The legacy of eugenics, the Galton Laboratory, and women: a public history perspective 

Student project team at work with documents from special collections
Student project team at work with documents from special collections
Did you know that there used to be a scientific laboratory at UCL that researched ways to construct "better" genetics for humanity? VPEE student journalist Defne Kutay meets a group of staff and students who are exploring its history and legacy.

Please take care when accessing the article below.  The article includes content intended to offer a historical and critical analysis of the development and role of eugenics. However they contain often upsetting information about race, class, and disability. Please be aware that some writers do not always contextualise their work in ways that prepare the reader for descriptions of these ideas.

The UCL Eugenics Legacy Education Project , Special Collections, and a group of MA Public History students are currently developing new projects to look into UCL’s history and legacy of eugenics.  

Every year, students on the MA Public History (a new degree based at UCL East) are assigned to work with a client to produce a public history output for a research project as a part of their Critical Public History module. This created the opportunity for a group of enthusiastic students (Breda, Mad, Julia, Jahanara, Minyue, and Amelia) to collaborate with UCL Special Collections. Their project explores the history of eugenics and the role played by women in the Galton Laboratory. The Galton Laboratory , based at UCL between 1904-1913, was the first institution in the world to study human genetics as a science. The laboratory researched eugenics , a pseudo-science based on the belief that human populations could be ’improved’ by using selective breeding.  

About the laboratory 

The Galton Laboratory was first established in 1904 as the Eugenics Record Office by Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), a Victorian era polymath who founded the eugenics movement. When he died, Galton bequeathed money to the University of London to establish a Professorship of eugenics and to continue the work of his Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics, which resided at UCL. In 1966, it became the Department of Human Genetics and Biometry. Originally the laboratory aimed to establish eugenics as an academic scientific discipline. However, it also made numerous contributions to the modern sciences, mostly in mathematics and statistics. The Public History project’s goal is to raise awareness regarding the origins of these scientific developments by exploring the publications produced by the Galton Laboratory, which have been recently digitised and made available online.

Sensitivity of the subject 

The archives of the Galton Laboratory in UCL’s archives catalogue have a content warning, and it’s there for a reason. Public History student Breda explains that "even though these publications originated in a university department, the contextual language around the knowledge as well as its real-life implications are essentially racist, ableist, sexist. and classist." Eugenic ideas spread a false and dangerous idea of who was valuable to society and excluded those who didn’t fit their narrow definitions.  

Therefore, there are significant ethical considerations about how the students use their research results. They are pushed to answer the question: "How can we share our findings with our audience in a way that doesn’t reinforce problematic narratives?"  

Women in the Galton Laboratory 

Undoubtedly, the role of women in STEM has been historically overlooked. To draw attention to this issue, the Public History project is specifically putting their focus onto the women who worked in the Galton Laboratory. The students shared that looking into the experiences of the women of the Galton Laboratory provided them with substantial insight regarding the working conditions for women in the world of science in the early-20th century.  

Throughout their research, students have noticed that very few academic papers published by the laboratory were authored by women. In most cases, papers were co-authored by other men, such as the director of the laboratory Karl Pearson. Yet in the body of the text, references were given to numerous women contributors who were actually the ones doing the calculations.  

Aside from the women who are very clearly described as mathematicians or statisticians, the students detected a number of women whose role is described as secretary. Ordinarily, the secretary is the person in charge of the laboratory administration. However, despite being named the secretary, there were women who did most of the mathematical calculations or donated books to the laboratory. Student Breda notes that, "If you look at the job titles that women are sometimes given, you notice that there is this pervasive influence of gender biases on the way most work environments still operate today."  

The project’s methodology

Students have a two-fold approach to the project. Firstly, they will be focusing on UCL audiences. They are planning on giving interactive talks about their research to engage with other students studying in related areas and enhancing their knowledge of this history. 

The students’ long-term focus is going to be updating all the information related to the Galton Laboratory on Wikipedia. UCL Special Collections archivist Jo Baines (the lead client of the project) is hoping to focus on the "red links" in Wikipedia - women that don’t have a page on Wikipedia about their work. The students will be using their research to link those female scientists back to the Galton Laboratory.  

The legacy of eugenics at UCL 

Although this project was initiated as a part of a MA Public History assignment, its impact will be preserved by the Eugenics Legacy Education Project (ELEP) .

The students have stated that "We are hoping that shared learnings will emerge from the collaborative discussion sparked as a result of our work, which can then also feed back to the ELEP and Special Collections teams and inspire further programmes of education."  

Created as a result of the Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL , ELEP acknowledges that as a powerful institution, UCL has the responsibility to make sure that a lesson is learned from its past involvement with eugenics and the Galton Laboratory. The Public History project and ELEP are working hand-in-hand to navigate this difficult subject. Investigating the legacy of eugenics could help provide an improved understanding of how to approach sensitive curriculum areas in the future.  

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About the author

I’m Defne Kutay, and I was born and raised in Turkey. I am a first-year undergraduate student studying Politics and International Relations. Given the nature of my degree, I am drawn to reporting on issues and developments regarding global affairs, social justice, and human rights. I also have an interest in writing about film, art, design, music, and culture. 

I strongly believe in the power of media and the importance of amplifying student voices. Therefore, I am thankful to have the opportunity to reach a wider audience and contribute to the UCL community! 
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