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Eugenics. What does the word mean? What is its genesis? And more importantly, what is its legacy?

GuestBlogger7 November 2014

pencil-icon Written by Natalie Clue, Human Genetics BSc

Eugenics tree, 1921

Eugenics tree, 1921. Credit: American Philosophical Society.

I write this post after a whirlwind introduction to the discipline of eugenics and its inextricable connection to our university, upon reading an article written by Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, recently published in Times Higher Education. In a matter of weeks, I came to learn much more about the dark legacy of the celebrated figurehead in which our university takes immense pride: Francis Galton.

He is lauded as a polymath and eminent scientist who worked on biostatistics and human genetics, as well as a traveller and inventor of scientific instruments and a contributor to the subjects of meteorology and criminology. He was also the founding father of eugenics.

I learnt that the word eugenics is derived from the Greek word eu (‘good’ or ‘well’) and the suffix –genēs (‘born’), and that it was coined by Galton in 1883. I learnt that his definition of eugenics was “the study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations“.

I also came to discover that a prime motivation for the research which led to many of the ‘achievements’ noted above was the motivation to determine what constituted ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ traits among the peoples of the world, to legitimise the theory of racial supremacy – with the ‘Aryan’ race being the ‘master’ of all and the ‘Negro’ being the least of the ‘lesser’ – and to classify these ‘lesser’ races as non-occidental or ‘other’.

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Find the mind’s construction in the face: an exhibition of life and death masks

Sophie EPleterski11 June 2014

noel

I have to admit that this was my first visit to the UCL Art Museum. After walking past it twice, I finally stumbled across the entrance to this carnivalesque little treasure trove and almost immediately part of me wished I hadn’t.

Surrounded by rows of the plaster life and death masks of poets and murderers, professors and highwaymen, child prodigies and medics, it wasn’t very clear where in this bizarre spectacle you might want to begin.

Thankfully, it was at this point that Dr Carole Reeves (UCL Science & Technology Studies) swooped in to put what felt like a macabre examination of someone’s final moments into its historical context.

The masks were collected in mid 19th-century Dresden by amateur phrenologist Robert Nole to illustrate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ types of people.

Donated to UCL as part of the Galton Collection in 1911, they exemplify the trend in 19th century aristocratic circles for pseudo-scientific hobbies. Nole’s particular predilection was phrenology: the study of head morphology and the belief that it is intrinsically linked to a person’s character.

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A question of breeding?

GuestBlogger18 November 2011

Florence Nightingale, Courtesy of the Florence Nightingale Museum Trust, London“Put on your 19th century spectacles” was the advice given at UCL’s Petrie Museum on Thursday evening, in the last of a series of events to mark the centenary of the death of UCL’s Francis Galton.

Ben Davies tried to abandon his modern preconceptions to hear Natasha McEnroe discuss the lives and work of two “true Victorians”: Galton and his contemporary, Florence Nightingale.

If you stick to the stereotypes, the two could not be more different. Galton is best known for his pioneering work in eugenics, a discipline that is viewed as rather cold and unfeeling. Nightingale’s political campaigning is largely forgotten by the public, with the focus largely on her nursing in the Crimea.

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All Connected? Immigration, politics and eugenics

BenStevens3 November 2011

Eugenics remains synonymous with the Nazis and their murderous obsession with an Aryan master race; yet, until the outbreak of the Second World War, it remained a mainstream British scientific pursuit.

Dr Gavin Schaffer, Senior Lecturer in British History at the University of Birmingham, used that somewhat discomfiting fact to set the scene for his complex lecture, ‘All Connected? Immigration, politics and eugenics’, at the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology last week.

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