restricted access Eugenics in Australia: Striving for National Fitness (review)
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Reviewed by
Diana Wyndham. Eugenics in Australia: Striving for National Fitness. London, Galton Institute, 2003. xii, 406 pp. £5 (paper).

Although most European cultures have had their eugenic traditions carefully scrutinized in recent decades, Australia is a notable exception. Once seen as a social laboratory with the world's earliest progressive state welfare legislation, Australia has had the eugenic influences on its progressivism largely ignored by historians or only grudgingly allowed. But nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century colonists characterized the continent as a blank slate biologically and geographically. Social Darwinist ideas, not merely eugenics, became the justification for creating a new European environment peopled by a European population. Thus many students of eugenics "smoothed the pillow" of the "dying" aboriginal race, while enthusiastically predicting the birth of a new super white race under the Southern skies. Walter Baldwin Spencer was one, an anthropologist who both cared about and recorded aboriginal culture (believing it was doomed) and joined the first eugenics society in Melbourne in 1918.

Those involved in planning the peopling of the continent—and this included almost every major public figure and intellectual—had only two essential criteria for writing the story of race on the blank slate: The new citizens had to be white and good types at that. The first step was the passage of the Alien Immigrations Act in 1901, the first substantive act of the federal Parliament. This legislation established the framework for the White Australia policy, which was not rescinded until the 1960s.

Wyndham inquires whether eugenics can be seen as an important influence on this legislation. A perusal of the debates in Parliament, however, leaves little doubt about the broad social Darwinist views on the inferiority of colored races that dominated the minds of virtually all Australians. The [End Page 239] acceptance of these ideas is also evident in the Roman Catholic Church's endorsement of a white Australia. So successful was the project that, having observed the White Australia policy from close quarters during his controversial tour in 1934, Czech-German communist Egon Erwin Kisch wrote that "Australia consists of 96 per cent white skinned, 'British born' inhabitants, and about this the Labour leaders are just as proud as the bourgeois Nationalists" (Australian Landfall, trans. John Fisher and Irene and Kevin Fitzgerald, Sydney, Australasia Book Society, 1969 [1937], p. 209).

Part one of the racial experiment having been completed, the next task was to ensure that only the best possible white citizens were born. Dealing with the degenerate or mentally deficient was a thornier problem than restricting immigration, but middle-class Australians and the press still supported attempts throughout the 1920s and 1930s to introduce legislation to segregate a proportion (from 5 to 20 percent) of the population, based on the 1913 English Act. All this can be found in Wyndham's book. Some significant public figures admired the sterilization legislation in the United States and warned that the multiplication of the unfit would soon warrant such measures in Australia. Almost all the legislation introduced into the States (constitutionally, the Commonwealth could do little) failed, though never because of outright opposition. The story is too long to relate here. Many other eugenic policies were enthusiastically instituted so that breeding the best white race was characterized by historians after 1945 as essentially an environmental movement concerned with good motherhood, improved nutrition and care, slum clearance, and the like, notably ignoring eugenics. Wyndham is excellent on reviewing theories of motherhood and birth.

In 1984 Michael Roe unveiled a more complete picture of Australian reformism in the early twentieth century (Nine Australian Progressives: Vitalism in Bourgeois Social Thought 1890 - 1960, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1984). He explained how Australian progressives were aligned with progressives and liberals throughout the Western world in their endorsement of eugenic ideas. In the past twenty years there has been some progress in developing a history of Australian eugenics but less so in building on Roe's broad vision, at least until Warwick Anderson's The Cultivation of Whiteness (New York: Basic Books, 2002). Although dealing with eugenics as a side issue, Anderson convincingly tells the broader story of the creation of the Australian race.

An Australian...