The history of eugenics in Britain is far from hidden or forgotten. Many excellent papers and books explore the role of individuals (e.g., Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, Ronald Fisher, and Leonard Darwin to name only a few of the men involved) and the role of organisations (e.g., Eugenics Education Society). Eugenics in Britain has been studied in depth with an emphasis on class, gender, race, and political theory. It’s been studied with an emphasis on international relations, modernism, anti-semitism, techno science, and the politics of migration. It’s an area of lively scholarly discussion and has been for fifty years. Also, it’s a topic regularly examined in film, documentaries, books, newspapers, blogs, and other media platforms.
In the course of my own research into activities that lead to something like a “Department of Eugenics” at University College London (UCL) , I returned to a work I believe remains one of the best:
Farrall, Lyndsay Andrew. 1969. “The origins and growth of the English eugenics movement, 1865-1925.” PhD, Indiana University. (Download free pdf)
It’s a detailed, research-led, archives-driven study of activities at University of London, University College (aka UCL) between about 1900 and 1925. The specific focus is Karl Pearson and the “Francis Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics”. Farrall’s done his research well, providing a detailed accounting of personnel, activities, funding, and publications. If you want to follow “what happened” with UCL as an organisation, Farrall is an excellent starting point.
I find especially insightful Farrall’s comparison of Pearson’s university-based group with the membership-driven organisation, the Eugenics Education Society. The latter was loud and energetic in lobbying government, campaigning, writing, and pressuring people on a more-or-less daily basis. In Farrall’s accounting, the Eugenics Education Society drove the English eugenics movement, and the university researchers by-and-large failed to command much in terms of leadership or vision.
For comparison, science fiction writers and film makers don’t need NASA. But having NASA doing its thing certainly helps when the writers and film makers market their products. To me, that’s the rough and easy way to interpret Pearson’s importance in the story of English eugenics. He played a NASA-wannabe (because he wanted science, statistics, precision, and university professors to be in charge) while the Eugenics Education Society simply got on with the agenda they wanted to deliver.
But maybe you disagree. Read Farrall’s work, and some of the other first-class work on the subject, and bring your evidence into conversation.
Read it again for 50th anniversary
Farrall’s work is a PhD dissertation, submitted in 1969 to Indiana University. Sometimes dissertations are re-written and converted into books. In Farrall’s case, he moved on to other accomplishments. This important piece of writing stayed within specialised communities of historians, who have spent fifty years mining it for data. For most everyone else, it’s disappeared under a mountain of new material.
I thought a 50th anniversary celebration was in order, and Lyndsay Farrall very kindly agreed to allow me to produce a facsimile edition.
Thanks to my university department, UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS), Farrall’s important study has been republished as a free-to-download, open access volume within the STS Occasional Papers series. It is published as the complete dissertation, in a facsimile of its original form, together with a few additional elements. The text is searchable.
Lyndsay Andrew Farrall. 2019. The Origins and Growth of the English Eugenics Movement, 1865-1925. STS Occasional Papers number 9 (London: UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies). ISBN 978-1-78751-001-2.
For those who want print, a softcover paper edition is available through bookshops and online retailers.
Table of Contents (Farrall 1969)
The table of contents for Farrall’s 1969 dissertation shows the main threads of coverage and analysis.
2. Origins of the Eugenics Movement
a. Natural Selection and Man
b. Heredity in Theory and in Practice
c. Science, Society and Politics
3. The Biometric School
a. The Formation of a Biometric School
b. The Establishment of “Biometrika”
4. The Galton Eugenics Laboratory
a. Formation and Growth of the Eugenics Laboratory
a.1 Galton’s Original Benefaction
a2. Karl Pearson, the Biometric Laboratory and University College
a3. Galton’s Death and the Foundation of a Chair of Eugenics
b. Karl Pearson as Director of the Galton Eugenics Laboratory
c. Financial Arrangements of the Galton and Biometric Laboratories
c4. Financial Support of the Laboratories as a Reflection of the Financial Support of Scientific Research Generally
d. The Relationship of the Galton Laboratory to University College and the University of London
e. Personnel, Research and Teaching at the Galton Laboratory
e1. Research and Publications
e3. The Archival and Storehouse Role of the Laboratory
e4. The Laboratory as Consultative Agency and Educator of the Public
5. Biometry and Eugenics: Two New Sciences?
a. Hagstrom’s Account of Disciplinary Differentiation
b. Disciplinary Differentiation in the Case of Biometry and Eugenics
c. Intellectual and Social Elements in the Historiography of Science
6. The Eugenics Education Society
a. Origins and Formation of the Society
b. Membership of the Society
b1. Members of the Society Eminent in Their Own Right
b2. The Members of the Council of the Eugenics Education Society
b3. Random Sample of the Members of the Eugenics Education Society
c. The Eugenics Review
d. The Eugenics Education Society and Political Action
e. The Eugenics Education Society and the Eugenics Movement
7. Eugenics and Alcoholism: A Scientific Solution for a Social Problem?
a. The Eugenics Laboratory Memoir
a1. Eugenics as a Research Tradition
b. The Response of Social Scientists
c. The Response of the Medical Profession
d. Other Responses to Elderton and Pearson’s Study
8. Science, Society and Politics: The British Eugenics Movement, Middle Class Radicalism, and Social Imperialism
a. Science and Society
a1. The Galton Eugenics Laboratory and the Financial Support of Science
a2. Pearsonian Science and Positivist Metaphysics
a3. The Vulgarization of Science: Use and Abuse
b. Middle Class Radicalism
c. Eugenics, Nationalism and Imperialism
c1. Social Darwinism
c2. Eugenics and Race
c3. Efficiency and Nationalism
c4. Eugenics and Social-Imperialism
9. Concluding Remarks
(from profjoecain.net, with permission)