Flinders Petrie and History of Eugenics at UCL

Flinders Petrie. 1907. Janus in Modern Life.

What was the research and advocacy that took place by personnel associated with UCL and its sister institutions? Tabea Winkler investigates Flinders Petrie. 1907. Janus in Modern Life, focusing on chapter 4, “Revolution or Evolution?”.


William Matthew Flinders Petrie, commonly known as Flinders Petrie, was a British Egyptologist and Archaeologist. Born in 1853 and educated privately at home, he first travelled to Egypt in 1880 and gained prominence for pioneering multiple revolutionary techniques in his field (Stewart-Peters, 2014, 5908). He is credited with introducing stratigraphic excavations in the Near East and revealing the earliest phases of Egypt’s history, with other notable achievements including his appointment in 1892 as the first chair of Egyptology in England. Well-known as an exceptionally quick worker, he published nearly one hundred books, dug over 50 sites and imported twelve complete mummies and sixty-five skulls to England during his lifetime (Drower, 2012). His influence on his field is evidenced by his colleague’s belief that he was the catalyst leading to Egyptology’s development into a science (BBC, 1974), and his posthumous title of the ‘father of scientific archaeology’ (Sheppard, 2010, 16).

Part A: Biographical Context

A man of great renown, there are a multitude of sources containing information about Petrie’s life. However, many of these focus on his excavations or his actions as the Professor of Egyptology at University College London (Sheppard, 2010, 17). Much has been said about his personality and self, such as his impressive work ethic and his mental acuity (see Smith, Peake and The Times 1942 Obituary). Described as “a handsome man of heroic mold” and the “greatest archaeological genius of modern times” (Glueck and Albright, 1942, 7-8), his life has for some become shrouded in legend, obscuring other key aspects of his life.

As a consequence, the controversy surrounding Petrie has historically often been missing from biographical sources. This controversy centres on his views supporting scientific racism and eugenics. A proponent of biological determinism and racial hierarchy (Challis, 2016, 1), his archaeological work was directly linked to these beliefs. His analyses of finds often involved considerations of ethnic physiognomies (now acknowledged as a pseudoscience) and his methodology had a clear racial component (Ramsey, 2004, 15). Additionally, he had personal and professional relationships with key figures in British eugenics. These included Sir Francis Galton, the polymath who played a vital role in the development in English eugenics and coined the term ‘eugenics’ (Farrall, 2019, 10), and Karl Pearson (his next-door neighbour for a time). His relationships with these figures led to close cooperation on research based on themes of eugenics, biometry and anthropometrics (Sheppard, 2010, 17-18). Ideas of race and racial conflict have been argued to be the primary emphasis of Petrie’s career (Silberman, 1999, 73-74).

Petrie’s links with eugenics are often neglected entirely in biographical accounts. Even his definitive biography by M. S. Drower mentions Galton only as “the geneticist” and briefly speaks about Petrie’s social ideas being influenced by him (Drower, 1995, 68). This may be due to the fact that by the time of Petrie’s death the devastating effects of eugenic policies were widely acknowledged, and many former proponents had renounced their previous beliefs (Silberman, 1999, 75).  Additionally, M. S. Drower was a student of Petrie’s and many of his obituaries were written by colleagues and friends (see S. Smith – Egyptologist, M. Wheeler – archaeologist and long-time friend, O. Tufnell – secretary) and as such had reason to try and maintain his reputation, although they also certainly had unique insight into his life. His autobiography, another key source of information and the most important source for Drower’s biography (Hoeks, 2016, 47), was also likely to give a favourable account. Fully aware of his public persona, he may have told his life story in a way that fulfilled expectations and, as in all autobiographies, there is a high risk of recall bias. However, his contributions to eugenics and race theory have more recently been discussed by Sheppard, Challis, Silberman and Ramsey, who give a more complete picture of Petrie’s life by including this aspect of Petrie and his work.

