this historic institution is inextricably linked with the so-called ‘father of eugenics’, Francis Galton.
Galton was a renowned Victorian era statistician who was deeply – monstrously – influenced by the evolutionary biology work of his cousin, Charles Darwin; most specifically his classic book, The Origin of Species
Drawing from Darwin’s chapters on animal breeding, Galton was struck by the idea that the very same principles could be applied to human beings; coining the term ‘eugenics’ in his own book, Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (1883).
Galton – who funded the UK’s first professorial Chair of Eugenics at UCL – envisioned a world where supposedly undesirable characteristics were ‘bred out’ of humans; resulting in a highly intelligent, healthy and productive population.
Part of his research involved standing around on street corners and rating the attractiveness of women on a scale of attractive to repulsive; believing this to be linked with their intelligence and thus their ability to contribute positively towards the human ‘stock’.
Of course, humans are not chihuahas and when you draw up barometers for perfection, there will be those who fall outside these markers; considered ‘imperfect’ by default.
Galton believed supposedly ‘genetically superior’ humans should have more children, while the ‘inferior’ should either have fewer children, or face sterilisation.
For Galton, his so-called perfect world excluded those with disabilities, learning difficulties and non-white people. It also excluded those from impoverised backgrounds, or those deemed to lack the subjective qualities of beauty and intelligence.
The story of eugenics is far more complicated than many of us with a layperson’s understanding of history would realise. It’s one far closer to home.
It is perhaps simpler – and more comforting – to imagine such theories as part of a grisly nightmare dreamt up by deranged Nazis in the early part of the twentieth century. However, this is simply not the case.
Eugenics became popular in the US during the first half of the twentieth century, and had a profound influence on the diabolical policies of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.
Eugenics therefore has far more tangled roots; roots which are deeply embedded in some of the fouler aspects of British thought and prejudice. Moreover, the traumatic fallout from this long debunked science maintains a haunting effect to this day.
This is the grim, nasty yet vitally necessary story told through Eugenics: Science’s Greatest Scandal, a BBC documentary which offers a fuller, more nuanced history of this dark and dangerous field of study.
Presented by reporters Adam Pearson and Angela Saini, Eugenics: Science’s Greatest Scandal delves deep into the origins of eugenics, and its lingering British legacy.
UNILAD spoke with Adam, a passionate disability rights activist who himself lives with neurofibromatosis, a multi-system genetic disorder which can result in benign tumours.
Adam told UNILAD:
When you hear the term ‘eugenics’, everyone’s mind instinctively jumps to Nazi Germany. And so to hear how quintessentially British eugenics actually is, is a really shocking thing.
I don’t think we’re taught it in history. If you went to study in Germany, I don’t think they’d go in as hard on the holocaust and the concentration camps.
It’s all kind of revisionist history, isn’t it? But when you pull back that facade, you realise how involved in the eugenics process our country was. We invented it.
Galton’s ideas were thankfully never put into full practice in Britain, however this doesn’t mean they weren’t popular. There was a time when eugenics would have been fit for polite conversation; a topic for intellectual dinner party conversation and political gatherings.
Unfortunately Galton was far from the only influential British person to believe wholeheartedly in the truth and value of the selective breeding of human beings.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill – widely regarded to represent the ideological opposite of Adolf Hitler – was a keen advocate for the practice of eugenics, as was the much admired women’s birth control advocate Marie Stopes.
However, as observed by Adam Pearson, we cannot look at such individuals without addressing the historical context they were living in:
We need to look at people’s historical contribution in a 360 degree way. Francis Galton, for example. If you discount everything he did, everything he said. He added so much, like standard deviation.
He’s the most famous scientist no one’s heard of. And if we discount everything he [Churchill] did because of eugenics, we’re losing World War II, and we’d be speaking German right now.
So I think we need to look at it in the context of time, and look at it from a full 360 approach.
This ‘360 approach’ is a theme which is turned over extensively within the doc, which asks difficult questions about legacy and the need to address the shadowier aspects of British history.
As explored in the documentary, artefacts from Galton’s collection are still kept within the walls of UCL; devices used to measure heads and eerie charts which map eye and skin colour. Tools which had been used to assess the supposed worth and value of a human being.
