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Essays in the History of Eugenics (review)

From: Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Volume 74, Number 1, Spring 2000
pp. 180-183 | 10.1353/bhm.2000.0029

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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 74.1 (2000) 180-183

Book Review

Essays in the History of Eugenics

Robert A. Peel, ed. Essays in the History of Eugenics. Proceedings of a conference organized by the Galton Institute, London, 1997. London: Galton Institute, 1998. xv + 233 pp. Tables. £5.00 (paperbound).

The contributors to this collection of essays are mainly historians. They include some of the best-known players on the history-of-eugenics scene: Daniel Kevles, Greta Jones, Richard Soloway, Geoffrey Searle, and Lesley Hall (curator of the Eugenics Society's papers at the Wellcome Institute), as well as some whose mark has been made in the field of genetics and demography. The centerpiece of the collection is the Galton Institute's annual Galton Lecture.

Since these collections have not usually been sent for review to the historical journals, readers may like to know something of their background. The Galton Institute was founded in 1907 as the Eugenics Education Society, with Charles Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, as its honorary president up to the time of his death in 1911. In 1926, the Society changed its name to the Eugenics Society, and it kept that name until 1989, when it changed again to become the Galton Institute. This last change had been under discussion since 1957, as the Society struggled to deal with the loss of prestige and support suffered by eugenics after the Second World War.

Along with its changes of name, the Society's aims and the journals it published also evolved. For its first fifty years it was a pressure group devoted to pushing for legislation that would further a eugenics program, including a campaign for voluntary sterilization. Its house organ was the Eugenics Review. In the late sixties, after much discussion, the Society abandoned its pressure-group tradition and entered a new period of promotion of biosocial science, in which its old emphasis on the dangers of the fertility differential between classes tended to be replaced by a related issue, the fertility and population problems of the Third World. The old Eugenics Review came to an end and was replaced by the Journal of Biosocial Science, and in 1984 the Society's Bulletin matured into the journal Biology and Society. It is notable that, according to the Society's own account, its Council, in approving a lower profile for the eugenics program, gave their support to what they called "crypto-eugenics." Studies of Third World fertility and population growth seem to fall into that category. However, Third World contributors to the Journal of Biosocial Science who talked to me in the early nineties were quite unaware of the connection or its implications.

The first of the Society's annual Galton Lectures, on what was then called "Galton Day," was given in 1914 by Francis Darwin, Charles Darwin's third son. His subject was Francis Galton himself. Between that time and this, many famous names in human genetics, social studies, and demography have given the Galton Lecture: Julian Huxley gave it twice, in 1936 and 1962; it was also given by John Maynard Keynes, Alexander Carr-Saunders, J. D. Bernal, and William Beveridge. With Andrew Huxley, F.R.S., who spoke on his father in 1987, the subjects of the Galton Lectures began to change: J. H. Edwards spoke on Galton in 1991, Richard Soloway on Marie Stopes in 1996, and in the collection under review, Anthony W. F. Edwards spoke on "The Eugenics Society and the Development of Biometry." The irruption of history and historians into the series marks a further stage in the Society's evolution. Responding to the growth of a worldwide literature on the history of the eugenics movement, the attention of the Society itself has turned to the historical assessment of the very considerable part it played in the development of human genetics, biometry, and population studies in Britain. It is currently putting together a bibliography of this secondary material.

These essays present the Eugenics Society as an instrument of liberal progressivism in Britain. Greta Jones, for example, points to Galton's preferred engine of progress, a hereditary intellectual meritocracy, based on his own lineage and the social class to which...