The following sections of this paper will concentrate on a specific publication of Petrie’s: ‘Janus in Modern Life’, a book published in 1907. A “historical analysis of the development of civilisation”, it has been described as having an explicit eugenic purpose (Sheppard, 2010, 22). At this point in time, Petrie had already been Professor of Egyptology at University College London for 15 years (Drower, 2012) and had been working extensively with Galton and Pearson for some time.  The year of publication was also that of the formation of the Eugenics Education Society, whose membership grew rapidly in the following years (Farrall, 2019, 206), and so the book was published at a time when the theories presented by eugenicists were gaining public attention and traction. 

Part B: Analysis of the Text

 ‘Janus in Modern Life’ is one of Petrie’s publications in which he makes explicit eugenic arguments. He used the book to communicate his theories and opinions on how to improve the society he lived in, which he saw as being in serious danger of deterioration, and to criticise recently introduced political reforms. I will focus on Chapter IV, titled ‘Revolution or Evolution?’.

In this chapter Petrie concentrates on various social changes introduced, speaking about a wide variety of topics including inheritance tax, income tax, land ownership, old age pensions and developments in modern medicine leading to increased survival of those who otherwise might have passed away. Many of these issues were central to the time of publication, in which welfare reforms were being pushed for by the Liberal government elected at the time (Challis, 2013, 188). He argues against increases in taxation, both for inheritance tax (known as ‘death duties’ at the time) and income tax, although he is in support of a what he calls a “tax upon extravagance” for luxury products. Additionally, he criticizes state ownership of the land, opposes compensation to workmen who were in accidents, condemns state pensions for the elderly and questions the correctness of saving infant lives by greater care if they are from the ‘wrong’ kind of family.

All of these examples aim to illustrate the overriding aim for this chapter, which is to convince the reader that interfering with what Petrie claims to be “natural cause and effect” can only cause harm. He maintains that what is ‘natural’, i.e gradual change, is always better than man-made attempts to speed up natural processes, which invariably lead to changes whose long-term effects are dangerously unknown. This equation of the natural with the good is an excellent example highlighting Petrie’s now highly controversial views, as it links to an extreme version of social Darwinism supported by many contemporaneous eugenicists. The points made in this chapter of ‘Janus in Modern Life’ show that he clearly believed that interfering with what he saw as natural selection, i.e “radical reform” (which Petrie states is in “defiance of natural science and of historical experience”) leads to “worse evils than those which it (…) sought to remedy” (Petrie, 1907, 41-42). Those supporting social changes aimed at helping the less fortunate or spreading wealth, such as pensions, accident compensation or even medical intervention for sick infants were all seen as guilty of the same fallacy by Petrie, who believed these to be examples of ‘grandmothering’ that “injure(d) the individual as well as the race” and sentimentalism that “cause(d) more misery in the long run” (Petrie, 1907, 58-59).

It is clear from the language used that Petrie believed these changes to be grave mistakes, as he gives these issues a sense of urgency and importance by using dramatic phrasing. Examples of this include him speaking about the “deadly effects of income tax” (Petrie, 1907, 51), a description of taxation as “most disastrous” and “immoral” (Petrie, 1907, 50) and the statement that the introduction of death duties will act “in a fundamental manner on our colonising ability” (Petrie, 1907, 45). This compelling language may be used not only to convince the reader of the importance of the topics discussed but also to give Petrie’s argumentation more weight. As modern political reforms were not Petrie’s usual expertise as an archaeologist, he may have felt additional pressure to convince readers and establish himself as knowledgeable in the field.

Also notable is Petrie’s manner of argumentation and the organisation of the chapter. The chapter begins with a theoretical discussion of types of change supported by historical and biological examples; perhaps Petrie felt more comfortable substantiating his points with evidence from disciplines more closely associated with his area of expertise and used these to instil a level of confidence and trust in him into the reader. Additionally, the order of the topics seems carefully chosen. As the chapter progresses, they become more controversial and his eugenic ideology more explicit, culminating in his view that “nature knows of no right to maintenance, but only the necessity of getting rid of those who need it by mending or ending them” (Petrie, 1907, 59) and that those infants who would be saved by medical intervention would be of the “lowest type of careless, thriftless, dirty, and incapable families” (Petrie, 1907, 60).

