Lionel Penrose on Eugenics and anti-Eugenics at UCL

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 FRS (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 Genetics in 1954 with volume 19), and editor of Treasury of Human Inheritance (from volume 4 part V). Penrose earned distinction for his research on the genetics and biological foundations of mental health, exemplified in Penrose (1949) The Biology of Mental Defect (review 1 and review 2) and Penrose and Smith (1966) Down’s Anomaly. Penrose’s successor, Professor Harry Harris, authored his Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society in 1973.

Lionel Penrose was represented poorly in the 2020 chair’s report for UCL Eugenics Inquiry (Solanke 2020), which was submitted without the approval of the Inquiry’s committee. That report presented small scraps of material to imply suspicions about Penrose as an advocate of eugenics. It omitted an overwhelming weight of evidence supporting the view that Penrose was a strong anti-eugenics researcher in human genetics. That evidence was, and remains, within easy reach of any investigator employed at a research university in the UK. It is unsettling that such evidence was not engaged by UCL’s Inquiry and was not referenced in Solanke (2020).

In a previous post, I presented the views of Professor Shirley Hodgson in the context of Solanke (2020). Whilst grounded in evidence, Hodgson writes from the position of a daughter. Independent assessment is warranted. My hope in this post is to expand significantly on the range of sources available for studying Penrose and the relationship between his research programme and his anti-eugenics works within University College and University of London. The study of eugenics and anti-eugenics within an institution cannot devolve into a McCarthy-style hunt grounded in innuendo and dog whistling, which I believe Solanke (2020) encourages.

Peer-reviewed Research into Penrose

Solanke (2020) cites none of the major peer-reviewed historical publications investigating Penrose and his research. Directly relevant to Penrose’s anti-eugenics views are Kevles (1985), Watt (1998a, 1998b), Mazumdar (1992), Bangham and de Chadarevian (2014), and Ramsden (2009, 2013, 2014).

Most important, Mazumdar (1992) argues Penrose transformed the “eugenics problematic” onto an entirely different theoretical and evidential foundation. Ramsden (2013) specifically addresses the question of re-assessment. As a summary point about this literature, none argues Penrose was complicit in eugenics research or advocacy.

Biographies and Obituaries

Biographies and substantial obituaries for Penrose confirm his anti-eugenics stance and his positive work with persons who lived in groups frequently victimised by eugenic campaigners. For instance, Smith (1999) described Penrose as “furiously opposed to eugenics”. Harris (1973: 537) explained that Penrose “never liked the name ‘Eugenics’, because it seemed to him to be too much associated with uninformed and dangerous policies of racial purification…” Significant published memorials for Penrose include: Harris (1973; 1974) and Smith (1999). More personality-oriented memorials include: Laxova (1998), Smith (2000), and Povey, et al (1998). Harris (1973) includes a bibliography.

Points Raised About Penrose in Solanke (2020)

Solanke (2020) uses two points to infer relationships between Penrose and eugenics. First, Penrose took a job at University College whose title was “Professor of Eugenics”. Second, several data points on funding in the early 1960s hint that eugenics research was underway in Penrose’s laboratory at that time. I’ll consider these two points in separate posts. This post focuses on Penrose’s employment at University College and his reputation for anti-eugenics. The second point requires archives research halted by pandemic closures to get to the primary documents associated with Penrose’s funding proposals.

Penrose arrived at University College in 1945. He was appointed “Galton Professor of Eugenics” in the University of London and attached to University College. He was made a member of staff in the Department of Eugenics, Biometry and Genetics. JBS Haldane was the head of this department, which was formed only in 1944 as a consolidation of several units and endowments (including the small Department of Eugenics headed by Fisher until 1943.).

Penrose and Haldane were the only professors in this unit. As part of Penrose’s appointment, he was made director of the “Galton Laboratory”. This included responsibilities associated with that directorship, including the editorships of several publications and manager of a research team. These roles were bundled together owing to the way the professorship was partly funded, originally with a legacy from Francis Galton that had been recruited by Karl Pearson. On the deeper history of the Pearson and Galton at UCL, read Farrall (1969)

Penrose was the third person to hold the combined posts of “Galton Professor of Eugenics” and head of the “Galton Laboratory” (originally, the “Francis Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics,” and later either the “Eugenics Laboratory” or the “Galton Laboratory of Eugenics”). His predecessors were Karl Pearson (serving 1911-1933) and Ronald Fisher (1933-1943). It is universally agreed Pearson and Fisher pursued eugenics research and advocacy during their tenure in these interconnected posts. This raises the question for Penrose: was his tenure as Galton Professor one of continuity or break?

