Legacies of Eugenics Project

The Legacies of Eugenics project was a research project focused on the history and legacies of eugenics around University College London (UCL) during the twentieth century. Our primary focus was the “Eugenics Laboratory,” started by Professor Karl Pearson in 1907 with seed funding from  Francis Galton. The project also followed legacies of eugenics through successive administrative units within the university (such as the short-lived Department of Eugenics) and successive directors (including Ronald A. Fisher and Lionel Penrose).

Legacies of Eugenics project launched in 2020 following completion of the UCL Eugenics Inquiry. Cain served on the Inquiry committee. Kiladi was employed by the Inquiry to undertake historical research. At the conclusion of the Inquiry in February 2020, it was clear much more historical research was required. The then UCL Provost and President, Professor Michael Arthur, accepted our request for special project funding to facilitate more research and more reconstruction. The Legacies Project was funded as a two-year project, and it was hosted by UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS). The project concluded in 2022.

Project Aims

  1. investigate the history of eugenics research in UCL
  2. investigate the history of eugenics research in UK universities
  3. investigate the history of eugenics education, both formal and informal

What Did the Legacies of Eugenics Project Do?

The Legacies Project undertook several types of activities:

Research

We undertook original historical investigations focused on eugenics research and advocacy within the university, including biography, institutional history, and contextual studies. Our research is published in peer-review publications, presented at professional conferences, and disseminated through blogs and research seminars.

Reconstruction

Histories of eugenics in UCL are fragmented, so reassembly is required to understand what was attempted and how such activities fit within the university envelope. Our work involved a major Legacies Digital Library. We have reconstructed bibliographies for key research groups associated with eugenics at UCL:

We helped correct catalogues and databases, and we have helped professionals within our institution better understand the historical collections they encounter. We reprinted Farrall’s classic history of eugenics in University of London.

Engagement

We helped UCL staff and students learn about the history of eugenics at their university, and we facilitated connections to sources of historical information, such as UCL Special Collections. Our work involved departmental seminars, staff briefings, and a new undergraduate module on “Eugenics in Science and Culture (HPSC0070)“. We also assisted colleagues writing their own accounts of eugenics at UCL. This also included publishing excellent student papers.

Consultation

We advised UCL executives about the history of eugenics within the institution, such as when considering de-naming, when responding to external inquiries, and when vetting new proposals. We advised on the career of Lionel Penrose. We consulted on media projects, too. We also worked to develop lessons from the institution’s history of allowing eugenics research and advocacy under its roof.

Project Team

The project team included Project Director, Professor Joe Cain, and STS Research Fellow in History of Eugenics, Dr Maria Kiladi. We also benefited from research undertaken by students in UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS).