Cyril Burt in the History of Eugenics at UCL

Cyril Burt (1955) ‘The Meaning and Assessment of Intelligence’, The Eugenics Review, 47(2), pp. 81-91.

What was the research and advocacy that took place by personnel associated with UCL and its sister institutions? Beata Luchanskaya investigates Cyril Burt (1955) ‘The Meaning and Assessment of Intelligence’, The Eugenics Review, 47(2), pp. 81-91.

Biographical Context

Cyril Burt (1883-1971) was a British psychologist renowned for his research into intelligence and the development of mental reasoning tests. Throughout his career, Burt’s academic research and contributions to post-war policy reform made him arguably “the most significant and influential educational psychologist of his generation” (Mackintosh, 1995). Burt dedicated his life’s work to the assessment of intelligence and its distribution and variability throughout the British population. In his first academic publication in 1909, Burt suggested that intelligence is an inherited unitary quality that could be precisely and objectively measured through reasoning tests (Burt, 1909).This paper came to define Burt’s career and he advocated for the validity of his findings for the rest of his life (Hearnshaw, 1979).

Burt’s major biographies address the profound influence of eugenic thought on his work. Having met Francis Galton through his father at a very young age, Galton’s work on individual differences and heredity became the foundation of most of Burt’s publications (Hearnshaw, 1979). Burt repeatedly concluded that private school children performed better than ordinary elementary school children on intelligence tests and that these differences must be innate (Burt, 1909; 1921).Using Galton’s normal distribution and Charles Spearman’s factor analysis, Burt advocated for the theory of ‘general intelligence’, namely, that intelligence was a single unitary quality that rather than a range of different abilities. Burt’s conclusions were closely tied with development of Britain’s education policy throughout the 20th century. Due to his extensive development of mental reasoning tests, Burt was appointed psychologist to the London County Council (LCC) in 1913. In this post he was tasked with identifying London’s ‘mentally defective’ children for their transfer away from ‘normal’ children and into special schools. At his request, Burt’s role was later extended to surveying the whole London school population and his findings eventually led to the establishment of the tripartite, selective education system and the 11+ examination (Hearnshaw, 1979). Together with the LCC administration, “a self-conscious administrative elite […] worried about the possible deterioration in the quality of the race” (Wooldridge, 1994), Burt was able to institutionalise Galton’s eugenic philosophy into the British education system.

Biographical sources on Burt tend to focus on his academic research and publications, yet few do justice to his engagement with eugenics in popular culture. Cyril Burt was one of the original members of the Eugenics Education Society (EES) – a collection of professionals and academics who advocated for the insertion of eugenic values into British politics and social culture. As an esteemed member, Burt became a mentor to emerging education psychologists (Burt, 1923, Letter to C. B. S Hodson) and frequently lectured about his work in a popular, widely understandable format. Additionally, Mike Chamarette (2019) has very recently highlighted Burt’s pre-occupation with radio broadcasting as a means of educating the lay public about developments in psychology. Chamarette recalls that during his appearances on BBC3, Burt used scientific language to “imply, rather than state, that tragic outcomes such as Mongolianism (Down’s Syndrome) or cretinism were entirely avoidable through mental hygiene and sound eugenic policy”. Burt’s engagement with radio as well as his popular science book The Young Delinquent (1931) suggests that his influence was not contained to academia or even public policy. He was able to speak directly to the lay public and effectively disseminate eugenic philosophies. Mentions of Burt’s engagement with the lay public are largely absent from the publications of Mackintosh (1994) and even Hearnshaw (1979). Hence, Chamarette’s depiction of Burt as a science communicator showcases the true extent of his influence on public opinion about eugenics.