It was break.

Solanke (2020) fails to mention that the Inquiry received evidence from multiple independent sources who described Penrose’s strong dislike for his job title and who described his repeated efforts within the institution to drop references to eugenics across his whole area of responsibility.

The strongest example is Makin’s (2014) guide to researching eugenics in UCL Special Collections. (This was circulated to members of the Inquiry committee, but for an unknown reason, it was not entered into the formal record of papers received.) Makin is an Archivist in UCL Library Services. She has had long-term, first-hand experience researching the history of UCL departments. In her guide to researching the history of eugenics at UCL, Makin wrote,

…In the years after the Second World War and under Penrose’s leadership the department officially started to cut its ties with eugenics, replacing the term with ‘human genetics’. According to the recollection of staff who worked at the Galton Laboratory in the post-war period, Penrose, who strongly opposed eugenics, immediately made his feelings known by changing the title on his headed notepaper when he became head of the department. However, it wasn’t until 1963 that he was finally successful in convincing UCL to officially remove the word eugenics from the title of his post and the name of the Laboratory. [Footnote from Makin: For further information about Penrose and the Galton Laboratory in the post-war period see: ‘Penrose Centenary Report published by the Centre for Human Genetics at UCL’, UCL Research Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment 1998; P. S. Harper, L. A. Reynolds and E. M. Tansey, eds., ‘Clinical Genetics in Britain: Origins and Development’, London, Wellcome Trust Centre, 2008, 7-15.]

Material in the Penrose archive shows that the change of name was an ongoing battle and the Laboratory’s early links to eugenics were a serious concern to Penrose when he took up the Galton Chair. In a typescript of a lunch hour lecture given by Penrose in 1954, he questions what precisely is meant by eugenics, explaining that it was coined by Galton to mean the application of genetic principles to improve races of animals, especially the human race. He also questioned why UCL continued to associate itself with eugenics, retaining the name above its doors and in its departments. In fact Penrose notes that his predecessor, R A Fisher, had more or less ignored the instruction to ‘pursue the study and further the knowledge of National Eugenics’ while he was Director, and while Penrose was fortified by this knowledge he continued to push for UCL to disassociate itself from eugenics more decisively. The typescript of his lecture is part of the eugenics section in the Penrose archive. [Footnote from Makin: See UCL Special Collections PENROSE/2/33/2/7 Lunch Hour Lecture ‘From Eugenics to Human Genetics’.] (Makin 2014)

Several witnesses for the Inquiry, who had direct experience working in the Galton Laboratory, reported along similar lines. Their testimony now is in the public domain (see sections “4. and 5. Submissions to the Inquiry”). The general tenor of their evidence was to praise Penrose for moving the Galton Laboratory away from the eugenics research and advocacy work undertaken by his predecessors. The Inquiry also received correspondence from Professor Shirley Hodgson reinforcing the same general points.

Figure 1. An excerpt from an UCL Eugenics Inquiry committee meeting dated 27 September 2019. The 1943 date is in error; Penrose’s appointment began in 1945. Source: document “3. Agendas, minutes and papers” FOI Release from UCL.

Shortly after receiving those witness statements, the Inquiry committee drew conclusions (Figure 1).

The Inquiry’s noted conclusion that “institutional support for eugenics was brought to an end under Penrose” is not repeated in Solanke (2020). Subsequent minutes show no new evidence presented to the Inquiry on this matter, and no later change of view is recorded. No explanation has been provided for its omission in the final report. The issue of institutional delay is not addressed in Solanke (2020).

Why Did It Take Penrose Eight Years To Change His Job Title?

Formally, Penrose’s job title at University College began as “Galton Professor of Eugenics” (1945-1963), then “Galton Professor of Human Genetics” (1963-1965). After retiring, he became “Emeritus Professor of Human Genetics” (from 1965). (UCL Calendars).

