Shirley Hodgson in Defence of Lionel Penrose

Lionel Penrose with Margaret Leathes Penrose plus a child in the Harris Family, 1954 or 1955
Lionel Penrose with Margaret Leathes Penrose plus a child in the Harris Family, 1954 or 1955. Credit: American Philosophical Society Library, MS5 Curt Stern Papers.

Professor Lionel Penrose (1898-1972) was the third Galton Professor of Eugenics at University College London (UCL). He took up this post in 1945. He retired in 1965. As Galton Professor, Penrose also held associated roles as Director of the Galton Laboratory at UCL, editor of Annals of Eugenics (changed to Annals of Human Heredity in 1954 with volume 19), and editor of Treasury of Human Inheritance (from volume 4 part V). Penrose earned distinction for his research in the genetics and biological foundations of mental health, exemplified in Penrose (1949) The Biology of Mental Defect (review 1 and review 2). His successor, Professor Harry Harris, authored his Biographical Memoir of Fellows of the Royal Society in 1973. Professor Shirley Hodgson is his daughter.

In defence of Lionel Penrose

The chair’s final report from the 2018-2020 UCL Eugenics Inquiry largely ignored Penrose, except for two points. First, it noted he kept the title of “professor of eugenics” throughout his appointment, noting this was “eventually” changed in 1963. I examine this in detail in a separate post. Second, it speculated Penrose’s funding by Rockefeller Foundation was suspicious, as were several small “anonymous” donations to his research enterprise. Perhaps, the reader might have concluded, there is something corrupt under the surface of the dominant narrative about Penrose:

1963: Penrose renames the Galton Professor of Eugenics the Galton Professor of Human Genetics. It is unclear if the focus of research in the department also changes.
A file on anonymous donations (GO 464, 29977) from the Records Office gives further insight into finances used to support the Galton Lab under Penrose. From the late 1950s and early 1960s, funding came from organisations such as the Rockefeller Foundation (donating $43,500 for 5 years from January 1961 for Eugenics, Biometry and Genetics, for Research in Human Genetics). A string of anonymous donations (of £250 each year) was also provided on a yearly basis from 1955 to 1961 by the Charities Aid Fund, specifically given for ‘purchase of apparatus or books, travelling expenses of research workers, remuneration for technical assistance’. In this file the University of London’s significance for UCL also becomes clear, as UCL is cited as ‘not allowed to accept the donation(s) unless they are approved by the University of London’. (Solanke 2020: 25)

The chair’s report was submitted as a final report without the approval of the Inquiry’s committee. A majority of members elected to approve and submit the MORE report, which made a series of recommendations without a historical narrative.

Curiously, the documents noted by Solanke (2020) above were not made available to all members of the Inquiry committee, and they are not part of the Committee’s formal record. 

Equally curious, Solanke (2020) fails to cite an agreed conclusion of the Inquiry committee:

Noted: that institutional support for eugenics was brought to an end under Penrose…
(Item 7, Minutes of Inquiry committee meeting 27 September 2019).

Solanke (2020) fails to reference evidence submitted to the Inquiry as part of its “expert witnesses” process that described Penrose as a researcher firmly opposed to eugenics and as a person who was respected by peers for championing anti-eugenics views` (Item “4. and 5. Submissions to the Inquiry”). Other witnesses are cited in Solanke (2020) for other purposes, so this omission for Penrose is asymmetrical.

The most significant omission from Solanke (2020) relevant to interpreting Penrose was a letter submitted as evidence from Professor Shirley Hodgson, Professor (Emeritus) of Cancer Genetics at St George’s, University of London. Professor Hodgson also is the daughter of Lionel Penrose and Margaret Leathes. Her submission (obtained through a Freedom of Information request to UCL) is below. No analysis of Penrose’s relationship with eugenics is complete without engaging the points raised in her communication. 

Hodgson on Penrose and UCL

Professor Shirley Hodgson 2019 letter about Lionel Penrose