Major Greenwood in the History of Eugenics

J.W. Brown, Major Greenwood, and Frances Wood (1920) The Fertility of the English Middle Classes. A Statistical Study. Eugenics Review 12(3): 158-211.

What was the research and advocacy that took place by personnel associated with UCL and its sister institutions? Zydon Patel investigates J.W. Brown, Major Greenwood, and Frances Wood (1920) The Fertility of the English Middle Classes. A Statistical Study. Eugenics Review 12(3): 158-211.


It is often impossible in short pieces of work such as this to analyse a massive discipline like eugenics and come up with wide ranging conclusions that apply to the broader field of study. That is why this research paper will attempt to work itself up from the specific case-study of Major Greenwood’s work: ‘The Fertility of the English Middle Classes’ and his ties to eugenics to help us come to more expansive conclusions around the discipline and seek to answer whether the history of eugenics is really just a segment of the history of public health. This will be done by dividing the research paper into three segments: firstly, understanding Greenwood himself better through biographical contextualisation. Secondly, taking a deeper dive into the above-mentioned work to analyse Greenwood’s findings and how he chooses to present them. The final section will then focus on utilising the information found to help answer whether the history of eugenics is just a segment of the long history of public health.

Biographical Context

Major Greenwood (1880-1949), one of the co-authors of the text being analysed later on in this essay lived a relatively extraordinary live if one looks to his biographies. He was written about as a “foremost medical statistician of the first half of the 20th century in the UK” (Farewell and Johnson, 2014; Farewell and Johnson, 2015). What makes Greenwood especially interesting as a person of significance to look into is his personal relationship with Karl Pearson. In fact, it was under Pearson that he “completed his first paper … and saw it published in 1904 just before he qualified in medicine” (Farewell and Johnson, 2015) perhaps clearly highlighting how this mentor-mentee relationship was built up from the beginning of Greenwood’s professional career. The cementing of this lifelong bond to Pearson can be seen from Greenwood’s own closing acknowledgements where he wrote “I desire to take this opportunity of expressing my gratitude to Prof Karl Pearson … Anything of interest in this essay is due, either directly or indirectly, to him.” (Greenwood, 1904, p. 10).

However, both the writers of Greenwood’s obituary and his biography seem to agree that although “Pearson’s teaching was the inspiration of his life work, and it was also, and in more than one sense, a lifelong handicap” (Hogben, 1950, p. 139). The authors discuss the fact that being so close to Pearson had Greenwood in the spotlight of various controversies such as when he had to defend biometric methods against Dr William Hunter in 19071 (Farewell and Johnson, 2015).

Interestingly, neither the biographers or the writer of his obituary mention some of his works which could be classified as eugenic; these include the article that will be analysed later on in the essay and also the article published in 1912 in the Eugenics Review labelled ‘Infant mortality and its administrative control’ where sentences like “Suppose we sorted out our population into two mutually exclusive classes, one comprising the tuberculous, the criminal, the mentally ill-balanced” (Greenwood, 1912, p. 289) are utilised to then subtly advocate for various eugenic reforms. I come to the conclusion that these omissions have perhaps two causes. Firstly, the biographers may be ignorant of these eugenicist connections, this is an acceptable excuse for the individual who wrote his obituary, but his biographers have written multiple pieces about Major Greenwood and have researched him extensively. Therefore, this lowers the chance that they were not aware of such connections. The second possible reason is that they may have been intentional omissions to strengthen the picture of Greenwood’s work as a ‘foremost medical statistician’ and perhaps this was even done to ensure the name of the Medical Research Council (MRC) he was working under until the mid-1930’s (Wilkenson, 2004, p. 2) which still exists today remains untainted by eugenics.