Penrose lobbied to change the formal title of his professorship throughout his employment at University College. Makin (c2015) reports he met resistance within the university. Harris (1974: 538) reports the resistance was legal, not ideological. Penrose’s post, and parts of his laboratory, were supported by a 1911 legacy given to University of London by Francis Galton. Because the job title was a specific request in Galton’s offer of the finanacial gift, legal opinion within University of London was that the job title could not be changed without breaking the agreement and forfeiting the gift. Moreover, university officials were worried about reputational damage and the risk to future gifts from others if it was seen to go back on its agreement when receiving Galton’s gift. Inaction in this case cannot be assumed to be linked to a pro-eugenics position.

Penrose did not take “no” for an answer and continued to seek change. He succeeded during discussions in anticipation of his retirement and the appointment of a successor. “Eugenics” was deemed antiquated. The title of his post was replaced with “Galton Professor of Human Genetics” in 1963. Penrose’s successor, Professor Harry Harris, was hired on that new title.

Masthead on Lionel Penrose's stationery for Galton Laboratory, University College London. This letter in dated 1958.
Figure 2. Masthead on Lionel Penrose’s stationery for Galton Laboratory, University College London. This letter in dated 1958. Source: UCL Records Office.

Names of Department and Laboratory

When Penrose was appointed “Galton Professor of Eugenics,” he was assigned to the Department of Eugenics, Biometry and Genetics within University College. This department was created in 1944 to merge the Department of Eugenics (headless when Fisher resigned in 1943 and containing only research staff) and the research interests and status aspirations of JBS Haldane (then Weldon Professor of Biometry who also was running a number of projects in genetics). That reorganisation was done by the university to preserve its hold on assets available through Galton’s original legacy. Penrose joined the university with those arrangements in place. He had no role in creating these arrangements, as they were in place before his recruitment began.

Haldane left UCL in 1957. Penrose was his successor as Head of Department of Eugenics, Biometry and Genetics within University College. Penrose secured a change of name for the department in 1964, together with a change of name for the laboratory, to match the title of the professorship. Thereafter, from 1965, the “Galton Professor of Human Genetics” headed the “Galton Laboratory” in the “Department of Human Genetics and Biometry”. In fact, “Department of Eugenics, Biometry and Genetics“ was split to create two new units: the “Department of Human Genetics and Biometry” and the “Department of Animal Genetics”. The Galton Professor (Harris) and the Galton Laboratory were assigned to the first of these two new units as was the Weldon Professor of Biometry (Smith). (UCL Calendar for 1965-66: lxviii)

Harris (1973: 538) argues Penrose invented a work-around solution to administrative intransigence on names during the interim period. He simply ignored his departmental affiliation whenever possible. For instance, he used printed stationery that located him within “The Galton Laboratory, University College London” (Figure 2). This individual act of rebellion allowed him to dismiss two instances of the keyword “eugenics” when using his institutional affiliation. The presentation of Penrose’s job title was not always under his control, such as with his publishers when marketing books.

Corroborating Evidence for Penrose’s Anti-Eugenics

Several types of corroborating evidence support the view that Penrose was unambiguously anti-eugenics. These were within easy reach of the UCL Inquiry, yet they were given no place in Solanke’s (2020) analysis of Penrose.

Penrose’s own writing

Penrose’s own statements on the subject are relevant. In his 1946 inaugural lecture at University College, Penrose placed eugenics among a set of “pernicious ideas based upon emotional bias,” and he directly undermined the eugenics agenda by refusing to concede that issues associated with hereditary patterns were exclusively genetic. Eugenic prognosis, he said, remained “a surmise based upon personal bias rather than a scientific judgment.” (Penrose 1946b: 953)

Penrose’s 1949 address to the Eugenics Society is a direct critique of eugenics and a statement that the Galton Laboratory under his management had abandoned the goals of his predecessors (Penrose 1949b). Elsewhere, Penrose criticised high-ranking colleagues for being too soft on eugenics (Penrose 1953).