Cyril Burt’s work faced significant criticism later in his career. In 1932, Burt succeeded Spearman to become chair of the psychology department at University College London (UCL), which he steered towards a focus on individual differences. During his time at UCL, Burt’s publications became more controversial and provocative (Hearnshaw, 1979). His publication Ability and Income (Burt, 1943) explicitly states that disparities in intelligence are not the product of social and economic circumstances but rather the result of heredity. Burt continued to make these explicitly controversial conclusions throughout his retirement, writing books, editing journals and publishing over 200 articles (Jensen, 1995). It was during this time that Burt’s work became increasingly challenged by progressive academics laying emphasis on the environmental determinants of intelligence. Additionally, psychologists such as Brian Simon (1971) began campaigning against intelligence testing in comprehensive schools on the grounds that it exacerbated social inequalities. In response, Burt’s publications became more defensive in their tone, focussing more on addressing his critics than developing his ideas (Mascie-Taylor and Gibson, 1978). Hearnshaw (1979) labels this response as a desperate attempt to preserve his “special brand” of psychology that was rapidly fading out. This is especially evident in the subject of this work, Burt’s 1955 paper The Meaning and Assessment of Intelligence. Criticisms intensified even further after Burt’s death as he was widely accused of fabricating his data, methodology and even the two assistants who supposedly co-wrote his later publications. The legitimacy of these accusations is the primary focus of Burt’s major biographies (Hearnshaw, 1979; Fletcher, 1991; Mackintosh, 1995).


Cyril Burt’s The Meaning and Assessment of Intelligence was a Galton Lecture delivered on May 4th 1955, five years after Burt’s retirement from University College London. Delivered to the members of the Eugenics Education Society (EES), the Galton Lecture was an opportunity to showcase academic work in a widely intelligible manner and was regarded as the society’s most important event of the year (‘The Galton lecture, 1946’, 1946).

By the 1950s, Burt’s mental reasoning tests were employed widely in the British education, legal and military sectors (Hearnshaw, 1979); their profound influence garnered both admiration and, later on, substantial scepticism. As such, Burt’s lecture is first and fore most a response to criticism. He dedicates his exposition entirely to the psychologists and other academics who have attacked intelligence testing and questioned “how far the evidence really justifies these widespread applications” (p.81). In a tone that seems simultaneously defensive and condescending, Burt insists that “all these criticisms rest on a mass of confusions” which could be easily resolved by “a mere glance at the relevant literature” (p.81). Consequently, the lecture proceeds to provide a lengthy etymology of the term ‘intelligence’ and recounts a history of philosophical, biological and psychological origins of the concept. The lecture reveals Burt’s implicit assumption that his critics have failed to truly understand ‘intelligence’, in both definition and substance, and that a thorough explanation would dispel their scepticism of intelligence testing. However, there is a clear break of logic in his reasoning- a history of intelligence cannot justify the format and application of intelligence testing. For instance, Dr. Alice Heim (1954) an expert on intelligence herself, criticised Burt not from a lack of understanding but from a concern that his intelligence tests were presented as exact and objective when intelligence should be seen as much more vague and qualitative.

Additionally, there is a persistent rhetoric of ‘efficiency’ throughout Burt’s lecture. He draws on physiology and Spencerian biology to define intelligence as “a name for the varying degrees of efficiency in the fundamental cognitive processes” (pg. 84). It follows that the intelligent can be discerned on the most basic neurological level as their cerebral properties are structurally superior, whilst “defectives, for example, exhibit a general cerebral immaturity” (pg. 85). This rhetoric is extended further as Burt draws on Galtonian theory of individual differences to suggest that the intelligent have “the capacity to adjust [themselves] to circumstances” (pg. 86). Here, the notion of efficiency becomes more social than biological, and Burt describes his research as an effort to determine a child’s “ultimate efficiency as an adult citizen” (pg. 88). As such, the lecture seems to support the notion that the eugenics movement was the product of Britain’s quest for national efficiency (Searle, 1976). The unintelligent or mentally ‘defective’ are somehow unable to keep up with “complex and ever-changing environment” (pg. 83) of modern society and are therefore a poor expenditure of societal resources. This argument is consistent with those of other eugenicists including Edgar Schuster (1913), believing that the mentally unfit present an obstacle to British industrialisation through their inability to perform basic tasks. By drawing on multiple academic disciplines, Burt establishes an efficiency hierarchy ranging from basic sensory efficiency to social efficiency on a cultural level. If one’s ‘efficiency’ can be inferred on so many levels, it is necessary to test all individual abilities ranging from “the simplest sensory or motor reactions to those of logical thought in its most developed forms” (pg. 87). This becomes one of Burt’s justifications for intelligence testing as he insists that Galtonian statistics are the most rigorous and objective methods for assessing individuals and their potential contribution to society.