If one looks into the biographers themselves, they are the only two individuals who have written biographies on Major Greenwood. In fact, they had written two papers mentioning Greenwood closely before publishing an entire paper on Greenwood’s older work and then proceeding to integrate that into a larger and more in-depth biography of his whole life (Farewell and Johnson, 2016). Both Vern Farewell and Tony Johnson (the biographers) worked in the MRC Biostatics unit in Cambridge (Farewell and Johnson, 2017) and have published together several times over a couple of years. There is a lot more information available on Farewell’s works compared to Johnson and what stands out is that a large majority of his articles are focused on Biostatistics and his biographical work on Major Greenwood stand out as an anomaly in his long history of published works. This makes one question why he perhaps went on such a tangent from his regular research to write such an in-depth biography over multiple years when he is not a specialist of the history of medical statistics.

To summarise, I feel the two most important conclusions that come out of the above is the following: that there seems to be a general agreement among past and present scholars who write about Greenwood that his relationship and almost “schoolgirl passion” (Hogben, 1950, p. 140) with Karl Pearson was overly a negative one and that it had held him back until Pearson’s death. This may have been the work of hindsight and various attempts by different authors to distance individuals of notable proponents of eugenics as it became increasingly unpopular in the UK. Secondly, Greenwood’s own research and thoughts that could be classified as eugenics have also been omitted from the biographies. In this case it may have been done to separate the MRC where Greenwood worked from being associated or having a history of fellows collaborating with Eugenicists. In the long term, these omissions harm rather than help society as it damages our efforts to map the history of eugenics when names are omitted, and relationships are minimized to protect reputations of individuals and organisations.

Investigation of Greenwood’s Work as a Historical Text

This part of the essay will look deeper into Greenwood’s specific work, ‘The Fertility of the English Middle Classes’. An interesting contextualisation of history that is inserted by Greenwood into the prefatory note is the research of the paper was left unfinished in 1913 when his collaborators had to shift focus away from the scientific study towards the looming world war (Greenwood, Brown and Wood, 1920). He also states that only 2/3 of the content that they had intended was ready for publishing (Greenwood, Brown and Wood, 1920, p.158) and therefore Greenwood’s decision to publish this without concluding the work leaves the paper in an almost unfinished state. The few conclusions that can be gleaned from the work are nevertheless helpful to understand how Greenwood used data to communicate about eugenics in an extremely subtle way and that is what this section will focus on.

Firstly, let us look into what Greenwood concluded after this research piece using the data he analysed. When analysing table XXXIX on page 196, one notices how in two out of the three categories, non-collegiate women have higher fertility rates comparatively to their college going counterparts (Greenwood, Brown and Wood, 1920). Greenwood attempted to explain this by also highlighting the fact that collegiate women were more likely to restrict their fertility in one way or another (Greenwood, Brown and Wood, 1920, p. 200). As one of Greenwood’s main concerns is “whether the [birth rate] sufficient to replace the parents and their coevals who die unmarried” (Greenwood, Brown and Wood, 1920, p. 203) it is clear that he would therefore subtly be in favour of anything that increases the average fertility rates and decreases restriction attempts. Although he never outright says it, he does at various points in the work subtly push for methods to increase birth rates. For example, he states that the “middle class fertility was perhaps barely sufficient to maintain the absolute numbers of the class” (Greenwood, Brown and Wood, 1920, p. 205) which highlights an urgency to the reader that there is a very real possibility that there could be a regression in middle class numbers if nothing changes. There are also other important contextual reasons why Greenwood might be coming to this conclusion, all the data was collected before the first World War. Greenwood may have been acutely aware about the huge death toll and may have wanted to encourage increased birth rates in any way possible to help the country recover.

Although Greenwood never strayed to suggest any form of eugenics such as sterilization to reduce the birthrate of specific ‘undesirables’, he did do multiple things to show his support for eugenic principles. Firstly, he chose to state his studies were not incompatible with Karl Pearson’s work on a similar topic. Secondly he explicitly states he will not answer whether the “neglection of eugenic principia is leading to a steady deterioration of the race” (Greenwood, Brown and Wood, 1920, p. 205), this is especially interesting as if he had no plans on answering the above, then why would he choose to bring it up at the very end to pique the readers curiosity? This is in fact a warning and is a well-known literary tactic to get readers to begin thinking about something without actually endorsing it (Cuddon, 2012).

