Science history: Does renaming a building rewrite its past? © Alamy

Science history: Does renaming a building rewrite its past?

What message does naming a building after a scientist associated with eugenics send? And does rechristening that building simply hide the complicated truth?

Back in June, University College London (UCL) announced that it would be denaming the Galton Lecture Theatre as “one step in a range of actions aimed at acknowledging and addressing the university’s historical links with the eugenics movement.”

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Sir Francis Galton, whom the lecture theatre was named after, was a Victorian scientist who founded the British study of eugenics. But does removing Galton’s name minimise, or even hide, his role in shaping our society today?

We posed this question to Subhadra Das, a science historian and curator at UCL, who has spent the last eight years looking after the items in the university’s Galton collection.

How do you feel about the renaming of the Galton lecture theatre?

I’m very pleased, because it’s something that people have wanted to happen for a long time and it’s definitely the right thing to do.

But I hope that my community at the university also realises that this is really just the beginning. That we’ve so much work to do when it comes to these ideas and these ways of thinking.

Read more about racism in science:

Who was Galton?

Sir Francis Galton is probably the most famous Victorian scientist not a lot of people have heard of. I had never heard of him until I started curating the collection. Galton was many things; he was an explorer in Africa, he was a meteorologist, a statistician, a biologist.

He’s also the man who came up with the word ‘eugenics’. He coined the term. I think a lot of people, if they hear the word eugenics, probably think about the Nazis and the horrors of the Holocaust. But actually, the story is a lot older and it’s a lot more British than that.

Eugenics has a big history in the UK then?

Absolutely. It’s not something to be proud of, but it is a British invention.

Galton was probably as famous in his lifetime as his very famous cousin – a man called Charles Darwin. Galton added on to Darwin’s theory of evolution his own particular genius. What he said was, if it’s the case that humans are like any other animal, then we should be able to breed better humans in the same way that we breed animals to suit our own purposes.

Because of the time in which he was operating, his theories built on existing ideas to do with scientific racism. These were ideas that came out of the Enlightenment in Europe, ways of classifying different kinds of humans, ways that we now know to be incorrect.

Probably the most dangerous thing about those ideas was that there was a hierarchy involved.

So having classified different human beings as being white or being European, or being black and being African, or being brown and from India like me, there was an inherent hierarchy that was put in place by European scientists – a hierarchy that they mistakenly believed meant white European people were better than everybody else.

But that belief in eugenics and a hierarchy between humans impacted the entire scientific community, didn’t it?

It did, entirely. Galton is essentially one of the founding fathers of modern statistics. He came up with the principles of correlation, regression to the mean, and was one of the founders of the biometrics school of thought.

A lot of the work he did is fundamental to contemporary science and how it works. His ideas about eugenics weren’t necessarily all that popular until the turn of the 20th Century. Eugenics probably took off in a considerably bigger way after his lifetime than during it.

The thing that I’m mainly concerned about is that we need to be very mindful of where his ideas were coming from and the ways in which they shape our ideas today. That doesn’t mean to say that we throw all of Victorian science out the window and start again – of course it doesn’t. These things are extraordinarily useful ways of approaching the world.

The idea of eugenics didn’t die with him, then?

The idea definitely didn’t die with him. I think most historians of Galton would say that he would have been horrified by things that his ideas were put to. That he would have been horrified by the sterilisation of people without their consent in the United States. He would be horrified by the sterilisation and the extermination of people in the Holocaust.

My view on that is a little bit different, in so far as he may well have considered these to be the important and Earth-shattering historical developments that we think them to be, but I don’t know that he would necessarily have thought they were a bad thing. But I need to explore that a little bit more, how he would feel about these things.

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There’s an interview that he gave to a newspaper called The Jewish Chronicle [in 1910].

A Jewish journalist asks him how he feels about the persecution of Jewish people in Russia, and Galton’s response was that it’s difficult to talk to any individual political moment, but that in general, this person – this Jewish person that he was speaking to – should be grateful that those weaker and lesser individuals within that person’s race, as he saw it, were being exterminated for them, because it meant that the Jewish race would become stronger as a result.

That journalist asked him, “Don’t you feel that that’s a very immoral position to hold?” And what Galton said was that it is neither immoral or moral. It is amoral. It has nothing to do with morality.

And that’s where things start to become really dangerous, because if scientists believe their work to be apolitical, or that it has nothing to do with morality, that is where disaster strikes.

Why is it a problem that UCL has a lecture theatre named after Sir Francis Galton?

As a historian, I used to be in two minds about this. UCL has also got a whole building named after Karl Pearson, who was as ardent a eugenicist, if not more so, than Galton himself. [Since this interview took place, the Pearson Building has been renamed.]

We’ve also got a museum named after William Matthew Flinders Petrie, an Egyptologist and archaeologist who contributed a lot to the science of eugenics at the turn of the 20th Century.

While those buildings had those names, I had thought that it meant that those names were at the forefront of people’s minds and it meant that it kept the story alive.

Francis Galton © Getty Images
Francis Galton © Getty Images

But, in the interim and in the last few years, I have realised that keeping the names of people who were involved in developing a science which meant that people who look like me were deemed to not be fit to live… I don’t see how that can be anything other than phenomenally painful and inappropriate.

The naming of buildings is a clear act of commemoration. I think that in that aspect, it’s something that we shouldn’t be doing. In a way, it’s kind of the same thing as putting up a statue, because what that’s doing is saying ‘these are people that we respect’ and ‘we value their ideas’ and ‘we are the kind of society that wants to hold these people up’.

First of all, I don’t feel like that is the society that we are. But also, I just don’t feel like it’s a good thing to do.

As statues are pulled down and names of things are changed, some people say we are ‘erasing history’. What would you say in response to that?

I’d say that isn’t how history works. And, I’d say that it was exactly the opposite.

This is just based on my personal experience of teaching the history and philosophy of science at the university, from which I say that Sir Francis Galton is the most famous and influential Victorian scientist most people have never heard of.

To me, the fact that his story has allowed to be forgotten and also the story of scientific racism, more widely, has been allowed to be forgotten, really is part of the problem.

It seems like it’s contrary to everything I work towards in terms of decolonising and diversifying the curriculum, but this really is one old, dead, white man that needs to be written back into the history books.

In museums and with a lot of history programmes, we talk about hidden histories and that isn’t actually inaccurate. But the point is that if these histories have been hidden, it means that someone hid them.

So, by bringing them out into the clear light of day we’re not erasing history. Telling these stories is actually widening the frame and telling a fuller picture.

What other changes will we see to museums?

We’ve seen museums acknowledging their own racism and their own role in perpetuating these ideologies.

A really good example is the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of New York City. They’ve always been a politically actively minded museum, and they’ve made it clear that they have listened and taken on the message of the problems to do with race in US society.

UK museums are starting to do the same thing as well. Somerset House made an anti-racism pledge, noting that black people are under-represented across their organisation.

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The more that we all start to realise that this is to do with all of us and scientists, people who work in museums, people who are science communicators, people who are public historians, the responsibility is on all of us to start telling these stories more accurately and to acknowledge the privilege and the position that we’re in.

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