Finally, Burt’s frequent references to Plato and Platonic thought appeals to the eugenic ‘duties’ and ideals of his audience. During his historical account, Burt credits Plato for his advocacy of early intelligence testing in Ancient Athens. He recounts Plato’s warning that “the city will perish when men of iron and brass take over its control” (pg. 82)- a phrase that Burt gradually equates with the threats faced by modern British society. Namely, that if inequalities between children remain unidentified, Britain will endure the far-reaching consequences of both inadequate leadership and neglected potential. At the end of his speech Burt returns to Plato to champion intelligence testing as “that ideal polity in which the apparent injustices of nature are reconciled and harmonised by the wisdom and justice of man” (pg. 91). Perhaps, to the audience, the most powerful justification for intelligence testing is not so much rational as emotional. Intelligence testing is presented as a form of social justice, the product of refined human wisdom. As such, the speech seems particularly poignant to the members of the EES who saw it as their duty to ensure the success of the British population and encourage “appropriate couples to produce healthy, energetic and intelligent families by design” (‘The Eugenics Society-Statement of Aims’, 1958). Burt’s case for the wider institutionalisation of intelligence testing is done on widely social and emotional grounds, presenting the classification of individuals as vital to preserving societal harmony.


Figure 1: The Circuit of Culture (Davies and Horst, 2016:12)
Figure 1: The Circuit of Culture (Davies and Horst, 2016:12)

The verbal lecture format of The Meaning and Assessment of Intelligence is particularly important, allowing Burt to be regarded not only as a practicing scientist but as a science communicator, who conveyed his beliefs and findings to a wider audience. As such, this work attempts to analyse Burt’s Galton Lecture by drawing on elements of science communication theory. It argues that this lens can provide unique insight into the dissemination and reception of eugenic thought in post-war Britain. In particular, Sarah Davies and Maja Horst’s (2016) ‘Circuit of Culture’ is applied to Burt’s lecture in attempt to contribute to the sparse historiography of science communication about eugenics. Davies and Horst view science communication as a useful tool to understand the relationship between science and society and the position of the individual in relation to science. Science communication is seen as more than just a unidirectional transfer of knowledge from the scientist to the wider public (Bucchi and Trench, 2014). Instead, it is the product of the social context in which it occurs and an “integral part of the cultural fabric in which we exist” (Davies and Horst, 2016:2). As a result, the production and consumption of science communication are intimately related to representation, regulation and identity formation on an individual and societal level. Using the Circuit of Culture, it is possible to suggest that Burt’s lecture is both a product and a proponent of eugenic ideals, both in established institutions and wider society. Specifically, the model can provide insight into establishment and legitimation of scientific authority in the British eugenics movement. It also helps to elucidate the representation and treatment of ‘mentally deficient’ peoples in post-war British society.

Burt’s Galton Lecture was delivered in 1955, almost 10 years after the end of the Second World War. Over the past decade, Nazi atrocities and the subsequent Nuremberg Trials had strengthened the connection between eugenics and the extreme right (MacKenzie, 1976). As a result, mainline eugenics in post-war Britain suffered a major loss in both social and political credibility (Soloway, 2014). However, eugenic ideals and academic thought were still at play in post-war British society, under the guise of what Daniel J Kevles (1985) called ‘Reform Eugenics’. Reform eugenics had been emerging since the 1930s as eugenists gradually looked away from extreme practices like sterilisation and institutionalisation. Instead, there was an increased focus on marriage counselling, family planning and selective, tiered education (Kevles, 1985). The nature of reform eugenics can be explored by analysing the communications produced by contemporary eugenists and eugenist institutions. The Circuit of Culture is a useful framework to determine how eugenic ideals continued to be disseminated throughout British society. It illuminates how eugenists were able to maintain a credible scientific authority and showcases a continued discrimination against disabled peoples in post-war Britain.