Finally, the above is compounded by the Latin quote Greenwood leaves at the end which laments over how each new generation of children are steadily worse than the last (Greenwood, Brown and Wood, 1920) perhaps hinting at his support for eugenic policies to create some form of change. All of the above highlights how Greenwood has almost meticulously chosen his words to appear neutral in his conclusions but the above combined with quotes from other works Greenwood has written, such as “In guarding against sickness … we might seek to breed a population naturally resistant” (Greenwood, 1935, Chapter 6), one notices a common theme that Greenwood is shrewdly advocating for the propagation of various eugenics measures.

One final point to make for brevity purposes is around Greenwood’s data itself. There are several problems with the data Greenwood utilises, some mentioned by him and others seemingly ignored. For example, Greenwood acknowledges the presence of possible desirability bias in the data as he questioned whether “persons whose sexual appetites were almost absent or whose circumstances precluded them from intercourse would usually answer the scheduled question in the affirmative” (Greenwood, Brown and Wood, 1920, p. 203) which could result in some participants lying about answers for a variety of reasons.

However, what does not seem to be recognised is the large amount of disparity between the two participant groups, there are over triple the number of college going women who answered this survey compared to noncollegiate. When one looks at the survey the participants had to fill out, the reason is extremely clear; the surveys were handed out to only women graduates (Greenwood, Brown and Wood, 1920, p. 207). Those women were then asked to pass on a copy to another woman in their family who had not completed a college education. This once again brings up a variety of problems with the data as the sample for non-collegiate women is not really as random as one would have thought. This could result in some form of selection bias that skews the results.

To conclude, this document is really best understood when contextualised in its history. Greenwood did not have any other collaborators to finish publishing this work after the war and therefore had to leave it ambiguously neutral with his conclusions. He also possibly had a variety of concerns about the birth rate after the war and therefore this publication is his attempts to push for changes to occur to help increase middle class fertility. His own opinions can only be gleamed when one looks at the subtext of what he discusses, and one discovers that raising the awareness of certain eugenic principles play a prominent part in his conclusion. I would argue that his final and overall message is an advocation for higher birth rates in educated women because he sees it as one way to halt the “steady deterioration of the [human] race” (Greenwood, Brown and Wood, 1920, p. 205) but this will be explored more in the next part of this essay.

To What Extent is the History of Eugenics Really Just a Segment of the History of Public Health?

From Theriac, the ancient medicine that promised to cure any illness; from the snake bite to the plague, to fad diets that are increasingly more common in the 21st century, humankind’s history of public health has been filled with trends that come and go, some lasting longer than others. I will argue that eugenics was for most people just one of those trends in the 20th century (especially in the UK). This final section of the research paper will be dedicated to going through a specific part of the history of eugenics under a discourse analysis lens utilising Greenwood’s work and career to highlight just one example of someone who was entranced by eugenics but over time realised the cracks within the discipline and slowly began distancing themselves from it. Ultimately, one will see that eugenics was just one of these trends in the long history of public health and like any of these trends, it faded into the background as people realised the unfeasibility of the discipline and moved away from it. I will show this by juxtaposing Greenwood’s own move away from eugenics to the movement’s own popularity diminishing over time. However, one will also see that although eugenics fades from the limelight (especially post World War Two)n it never completely disappears and instead increasingly incorporates itself into a variety of modern practices.

Firstly, one should look into how Greenwood embraced the discipline of eugenics alongside Karl Pearson in his early years. After obtaining his medical license, Greenwood had written to Pearson stating that he had resolved “to be an honest soldier under your flag” (Matthews, 1995, p. 35) clearly highlighting the beginnings of Greenwood’s devotion to Pearson and his work. As mentioned in Part A of this research paper, Greenwood repeatedly acknowledges Pearson’s impact on his work and defends Pearson’s own work against critiques.