In summary, this chapter of ‘Janus in Modern Life’ displays many of Petrie’s eugenic opinions. He is clearly keen to convince the reader of his view, which comes from the urgency he feels, fuelled by the belief that the social reforms of the time were leading to the decline of England’s “colonising ability” and the “knell of any State which undertook [the reforms]” (Petrie 1907, 59. His arguments are often based on historical and biological examples, perhaps to give him more credibility in a field where he is not academically established.

Part C: Historical Context

Looking at Petrie’s body of work, the history of eugenics is also a history of migration. Migration is a central theme in Petrie’s archaeological theories, and it is translated into his more explicitly eugenic publications such as Janus in Modern Life. Closely linked to migration are the ideas of racial hierarchy and degeneration. These concepts underlie Petrie’s proposed social reforms and arguments against changes made by the contemporary government and are also applicable to the wider British eugenic movement of the early 20th century.

In order to understand Petrie’s views and those of his colleagues it is important to be aware of the larger historical context, specifically the political landscape at the time and public and professional opinions on eugenics. Concern had started to grow in England in the last two decades of the 19th century about the ‘urban poor’ and their living conditions. By the turn of the century there was a “fear of socialism, political change and a general acceptance, if not an endorsement, of eugenic ideas among much of the political classes” (Challis, 2013, 189-190). Additionally, the election of a Labour government and the subsequent legislative changes increased anxieties held by the middle and upper middle class. Important legislation passed by the 1906 Liberal Government included the Children’s Charter, which introduced child welfare reforms, a Trade Unions Act protecting union funds during strikes, Old Age Pensions and injury compensation for industrial workers. Soon to follow, in 1911, was National Insurance and payment for Members of Parliament (Challis, 2013, 197). These changes led to increasing uneasiness for many social conservatives, including Petrie, who became politically active and joined several organisations such as the Anti-Socialist Society and the British Constitution Association (Ramsey, 2004, 15).

In this political climate, “eugenic ideas of decay, degeneration, struggle and selection pervaded social and cultural life” (Challis, 2013, 10). Increasing in popularity, eugenic views were “very much in season” in the early 1900s (Kevles, 1995, 57). Organisations were created that were “devoted to the study and propagation of eugenics” (Farrall, 2019, 48) and eugenic themes were often a topic of discussion in popular magazines (Kevles, 1995, 58). The key issues debated by eugenicists in Britain at the time are commonly said to be centered around social class structures. However, some historians (see Challis or Stone) have argued that the eugenic movement was also informed by race, using the eugenicist fears of miscegenation and the assumption of a racial hierarchy with “the white European at the top and the black African at the bottom” (Stone, 2002, 95) as evidence. It is through this lens that I will evaluate Petrie’s work.

The theme of migration was essential to much of Petrie’s work. It was key to his archaeological theories in that he interpreted not only Egyptian history, i.e the focus of his work, but “all the past course of organic life” (Petrie, 1906a, 170) as an “unending series of racial conquests” (Silberman, 1999, 74). These conquests involved migration of the ‘abler’ race to new territory, eventually supplanting the ‘less capable’. He believed that it was inevitable that racial groups migrated and ultimately degenerated and died out, describing it as “necessary progress in the growth of every species” (Petrie, 1906b, 190). Crucially, Petrie applied his historical theories to the present and future, linking them to his opinions on contemporary immigration, for example illustrated in Janus in Modern Life.

Unusually and unlike many other eugenicists he did not condemn all forms of immigration, instead advocating for migration as long as the “right elements were fused” and the migrants were of the ‘correct kind’ (Challis, 2013, 196). As argued in Janus, too many of the ‘wrong’ kind of people could rapidly lead to a decline in society. For example, Petrie speaks of supposed gain from compulsory emigration of convicts (Petrie, 1907, 13) and differentiates between German immigrants in England, who he classes as “a gain to the country” and the immigration of “the lowest and most depressed mass of European humanity, from the sink of poverty in Poland and Western Russia”. He classes these people as being of a “bad stock” and concludes that England is experiencing a “lessening of sturdiness as a whole” (Petrie, 1907, 14-15). Another example in Janus showcasing Petrie’s equation of migration with eugenic ideas is his statement that an “increase in emigration [is] draining the more capable persons from England, and so leaving a residue inferior in energy, initiative and self-reliance” (Petrie, 1907, 58). The importance of the ‘correct’ kind of migration, however, is emphasized in Petrie’s second explicitly eugenic publication, The Revolutions of Civilisation. In the book’s conclusion he states that “the source of every civilisation has lain in race mixture” and proposes an ideal future with eugenic foundations where “fine races” are

“carefully segregate[d] (…) until they have a distinct new type, which will start a new civilisation when transplanted. The future progress of man may depend as much on isolation to establish a type, as on fusion of types when established.” (Petrie, 1911, 131).

