Francis Galton and Building Names at UCL

UCL Galton Lecture Theatre - plaque on door - ProfJoeCain

In October 2014, I proposed to UCL’s Estates Management Board that my university change the name of a lecture theatre named for Francis Galton. Some people have asked about this. Below is what I wrote. The letter is here.

There followed conversations and discussions, then a small committee was organised to investigate, and I was asked to serve on it. It was clear to those around the table there were larger issues. It also was clear to us the composition of that first committee was too narrow (I don’t know who composed it), and we quickly asked for more diversity, wider perspectives, and more information. These changes began to happen, but before we got very far, the chair left their post at UCL, and the issue fell into abeyance for reasons I do not know.

The recently organised (2018) Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL is the next step. Part of its remit is to consider this issue. I have been asked to serve on this, too.

Let’s wait to see what the Inquiry reports and recommends.

Why Take This View About Galton?

I came to my personal views in this letter after reflecting on Galton’s letter to the Editor of The Times, June 5 1873 titled “Africa for the Chinese.” [here, with a rejoinder from Gilbert Malcolm Sproat.] The opinion he expressed, and the underlying representation of Africans as “lazy, palavering savages” who don’t deserve the land of their birth, is indefensible. Full stop. It alone is enough, for me, to disqualify a person from honoured status. I’m very well aware of arguments about historical empathy and needing to understand people “within the context of their time”. I’m also very well aware of arguments about needing to take a person’s views as a totality: see the whole. As a professional historian, I agree, and I demand we respect these rules in the arena of academic history. But this is misplaced concern that distracts from the point I wanted to make.

Instead, I don’t want anyone to think I want to be associated with Galton’s view. I don’t want UCL students to think they ought to associate themselves with such views. They shouldn’t. I don’t want to teach in a room named for someone with such a view. (I have taught in it in the past, and I’ve asked not to teach there in the future.) Yes, there are many reasons for researching the life and work of Galton. Some of the science he helped create is important. And he was an important figure in the professionalisation of British science during the Victorian period. But he’s no hero of mine, and he should be no hero for you. I don’t want my university to be ambiguous on this symbolism.

And more to the point, UCL is a vast institution. It has a huge and fascinating history. (Free open access book on UCL’s history) It has a long list of brilliant, innovative, challenging, world-class leaders of subjects – these are people we, as a community, can be indisputably proud to be associated with or use as a symbol for aspiration and respect. We teach, speak, write, and reflect about them every year. (Kathleen Lonsdale comes to mind, as a recent PhD dissertation on her life has shown.) From my point of view: it’s time for someone else to get a turn.

Logo from the Second International Eugenics Conference, 1921
Logo from the Second International Eugenics Conference, 1921. The key point here is the many-rooted nature of the activity: it’s interdisciplinary and no one person, place, political view, or social view represents its core. (WikiCommons)

Eugenics is a topic of considerable historical research. That research is international in nature. A lot of this scholarship is available open access; more is behind digital paywalls but freely available in libraries and archives, such as the Wellcome Collection. For example, the Wellcome Collection has digitised the papers of the Eugenics Society. The level of research is considerable because the activity easily countable as “eugenics” took place around the world and over many years. It also took many forms. Following this history can tell us a lot about science and society as well as science and politics.

Together with my colleagues in UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS), I engage the global (and local) history of eugenics in our courses, supervisions, tutorials. We also investigate biographies of people such as Galton, Pearson, and so many others. When students ask us about research projects of their own, if they want to explore parts of this topic, they are welcome. In my experience, this history is far from hidden. For instance, read chapter 7 in Boulter’s free open access book (2017) Bloomsbury Scientists: Science and Art in the Wake of Darwin on eugenics in and around UCL. We also know how to locate work at UCL within London, national, and international work by professionals on the subject, and we know a lot about how publics around the world engaged eugenics. Professor Steve Jones’ highly regarded 1996 BBC series, In the Blood, is another example of smart research on eugenics in and out of the academy.

Memo to UCL Estates Management Board

14 October 2014 Professor Joe Cain to UCL Estates Management Committee.


UCL undertakes to change the name of the Galton Lecture Theatre within six months.


Sir Francis Galton was a Victorian polymath with important contributions to emerging sciences, such as statistics, meteorology, anthropometry, and fingerprinting. He researched the inheritance of intelligence as well as qualities he associated with personal and racial character. Galton’s association with UCL came mostly through strong collegial links to statisticians, including Karl Pearson and Raphael Weldon. Galton also was a patron to UCL.

Galton is widely presented as the “father of eugenics”. His writings were a focal point for some elements of this international political movement. Galton advocated active management of human populations and pursued policies aimed at major demographic change towards the evolutionary “improvement” of the human species. Galton understood humanity through the lens of an anthropological tradition that divided humanity into units such as races, sub-races, and sub-sub-races. He ranked these units in hierarchies of value. He promoted socioeconomic policies designed to secure the success of some races while thwarting the ambitions of others.

For the purposes of Galton’s own biography, his views must be appreciated within their historical context. However, in the twenty-first century, Galton’s name has been inextricably linked with racist, misogynist, and hierarchical ideologies that are abhorrent and indefensible. Some will complain such associations are imposed unfairly. Nevertheless, they are endemic. They also are corrosive.

UCL must associate itself with leaders in the struggle for equality. By any metric, Galton was not one of those leaders. Honouring Galton with a named element of the estate associates UCL, rightly or wrongly, with elements of those abhorrent ideologies. This undermines our aspirations towards leadership on equity. Whatever might have been the merits of honouring Galton in the past, the time has come to honour others, particularly those with strong associations to the equality agenda that is the moral heart of our institution.


UCL maintains The Galton Collection as a museum resource. It is unaffected by this proposal. The collection provides an invaluable tool for reflection and critical inquiry into the history of science and the history of relations between science and society. Through it, UCL furthers its equality agenda.