Greenwood’s aforementioned controversy with William Hunter where neither proved the other wrong but the correspondence itself “may be a reflection of Greenwood’s commitment to Pearsonian methods.” (Farewell and Johnson, 2014, p. 2168). Moreover, Greenwood’s other works also subtly advocated for eugenic measures. Alongside with the textual analysis carried out in section B of this research paper which highlights how Greenwood was promoting certain measures and pushing the readers to ask certain questions such as ‘whether neglecting eugenic principia would result in the deterioration of the human race’, one notices a common theme throughout many of Greenwood’s works, he is shrewdly advocating for the propagation of various eugenics measures without directly coming out and stating it. Now, one must question why he does so?

I would argue that it is done for ‘public health’ purposes, Greenwood believed that Eugenics could help improve various factors of public health. His subtle advocation for increased fertility in the paper analysed in Part B can be attributed to the World War that just passed. Similarly, his advocation for a population that is ‘naturally resistant’ against sickness is just a logical measure to improve the public’s health against diseases. What one should notice here is Greenwood is not a die-hard and obstinate eugenicist. He is advocating for these beliefs as he genuinely considers them as a possible solution. One will see in the next paragraph that he will happily reject certain eugenicist measures when it is clear they are incorrect going so far as to directly go against his mentor, Pearson’s work. This is why I would argue that for most scientists dipping their feet into eugenics in the 20th century is just that, they would be sampling the discipline, maybe advocating it for a period of time but ultimately (if they live long enough) coming to realise that eugenics is not a plausible way forward for science or the future of public health. What eugenics is however is clearly an important part of the history of public health, especially in the UK where eugenics became part of law with the Mental Deficiency Act in 1913 with only three MP’s voting against it (Woodhouse, 1982).

Moving back onto Greenwood himself and his distancing from eugenics, it began when Greenwood left Pearson’s laboratory “in disaffection from its eugenic dogmatism” (Kevles, 1986, p. 337). Moreover in 1913, he heavily disagreed with by one of the conclusions made in that laboratory that “nutrition had nothing to do with a child’s schoolwork.” (Kevles, 1986, p. 337). He described that conclusion as “Simply SHIT from beginning to end” (Greenwood, 1913), he went on to argue that the reason some children do better than others is not based on genetics but on environmental factors such as their living conditions and nutrition (Greenwood, 1913). This is possibly the first time Greenwood has gone directly against one of Pearson’s staff and (albeit privately in a letter) denounced the conclusions of their work. Although eugenics began becoming increasingly unpopular after the 1930’s, Greenwood is a perfect example of one of these scientists who began distancing themselves from atleast Pearsonian eugenics early on and from the wider discipline as a whole a few decades later. Although he chose to still take part in various societies such as the Eugenics Education Society and it is clear that he still believes eugenics could play an important purpose in the role of public health, 1913 could be seen as a turning point for him where his recommendations for various eugenics principles become more subtle (as seen in Part B of this research paper).

Another notable scholar who began distancing themselves from Pearson’s work in the 1910’s was John Maynard Keynes who publicly argued against the data Pearson and his co- worker had utilised in their study of parental alcoholism and its effects on offspring (Farrall, 2019). This elucidates the idea that increasing numbers of eugenicists in the Eugenics Education Society were disagreeing with Pearson’s work and either separating themselves from either the discipline entirely or disparaging Pearson’s methods and advocating for differing branches of eugenics. An alternative example of the diminishing popularity of eugenics in the UK could be highlighted by realising that only two universities had degrees in the field (Liverpool University and UCL). Especially after 1918, various scholars have remarked how the eugenics movement “seemed to lack political credibility.” (MacKenzie, 1976, p. 518) and that the “broad spectrum of political support in the professional middle class evaporated” (MacKenzie, 1976, p. 518) clearly highlighting a similar shift in society to what Greenwood himself went through a few years earlier. I would argue this shift in society post 1918 is a clear sign that the ‘fad’ or ‘trend’ of eugenics in public health was rapidly fading and was irreversibly ended after World War Two where around the world eugenics laws were being removed as they were now associated with Nazi Germany (Black, 2004).