Lionel Penrose drawing relative causes of characters in development
Figure 3: Sketch by Lionel Penrose to describe the “partition of causes of mental deficiency in patients of all ages”. The categories are: genes, chromosomes, environment, and unknown. The point Penrose made with images such as this was that eugenicists vastly overrated the impact genes alone have in making characters. From “Papers Relating to a Lecture on “Genetics and Society,” 1969, Located in Penrose Papers, UCL Special Collections. Accessed via Wellcome Collection <>. This image is in the public domain.

At the heart of Penrose’s scientific critique of eugenics was his view that eugenicists vastly overemphasized genetics when explaining the origins of physical and mental attributes. They vastly oversimplified, too. For Penrose, biology was complicated. Environment and development were crucial in determining how hereditary conditions manifested, even in conditions associated with strong patterns of inheritance. Figure 3 shows a typical summary given by Penrose to attribute the “partition of causes of mental deficiency in patients of all ages”. The fact that causes of conditions were so varied meant, for Penrose, eugenic policies could never accomplish their goals.

At the heart of Penrose’s ideological critique of eugenics were two themes. First, he called out the oversimplifications made by eugenicists about what conditions might be genetic in origin. He saw these oversimplifications as injections of privilege and exclusion, whether anti-Sematic, ableist, racist, or classist. Penrose frequently used the example of different class perceptions to make his point: the rich tend to see the poor as constitutional lazy and given to crime, whereas the poor tend to see the rich as constitutionally lazy and given to crime.

Second, Penrose rejected the dehumanisation of individuals that were part and parcel of eugenics campaigning. He simply did not accept claims that individuals targeted by eugenicists formed some kind of underclass or failure class. Unlike Pearson and Fisher, Penrose worked in close proximity with patients (Penrose 1967), worked to develop repour, and insisted on humanitarian treatment. His fundamental maxim in clinical settings was the avoidance of coercion within the liberal context of individual choice. Penrose (1966: 173) was a strong advocate for special education programmes and vocational training to enrich the lives of Down’s patients. Smith (1999: 36) reported “Penrose used to hold Saturday parties at UCL for his Down’s syndrome patients” and noted Penrose blamed society for failing to accommodate such people within its social web. Penrose was alert to, and highly critical of, stigmatisation of individuals with mental health issues (Choudhury 2015).At University College, 


When Penrose was appointed Galton Professor, he inherited the editorship of Annals of Eugenics, begun in 1925 by Karl Pearson as an in-house journal from the Galton Laboratory. On his arrival in this post, Penrose immediately changed the journal’s editorial direction (Penrose 1946b). As an explicit rejection of its past, he changed its name to Annals of Human Genetics in 1954 (Penrose 1954). This change is noted by Solanke (2020), but Penrose’s rationale is ignored, such as his UCL Lunch Hour Lecture, “From Eugenics to Human Genetics”, given on 4 March 1954 to the UCL community, that is unambiguously anti-eugenics.

Penrose did the same with Treasury of Human Inheritance, announcing in the first part under his editorship (volume 4, part 5) that the monograph would move to other clinical studies. Volume 5 of the Treasury (1951-58) was written by Julia Bell and lists Penrose as editor. It focused on hereditary issues associated with the growth of human digits. Volume 5 included three parts, and it was the last to be published.

Teaching Eugenics and Anti-Eugenics

At University College, Penrose taught a postgraduate module titled “Eugenics” from the 1945-46 to the 1951-52 session. This teaching continued under the title, “Human Genetics” from the 1952-53 to the 1956-57 session. From 1957-58, this module became “Human Population Genetics and Clinical Genetics,” and Penrose taught under this title until his retirement. (Importantly, Haldane left University College in 1957, and Penrose replaced him as head of department. Penrose’s teaching served as a vehicle to attack eugenics while also resetting the intellectual and moral agenda of clinical genetics. Wellcome Collection includes some material associated with that module. This material closely resembles Penrose’s (1959) introductory volume and his specialised volume (Penrose 1949a), both of which explicitly rejected eugenics.

Penrose and anti-racism

Solanke (2020) presents the legacy of eugenics predominantly within a framework of global racialisation. There is no commentary of Penrose’s engagement with the politics of race, though this clearly is germane to the innuendo in that report. Penrose’s position while at University College was clearly aligned with anti-racism. The most accessible example is found in Penrose’s response in consultation on UNESCO’s attempt to develop a global statement on race (UNESCO 1950). Penrose’s review of the UNESCO statement is quoted at length in UNESCO’s main supporting document for its statement, The Race Concept. Results of an Inquiry

“Penrose too believes that ‘use of the term ‘race’ must be discontinued altogether…’” (Penrose in UNESCO 1952: 24-25).

