Did Professor Karl Pearson praise Hitler and Nazi ‘race hygiene’ programmes? Yes, he did. He did this in 1934, at a dinner to mark his retirement the previous year from University College London (UCL). Pearson was 77 in 1934, and he retired in 1933 from his position as Francis Galton Chair of National Eugenics at University College London, which he held since 1911. The National Socialist Party in Germany came to power in 1933. Their ‘race hygiene’ laws and formal policies were in their infancy in 1934, but the direction of travel for their agenda was clear. Pearson was unambiguous in his support for those programmes.
The retirement dinner
The context for Pearson’s remarks was a dinner held to mark his retirement from UCL. He retired in 1933, aged 76. The dinner was held in 1934, attended by colleagues, employees, and former students. After the dinner, Professor LNG Filon, Vice-Chancellor of University of London, gave a tribute to Pearson. This was followed by recollections from several of Pearson’s long-time colleagues and the presentation of various gifts. As was the custom, the retiree is next invited to give a “reply”.
In his reply, Pearson described himself as feeling throughout his career as a buccaneer, armed with new statistical tools and concepts and keen to explore rich new terrain. Developing this simile further, he told his audience of events at the turn-of-the-century,
“The Royal Society Council having passed a resolution that mathematics and biology should not be mixed, Biometrika was founded with Galton as consultant and Weldon and myself as joint editors. Buccaneer expeditions into many fields followed; fights took place on many seas, but whether we had right or wrong, whether we lost or won, we did produce some effect. The climax culminated in Galton’s preaching of Eugenics, and his foundation of the Eugenics Professorship. Did I say ‘culmination’? No, that lies rather in the future, perhaps with Reichskanzler Hitler and his proposals to regenerate the German people. In Germany a vast experiment is in hand, and some of you may live to see its results. If it fails it will not be for want of enthusiasm, but rather because the Germans are only just starting the study of mathematical statistics in the modern sense!” (Pearson 1934: 23)
The full text of Filon’s toast, Pearson’s reply, and the intermediate recollections is available open access free (Filon, et al 1934)
After the event, several of Pearson’s associates took the spontaneous decision to collect scripts from the evening’s speeches, and they passed them to the University Press in Cambridge for printing as a “privately printed” commission. A photograph was hastily arranged with Pearson for the frontispiece. This also featured one of the gifts he received that evening, a Brunsviga calculating machine.
What was Pearson referring to?
Proctor’s 1990 book, Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis, is a thorough study of eugenics programmes during the National Socialist government in 1930s Germany. In brief, he argues, the Nazi’s developed eugenics programmes first focused on severe mental and physical disabilities, especially those involving institutionalisation. These drew heavily on programmes operating in other countries across Europe, Asia, and the Americas. “We are not alone” was the political message.
In 1933 under Hitler, the National Socialists created an “Office of Race Policy” to co-ordinate eugenic propaganda and introduce new educational programmes. There was a rapid expansion of programmes to promote eugenics as a “way of thinking”. In addition, in 1933 Germany implemented its ”Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring,” which focused on (in the language of the time but now offensive) individuals deemed to be feeble-minded, manic, schizophrenic, epileptic, un-reformably alcoholic, and the like. It established “genetic health” courts to review cases and required doctors to register cases of genetic illness. Involvement of the patient in these processes was not involved; nor was any notice required.
In Germany, formal euthanasia programmes were implemented from 1938, first focusing attention on individuals with severely incapacitating physical and mental health issues. Proctor argues the regulatory frameworks built for those practices formed the foundations for mass euthanasia, then genocidal extermination as 1938 became 1939 became 1940 and so on. (A very good introduction to this period is provided in the 1997 BBC documentary, The Nazis: A Warning from History.)
Was this view representative of those at University College London (UCL)?
Pearson was a loud voice in the 1910s and 1920s for a form of eugenics that was racist, supremacist, and nativist (Farrall 2019, Kevles 1985, Cain 2019). However, the septuagenarian Pearson was a fringe voice at UCL in 1934. Professor JBS Haldane was scathing against German eugenics programmes. He wrote and spoke widely on the matter; for example, in his 1938 book, Heredity and Politics. Pearson’s son, Egon, took on the leadership of statistics as an academic unit at UCL. However, he wanted nothing to do with the eugenics programmes his father created. Instead, Egon insisted on a formal separation between statistics and eugenics, which occurred at the point of his father’s retirement. In addition, Pearson’s long-time colleague, Geoffrey McKay Morant, criticised German claims for an Aryan race based on craniometry (Morant 1939). Farrall (2019) discussed the decline of Pearson’s programme in the 1920s, and Marie (2004) discusses how UCL biologists opposed nativist eugenics and assisted scientists wanting to flee from central Europe during this period.
While German elites praised English aristocratic culture and exclusive institutions such as Cambridge University and University of Oxford, they poured scorn on UCL for its radical heritage its admission of Jewish students, and its support for Jewish refugee academics (Mosse 1978).
Pearson’s successors in the Galton Chair of Eugenics at UCL offers a study of contrasts on the question of sympathy with Pearson. Pearson had a heavy hand in the selection of his replacement, Professor Ronald Alymer Fisher. Fisher was widely admired for his mathematical knowledge as applied to statistics. He also had strong eugenics views, expressed in his 1930 book, Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, and in many short articles written for The Eugenics Review. Fisher was marginalised at UCL. He produced relatively little new research. The Galton Laboratory under his direction dwindled. Fisher left UCL in 1943.
In contrast, Fisher’s successor was Professor Lionel S. Penrose, who profoundly disagreed with Fisher and Pearson about eugenics. In his Inaugural Address as the new Galton Professor in 1946, Penrose made his views clear. “Only a lunatic would advocate such a procedure,” he said, when considering forced sterilisation as a strategy for eliminating deleterious genes (Penrose 1946: 951). He removed “eugenics” from the research agenda of the Galton Laboratory, broke the Laboratory away from Fisher’s long association with the Eugenics Society, renamed its research journal from Annals of Eugenics to Annals of Human Genetics, and secured a change of name of the Galton chair from Professor of Eugenics to Professor of Human Heredity.
Farrall, L. A. (2019 ). The origins and growth of the English eugenics movement, 1865-1925. London: UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS). STS Occasional Papers 9.
Filon, Louis Napoleon George, George Udny Yule, Harald Westergaard, Major Greenwood, and Karl Pearson. 1934. Speeches Delivered at a Dinner Held in University College, London in Honour of Professor Karl Pearson 23 April 1934 (Privately Printed at the University Press Cambridge).
Haldane, J. B. S. 1938. Heredity and Politics. London: George Allen and Unwin.
Kevles, D. (1985). In the Name of Eugenics. Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Marie, J. (2004). The Importance of Place: A History of Genetics in 1930s Britain. (PhD). University of London, University College London (United Kingdom), ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2004. 10014852.
Morant, G. M. 1939. The Races of Europe. A Footnote to History. London: George Allen and Unwin.
Mosse, G. L. (1978). Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism. London: Dent.
Penrose, Lionel 1946. Phenylketonuria: a problem in eugenics. Lancet 247 (6409): 949-953.
Proctor, Robert. 1990. Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.