The production of Burt’s lecture is a clear starting point for this analysis, referring to how his ideas become ideologically formed and encoded into messages (Davies and Horst, 2016: 16). The precise linguistic mechanisms by which Burt conveys his message to the audience has been discussed at length in section 2 of this work. In brief, Burt attempts to legitimise the widespread applications of mental reasoning tests by drawing on evidence from philosophy, biology and individual differences. Amanda Caleb (2019) uses the ideas of Michel Foucalt to understand eugenics as a “rhetoric of biopower”. The ability of eugenic science to ‘objectively’ “qualify, measure, appraise and hierarchise” individuals, creates a power sentiment wherein eugenists are able to foster life or disallow it to the point of death (pg. 150). Through the production of biopower rhetoric, Burt defends eugenic practices in the face of widespread post-war criticism and is portrays eugenic science as legitimate.

The reception, or consumption, of Burt’s lecture is perhaps even more significant for understanding the continued respect for eugenists and eugenic thought. Although subsequently published in print in The Eugenics Review, Burt’s Galton Lecture initially addressed the membership of The Eugenics Society who had been eager to hear Burt speak for many years. In fact, the 1955 Galton Lecture was moved from its annual happening in February (Francis Galton’s birth month) to May for Burt’s convenience, since, “as Mahommed would not come to the mountain, we had brought the mountain to Mahommed” (‘Notes of the quarter’, 1955:76). This heavy anticipation was fuelled, in part, by Burt’s pre-existing reputation as the most influential and accomplished educational psychologist of his generation (Mackintosh, 1995). However, it is the political motivations and values of the audience that legitimised Burt’s esteemed identity even further. Importantly, the Society’s audience mainly consisted of educated middle-class professionals rather than scientists or academics (Mackenzie, 1976). Farrall (2019) suggests that The Eugenics Society’s membership possessed a strong sense of class identity and were motivated primarily by the idea that their collective action could influence government policy. The Society’s members therefore looked to scientists and mathematicians to provide an empirical foundation of hereditarian knowledge to legitimise eugenic policy.

Cyril Burt’s Galton Lecture does exactly this. Burt draws on the likes Darwin, Binet and 30 years of his own research to justify his advocacy for policies of widespread IQ testing and tiered education (pg. 91). His speech was very well received by the Society’s membership (‘Notes of the quarter’, 1955), perhaps because it assisted them in achieving their collective political goals. It follows that the political class identity of the audience legitimised Burt’s esteemed reputation even further. Seen through the lens of the Circuit of Culture, the relationship between speaker and audience is cyclical. Through the consumption of eugenics science communication, the class identity of the audience is re-affirmed. In return, the audience strengthen Burt’s identity as an esteemed scientific authority. The Circuit of Culture can provide insight into the relationship between consumption and identity formation, perhaps explaining the continued respect for eugenists and their work in post-war Britain.

However, the political motivations of The Eugenics Society should not be overstated. By the time C. P Blacker became secretary of The Eugenics Society in 1931, the Society was virtually politically powerless- with their only tangible achievement being the legislation of the Mental Deficiency Bill in 1913 (Soloway, 2014). Hence, some historians have suggested that after the Second World War, the Eugenics Society was much more of a social, learned society than a campaigning political group (Mackenzie, 1976 Renwick, 2016). Instead of lobbying for eugenic policies, the society’s primary objective was to support eugenics research to “foster a responsible attitude to parenthood” (‘The Eugenics Society-Statement of Aims’, 1958). As a result, Kevles (1985) characterised the Society’s membership as a group of individuals which had “the time and inclination to attend lectures and debates… and thought it necessary to keep abreast of science and to set their social compasses by new discoveries”. According to Kevles, the post-war motivations of the Society’s membership were more moral and social than political. Eugenics became a set of moral values held by the professional middle class eager to facilitate industrial growth and social prosperity. Working hard, staying healthy and marrying ‘well’ became the moral duties of the middle class, all underlined by the eugenic ideal of breeding better children to secure national prosperity (Mackenzie, 1976). Consequently, it would be mistaken to suggest that Burt’s scientific authority was legitimised only by his political usefulness. As discussed in section 2, Burt ends his lecture on moral, rather than political sentiment. He becomes a preacher of morals and social responsibilities, describing eugenics as “the wisdom and justice of man” capable of reconciling the “injustices of nature” (pg. 91). As such, it could be argued that the audience grant Burt his authority on moral and social grounds. The moral and social identities of the audience construct the identity of the scientist not just as an oracle of knowledge but as the moral compass of the educated middle class. Analysing the moral identity of the audience and their consumption patterns provides insight into the continued respect for eugenists and eugenic thought in post-war Britain.