Quoting him at length,

“The concept of the races of man is inexact and archaic. It belongs to an unscientific epoch and it cannot be used without perpetuating confusion and engendering discord. The objects of study in scientific anthropology are collections of people or populations. These can be precisely defined geographically, genealogically, linguistically or culturally according to the needs of any particular investigation which is to be carried out. The frequency of a given measurement of a given character trait, physical or behaviouristic, can be objectively determined in any given population. The question of the genetical or environmental significance of the character can be discussed independently, provided that reference to the old concept of racial grouping is avoided because of its latent implication that racial characters are inherited…” (Penrose in UNESCO 1952: 24-25)

Penrose goes on to explain,

“I think that the interests which UNESCO has in mind in publishing this Statement could best be served by frankly admitting that the concept of the existence of different human racial groups is obsolete and superfluous in scientific enquiry. Support for the use of the mystical term ‘race’ in this connexion by scientists is likely to encourage superstition and prejudice in popular discussions. Clear thinking, which is the best antidote to prejudice, can be aided by referring only to human populations; these are real and they can be precisely defined.” (Penrose in UNESCO 1952: 24-25)

Penrose’s draft statement for the UNESCO report is available in the Penrose Papers in UCL Special Collections.

In contrast, RA Fisher (Penrose’s predecessor as Galton Professor) was identified in the same report as opposed to the UNESCO statement on race. He was quoted as believing, “human groups differ profoundly ‘in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development'” (UNESCO 1952: 27). Solanke (2020) fails to call out Fisher’s blatant racism or eugenics.

Why is this important?

Considerable evidence shows Penrose had a record of strong anti-eugenics. This evidence was easily within the Inquiry’s grasp but it was passed over, replaced by omission and innuendo. Solanke (2020) failed in its role of investigation on this matter.

A Macheivellian might interpret this failing thusly. The Eugenics Inquiry was supposed by some to contribute evidence for a narrative that UCL is institutionally racist and has a long record of being institutionally racist. Harbouring promoters of scientific racism would be evidence of this pattern. The history of eugenics at UCL was supposed to serve as a case study in this long arc of criticism against the institution. From Galton to the London Conference on Intelligence – the Eugenics Inquiry was supposed to contribute a straight-line of history that gave ammunition for a campaign for restorative justice, complete with demands for new commemorative devices (such as new statues, and mandatory re-education), financial boosts to specialist programmes in “critical theory”, and expansion of academic posts and territory. Solanke (2020) makes these calls. At the same time, Solanke (2020) ignores the committee’s own finding that institutional support for eugenics ended with (e.g., because of) Penrose and that report chose not to explore what happened next. Solanke (2020) failed to make use of evidence contradicting what seems to be a narrative invented long before the Inquiry began and deployed independent of available evidence. It seems to me that Penrose was framed with suspicion to preserve the larger narrative.

I don’t read minds, and I don’t know for sure. Maybe the Macheivellian interpretation is wrong. But the fact remains, Penrose broke the chain and drove the Galton Professorship and the Galton Laboratory into an anti-eugenics position. He was praised by colleagues for doing that. Solanke (2020) doesn’t convey this conclusion; that is a significant failing of the report. In the final analysis, I think the task of condemning those who justly deserve our criticism (such as Pearson and Fisher) is never helped by rough treatment of others (such as Penrose). For the avoidance of doubt, I think the expansion of UCL’s capacity to engage the critical study of radicalisation is long overdue. I do not think its justification requires false narratives in the history of eugenics.

Solanke (2020) was not approved by the Inquiry committee and formally only represents the view of its sole author. It has many failings, some of which I’ve engaged elsewhere. A majority of committee members on the Eugenics Inquiry chose instead to support MORE recommendations and chose not to support the historical narrative offered by Solanke (2020). Whatever the real history of racism and scientific racism within UCL – and it certainly is present in places – an actionable understanding of their impact cannot be achieved by the promotion of ignorance and innuendo.


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