Workshop: Eugenics in the Academy

In summer 2020, memorials to prominent eugenicists Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, and Ronald Fisher were removed from campuses in London and Cambridge, as campaigners pressured universities to address their historical entanglements with the eugenics movement. Eugenics is the project of improving the genetic ‘quality’ of human populations by controlling who is and is not able to reproduce. Today, it is widely derided as dangerous ‘pseudoscience’. But this was not always so. In Britain, the birthplace of the movement, eugenics once boasted the status and infrastructure of a bona fide science, with lavishly funded university departments and laboratories, dedicated learned societies, and specialist scholarly journals. This workshop will reckon with these histories. Through case-studies ranging from UCL’s Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics, to Oxford’s short-lived (and little-studied) Anthropometric Laboratory, contributions will ask how elite institutions of teaching and research have historically helped to establish and sustain eugenics. We will also be concerned with the afterlives of eugenics in the academy. How were eugenic academic networks and infrastructure dismantled or otherwise transformed following the Second World War, when the movement’s popularity and visibility waned? Some institutions have already begun the urgent work of confronting their historical entanglements with eugenics – eg, through curricular reform, commissioned research, exhibitions and outreach activities, as well as through processes of renaming and denaming. This workshop will provide an opportunity to reflect critically upon these initiatives, and to consider how institutions might do better going forward.