Evidently, Petrie saw the control of migration as a tool to be carefully employed, with the possibility of creating ‘superior’ races through the ‘correct’ kinds of mixing.

Petrie’s idea of migration is related to the idea of racial hierarchy. This was a common idea at the time of Janus’s publication, often found in popular literature. The concept specified that “different racial groups had a predilection for certain behaviours, with the ‘higher’ races developing civilization” (Challis, 2013, 158). It was an idea that had already been established and was believed to be founded on scientific observation and analysis. For Petrie, racial hierarchy influenced his interpretation of archaeological finds, as his categorization of ancient peoples into different physical types mimicked the “contemporary eugenical hierarchy of modern races” (Challis, 2013, 74). It is connected to migration in that the races Petrie believed to be superior were those that migrated, supplanted and colonized and those deemed inferior he postulated in Janus to have “less initiative and vigour”, ultimately doomed to “disappear towards extinction” (Petrie, 1907, 103).

Inextricably linked to racial hierarchy is the concept of racial degeneration. Again, this view can be seen in Petrie’s archaeological work, for example in the descriptions he provides of different pottery types at Tell el-Hesy. Silberman argues that these descriptions, for example of “Jewish” pottery with “a mixture of characters” and that of earlier Phoenician forms as “deteriorated, or passed into a mongrel type” (Petrie, 1891, 47-48), are evidence for Petrie’s view of racial groups as going through a “regular pattern of initial appearance (…) and eventual degeneration”. He sees this as a “clear illustration of the ideology of eugenics and the mechanics of racially based history” (Silberman, 1999, 74). In his present day, Petrie blamed racial degeneration on “communism, trade unionism and misguided government assistance to inferior human types” (Challis, 2013, 75). He attributed England’s social problems to this degeneration. For instance, in the Huxley Memorial Lecture he delivered in 1906, he spoke of “political ignorance, equality of wages and the right to maintenance” as the “surest high road to racial extinction” and saw these socialist reforms as the precursor to “the migration of a stronger and better race into the misused land” (Petrie, 1906b, 220). In Janus, Petrie links racial degeneration with proposed eugenic action. Those that he sees as less worthy citizens due to racial degeneration he argues should not be supported by the state, whether it be through compensation of workmen through accidents or the saving of infant life by greater care, stating that “like most sentimentalism it causes more misery in the long run” (Petrie, 1907, 58).

As seen in the description of the historical context of the early 20th century, Petrie’s ideas were published at a time when they were likely to enjoy a “welcoming environment” (Sheppard, 2010, 25). Still, the reception to Janus was varied. Although letters sent to Petrie indicate that many readers agreed with his view (Sheppard, 2010, 27), reviews were mixed. One acknowledged Petrie’s lack of professional expertise on the subjects covered yet agreed with his points, stating that “if we will not leave the human refuse of bad stocks to exterminate themselves (…) and the State is to take up the burden of such wastrels, it must have an entire control of them” (Dr Flinders Petrie as Sociologist, 1907, 186). Similarly, other reviews generally agreed with Petrie’s basic premises but thought that “sometimes (…), Dr. Flinders Petrie exaggerates” (Janus in Modern Life, 1907, 299) or that he was “somewhat too extreme” (The Fallacies of Socialism, 1908, 126). In comparison, Petrie claimed that Revolutions was “still in constant demand” 20 years after publication and brought him “friends of various nationalities” (Petrie, 1931, 218). By the time of his death, however, it was said that while many admired the publication, it was “never likely to command academic approval” (Smith, 14).

Nevertheless, it is clear that Petrie had considerable influence. Notably, this influence would have spanned multiple disciplines and interests; Petrie’s interest in defining racial types in antiquity was shared with individuals in fields as diverse as archaeology, anthropology, geography, biblical studies and philology (Challis, 2013, 81). Petrie’s academic merit is illustrated by his membership at institutions like the British Association for the Advancement of Science (Challis, 2013, 3) or his giving prestigious lectures, such as the seventh annual Huxley Memorial Lecture. His influence would likely have been increased due to his close personal and professional relationships with key pioneers of eugenics like Francis Galton and Karl Pearson (see Sheppard 2010). Overall, Petrie was a prominent figure in his field and his ideas would have influenced many, and his background lent the “authority of historical evidence to the eugenics movement” (Sheppard, 2013, 231).

Viewing eugenic thinking through the lens of migration, racial hierarchy and racial degeneration can also be applied to the wider British eugenics movement. Historically, British eugenics in the early 20th century has often been viewed and portrayed as focusing on class much more than race. Kevles states that “racism figured much less markedly in British eugenics” and that “British eugenics was marked by a hostility decidedly more of class than of race”. He argues that racist consideration “entered very little in his [Francis Galton’s] eugenic theorizing” as “British society was ethnically more-or-less homogenous” (Kevles, 1995, 76). In contrast to this, Stone argues that while class was a major factor contributing to the ideas of British eugenicists, race was “no less important” as “race-thinking (…) was integral to the worldview of many eugenicists”. He believes the centrality of race can be seen in the discussion of (mainly Jewish) immigrants and the common acceptance of a racial hierarchy (Stone, 2002, 95). Ostensibly, reasons people held eugenicist beliefs included “a desire to protect the British empire (…) and racist beliefs in the superiority of the British (usually ‘English’) race and hence the need to protect it from immigration and miscegenation” (Stone, 2002, 100). Stone is supported in his view by Challis, who argues that “race was interwoven with social class” (Challis, 2002, 9), that “ideas about inheritance and racial degeneration (…) underpinned eugenic thinking” (Challis, 2002, 189) and that “much of eugenic thinking in this period was influenced by ideas and fears about social class (…) but it was also informed by race” (Challis, 2002, 95).

Considering Petrie’s considerable influence, that his “racial thinking was parallel to that of other archaeologists and anthropologists at the time” (Challis, 2002, 175) and the use of his archaeological work to provide “much needed” human data to Galton, Pearson and the faculty of Eugenic Laboratories at UCL (Sheppard, 2010, 18), I find it highly likely that other contemporary eugenicists shared Petrie’s views based on migration, racial hierarchy and degeneration. Therefore, this view offers a perspective which may illuminate aspects of British eugenic history sometimes neglected – as seen for Petrie in Sheppard’s statement that “including this facet of Petrie’s life demonstrates that there are holes left in the literature about him” (Sheppard, 2010, 231). Nonetheless, class was certainly a defining factor in forming eugenic views and there are undoubtedly many more lenses through which to view eugenic history.

So, Petrie’s eugenic beliefs can be viewed through the lens of migration, racial hierarchy and degeneration. These are evidenced not only in his explicitly eugenic texts, but also seen in the way he interpreted his archaeological findings: through his deep-seated beliefs on the superiority of certain races and the necessity of migration as part of a cycle of domination. Petrie was a figure of much acclaim, both in his lifetime and posthumously, and so his work reached and influenced many. The ideas central to his publications are likely to have been shared by many colleagues and offer a significant perspective when analysing eugenic works. 

List of References

Sir Mortimer and Magnus – 5. The Genius of Flinders Petrie.1974. BBC.

Obituary: Prof. Sir Flinders Petrie, F. R. S. 1942. The Times.

The Fallacies of Socialism.1908. Edinburgh: A. Constable, etc.

Dr Flinders Petrie as Sociologist. 1907a. The Academyno. 1856:185-186.

Janus in Modern Life. By W. M. Flinders Petrie, D.C.L (Book Review).1907b. 

Challis, Debbie. 2016. Skull Triangles: Flinders Petrie, Race Theory and Biometrics. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 26, no. 1:1-8.

Challis, Debbie. 2013. The Archaeology of Race.Bloomsbury Academic.