This gradual distancing of himself from eugenics may also be why Greenwood’s biographers chose not to include any mention of it as by labelling him a eugenicist, they may have feared it would detract from all the other work he has done for epidemiology and statistics over the years.

A final point to note on eugenics is the whole concept that eugenics is non-existent in the present. Although this section of the paper has harped on about the idea that the trend of eugenics ended post World War Two, one could conversely argue that instead of ending completely like most other past health trends, eugenics has managed to recede into the background of a multitude of disciplines in the present. For example, abortion reforms in the 1960’s in the USA were backed by the same “financial and eugenic arguments that justified eugenic sterilization policies” (Bashford, 2012, p. 546). It is important to understanding “that eugenics—even formal eugenics—never completely disappeared” (Bashford, 2012, p. 550) and therefore although I have argued above that eugenics was just a segment of the long history of public health, it is vital to note that it has had long lasting impacts and has been thoroughly blended in with modern disciplines such as genetics and bioethics even in the present.


To conclude, I would argue that in fact the history of eugenics is just a small (but important) segment of the history of public health. Although Greenwood never played a leading role in eugenics, what he does do is illustrate to us the quintessential typical example of a scientist who was enthralled by eugenics and the promises it had for public health. The subsequent realisations that eugenics is not achievable or the general diminishing of popularity for the discipline highlights to me atleast that this was one of those trends in the history of public health. Just like Theriac, the concept of eugenics promised a lot more then it was possible to implement and was eventually side-lined in the UK for different developments in public health such as the introduction of the NHS post World War Two. But unlike past trends, it is important to note that although side-lined, eugenics is in the background of various scientific disciplines waiting to re-emerge. That is why it is essential that we reflect fully on humanities past involvements with the discipline and exhaustively question new scientific prospects that have even a hint of eugenical science to it.

List of References

Bashford, A., 2012. Epilogue: where did eugenics go?. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics,.

Black, E., 2004. War against the weak. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.

Cuddon, J., 2012. A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory.

Farewell, V. and Johnson, T., 2014. Major Greenwood’s early career and the first departments of medical statistics. Statistics in Medicine, 33(13), pp. 2161-2177.

Farewell, V. and Johnson, T., 2015. Major Greenwood (1880-1949): a biographical and bibliographical study. Statistics in Medicine, 35(5), pp.645-670.

Farewell, V. and Johnson, T., 2016. Major Greenwood (1880-1949): the biography. Statistics in Medicine, 35(30), pp. 5533-5535.

Farewell, V. and Johnson, T., 2017. Major Greenwood and clinical trials. JLL Bulletin: Commentaries on the history of treatment evaluation.

Farrall, L., 2019. The origins and growth of the English eugenics movement, 1865-1925. UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies.

Greenwood, M., 1904. A first study of the weight, variability, and correlation of the human viscera, with special reference to the healthy and diseased heart. Biometrika, 3(1), pp.63-83.

Greenwood, M., 1912. Infant Mortality And Its Administrative Control. The Eugenics Review, 4(3), pp.284-304.

Greenwood, M. (1913) Letter to Udny Yule, 30 June 1913

Greenwood, M., Brown, J. and Wood, F., 1920. The fertility of the english middle classes. A statistical study. The Eugenics Review, [online] 12(3). Available at: <> [Accessed 23 November 2021].

Greenwood, M., 1935. Epidemics and Crowd-Diseases. An introduction to the study of epidemiology. London: Williams & Norgate.

Hogben, L., 1950. Major Greenwood 1880 – 1949. Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 7(19), pp.138-154.

Kevles, D., 1986. In the name of eugenics. Pelican Books.

MacKenzie, D., 1976. Eugenics in Britain. Social Studies of Science, 6(3/4).

Matthews, J., 1995. Major Greenwood versus Almroth Wright: Contrasting Visions of “Scientific” Medicine in Edwardian Britain. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 69(1).

Wilkinson, L., 2004. Greenwood, Major. In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.

Woodhouse, J., 1982. Eugenics and the feeble‐minded: the Parliamentary debates of 1912‐14. History of Education, 11(2), pp. 127-137.

[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.