Additionally, applying the Circuit of Culture to Burt’s Galton Lecture can elucidate the continued maltreatment of ‘mentally deficient’ peoples in British society. Kevles’ (1985) notion of post-war Reform Eugenics suggests a shying away from negative eugenics towards a more tempered eugenic approach focussed on social issues like tiered education and marriage counselling. However, Burt’s Galton Lecture seems to display the continued existence of a society largely antipathetic to disability and disabled peoples. Importantly, Burt’s Lecture lacks the explicitly derogatory depictions of mental disability that can be found in early 20th Century eugenic publications. For instance, Burt omits any explicit linkages between mental disability and criminality (Williams, 1917 and others), a widely circulated idea in pre-war eugenic discourse.

However, the Galton Lecture ultimately concludes that “the range of mental power between the greatest and the least of English intellects is enormous” (pg.90) and that this variability has profound implications for British society. As analysed in Section 2, Burt argues that the “general cerebral immaturity” (pg. 85) of the mentally deficient makes them ultimately ‘inefficient’ adult citizens unable to integrate themselves into social society. It could be argued that Burt’s efficiency/inefficiency rhetoric is an attempt to construct an ideal, productive national identity. As outlined by the Circuit of Culture, the relationship between representation and identity is interdependent. Through representations of the mentally disabled as inefficient, Burt constructs a ‘legitimate’ British identity which he prescribes to himself, his audience and other ‘efficient’ members of society. Simultaneously, mental ‘defectives’ are side-lined and consigned to “a separate residual system for the socially and morally incompetent” (Thomson, 1998), characterised by ‘non-productivity’ and social ostracism. Burt’s depictions of the mentally deficient were less explicit than those of his eugenist predecessors. However, the continued emphasis on selective breeding for national prosperity signifies “the extraordinarily sustained influence of eugenic thought” on post-war Britain (Hanson, 2013, pp. 2). Analysing the representations of marginalised groups through the Circuit of Culture arguably challenges Kevles’ notion of reform eugenics. Although communicated through a narrative that tiered education can ensure post-war social prosperity, Burt’s speech is underlined by similar ideas to those of Edgar Schuster (1913) and other mainline eugenists. Namely, that the mentally deficient present a dangerous obstacle to national prosperity and efficiency.

In summary, the Circuit of Culture is a useful lens through which the nature of post-war British eugenics can be analysed. Viewing Cyril Burt’s The Meaning and Assessment of Intelligence as a article of science communication can provide insight into the role that scientists played in the British eugenics movement. This role was not simply confined to collecting empirical evidence but, critically, involved the communication of eugenic ideas to the wider public. An analysis of the production and consumption of Burt’s Lecture can provide insight into the continued support for eugenic scientific authority after World War II. Burt’s reputation as a respected authority is co-constructed alongside the political and social identities of his audience. Additionally, Burt’s rhetoric of efficiency works to side-line and exclude mentally ‘deficient’ peoples from a conceived British identity. As Amanda M. Caleb (2019) skilfully argues, post-war eugenics was “couched in languages of inclusion but was actually a thinly disguised rhetoric of exclusion” (pg.155). The Circuit of Culture can be used to challenge the notion of a clear-cut transition to reform eugenics after the war. Analysing Burt’s lecture as an item of science communication can reveal the continued prevalence of traditional eugenic ideals in post-war British society.


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