Drower, Margaret S. Petrie, Sir (William Matthew) Flinders. 2012 [cited Oct 22, 2021]. Available from https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-35496.

Drower, Margaret S. 1995. Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology.2nd ed. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin.

Farrall, Lyndsay A. 2019. The Origins and Growth of the English Eugenics Movement, 1865-1925.UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies.

Glueck, Nelson, and W. F. Albright. 1942. Sir W. M. Flinders Petrie, 1853-1942. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Researchno. 87:6-8.

Hoeks, Robin. 2016. Archaeologists and autobiography: (self-)fashioning in the public
autobiographical writings of Austen Henry Layard (1817 – 1894),
William Flinders Petrie (1853 – 1942), and Mortimer Wheeler
(1890 – 1976). Ph.D. diss., Radboud University Nijmegen.

Kevles, Daniel J. 1995. In the Name of Eugenics. United States of America: Harvard University Press.

Peake, Leslie S. 1942. Sir Flinders Petrie. The Times Literary Supplement388.

Petrie, W. M. F. 1911. The Revolutions of Civilisation. Cambridge University Press.

Petrie, W. M. F. 1931. Seventy Years in Archaeology. London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co.

Petrie, W. M. F. 1907. Janus in Modern Life. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Petrie, W. M. F. 1906a. 104. Migrations; Being An Abstract of the Seventh Annual Huxley Memorial Lecture of the Anthropological Institute, Delivered on November 1st, 1906. Man 6, 170.

Petrie, W. M. F. 1906b. Migrations. (The Huxley Lecture for 1906). The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 36, 189-232.

Petrie, W. M. F. 1891. Tell el-Hesy (Lachish). A. P. Watt.

Petrie, William M. F. 1907. Revolution or Evolution? In Janus in Modern Life. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Ramsey, Jason D. 2004. Petrie and the Intriguing Idiosyncrasies of Racism. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 14, no. 2:15-20.

Sheppard, Kathleen. 2010. Flinders Petrie and Eugenics at UCL. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 20, no. 1:16-29.

Sheppard, Kathleen L. 2013. Afterword. In The Archaeology of Race, edited by Debbie Challis. Bloomsbury Academic.

Silberman, Neil A. 1999. Petrie’s Head: Eugenics and Near Eastern Archaeology. In Assembling the Past: Studies in the Professionalization of Archaeology, edited by Alice B. Kehoe and Mary Beth Emmerichs. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Smith, Sidney. 1945. William Matthew Flinders Petrie. 1853-1942. Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society 5, no. 14:3-16.

Stewart-Peters, Ella. 2014. Petrie, William Matthew Flinders. In Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology. Springer, New York, NY.

Stone, Dan. 2002. Breeding Superman: Nietzsche, Race and Eugenics in Edwardian and Interwar Britain. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Tufnell, Olga. 1943. Flinders Petrie. Palestine Exploration Quarterly 75, no. 1:5-8.

Wheeler, Mortimer. 1953. Adventure and Flinders Petrie. Antiquity 27, no. 106:87-93.

[end – Copyright 2021 Author]

UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS) logoInvestigating UCL Eugenics

“Investigating UCL Eugenics” is a series of essays investigating specific aspects of eugenics research and advocacy at University College London (UCL). This includes papers produced as part of student research projects in the undergraduate module, HPSC0070 Eugenics in Science and Culture in UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS). The module was co-taught in 2021-22 by Professor Joe Cain and Dr Maria Kiladi.

Instructions for this essay asked for a specific series of tasks. Each student was assigned one specific publication somehow linked to the history of eugenics research and advocacy at University College London (UCL), or a sister institution nearby. Students were required to structure their essay according to a series of sections: (a) author (place the publication in a biographical context), (b) text (interpret the publication as a historical text), (c) context (place the publication in a relevant historical context or interpretation), and (d) list of references (include a complete, well-organized, and clear list of references). The syllabus provides detailed instruction.

Individual posts remain the copyrighted intellectual property of the author and appear here with their permission. The author is the person responsible for post content. Readers are reminded this essay was completed in 2021 during a period of restricted movement and facility closures owing to pandemic restrictions.