We can also still see Galton’s ghostly fingerprints in many supposedly ordinary aspects of modern life; his obsession with measuring and ranking influencing the household baby book, as well as the cruel pressures of the 11-plus examinations.
Adam and Angela look at how sinister threads of eugenics have manifested in British life; from sterilisation to designer babies, universal credit policies to the incarceration of those deemed unfit to have children.
There are plenty of disturbing moments in the doc. At one point, Adam speaks with a couple suffering foul online abuse following their decision to start a family despite potentially passing down a genetic condition.
We also see clips from repulsive 1937 propaganda film Heredity in Man, with one clip suggesting it would have been better had a group of siblings with disabilities had ‘never been born’.
Perhaps the most upsetting segment in the doc is an interview with Harvey Waterman, a man who was imprisoned under the Mental Deficiency Act when he was just four years of age; having been judged to be ‘mentally deficient’.
Implemented in 1913, the Mental Deficiency Act made provisions for the institutional treatment of people regarded to be ‘feeble-minded’ and ‘moral defectives’. It remained in effect until the Mental Health Act was introduced in 1959.
Harvey went on to spend 29 years at St Lawrence’s Hospital, where he was forced to share a toothbrush with other inmates and was kept separate from his first love.
Adam told UNILAD how this interview had particularly affected him:
I’ve done a lot of other documentary work, so I’m no stranger to sort of darkness or tragedy or human sorrow.
But when I interviewed Harvey Waterman, the chap who was part of the drama group who had been locked up in St. Lawrence’s, actually that’s one of the very few times I’ve had to pretend I need the toilet.
At one point in the interview, I had to go and get my shit together and then come back and do my job.
Eugenics is inextricably linked with class and poverty, and this is something we can trace right up until the present day.
We have all read shrill newspaper articles which hand-wring over the supposedly feckless poor having too many children, as if being below a certain income means you are less deserving of family life.
Meanwhile, the very same publications will fret over career-minded young women leaving having children later on; as if their supposed success is nothing more than a genetic gift being selfishly hoarded.
Speaking with UNILAD, Adam posited that eugenic thought has ‘never truly left’:
Embronic eugenic thoughts have always been around, and have never truly left. If you look at Galton, he stood around looking at women and rating their attractiveness. Isn’t that just Tinder? Isn’t Tinder the same but without creepy gloves and in the name of science?
And I think when we start talking about who can and can’t breed, once you take, for example, gene editing, embryonic technology.
Once we take those decisions out of the patients’ hands then we start to see people losing their own autonomy and it’s made on behalf of others by clinicians, and that’s when we start to go towards eugenics.
If people with genetic conditions – like myself – want to use these technologies, and examine these technologies then that’s completely up to them. But when it’s forced upon them, or when they go completely crazy like they did in China, it becomes very eugenic and very dangerous.
Adam went on to reference the various ways in which eugenics has raised its ugly head in recent times; from Iceland’s 100% termination rate to the terrifyingly recent forced sterilisation of indigenous women.
Adam told UNILAD:
People think eugenics is dead and buried in the past, so they don’t understand eugenics. Science moves so quickly and the law takes so long to pass through, that by the time you’ve passed laws the science has moved on and the laws are already obsolete.
There needs to be cross institutional communication where science, society and politicians are all talking to each other and all know what going on and then are held to account.
And then as soon as someone says something that’s ridiculous, they’re instantly dealt with and reprimanded, which I don’t think happens.
Variety is beautiful and interesting and brings us a diverse range of voices in lieu of uniformity and stagnation.
It’s a quality which should be valued within societies; shaping personalities and bringing out the sort of character and creativity the UK is so regularly said to cherish.
None of us have the right to determine who is worthy of having children; to weigh lives against each other and decide whose genes get to be passed on through the generations ahead.
With the field of eugenics lurking just below the surface of British life, it is essential to educate ourselves on this shameful inheritance; ensuring such horrors remain locked in the history archives.
You can watch BBC Four’s Eugenics: Science’s Greatest Scandal on BBC iPlayer now.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.