A view From the Bridge

Bricks + Mortals: mapping the racist roots of science

Posted on behalf of Buddhini Samarasinghe

Subhadra Das,xxx

Subhadra Das, curator of the UCL Galton and Pathology Collections, at the opening show for Bricks + Mortals.

Buddhini Samarasinghe

If walls could speak: the saying might have been tailor-made for University College London’s new exhibition. Bricks + Mortals uses the campus buildings to tell the story of how eugenics gained a foothold at the university over a century ago. The epicentre, a lab for “national eugenics”, was set up in the early 1900s by Francis Galton, the Victorian mathematician and ‘father of eugenics’ whose crude bolting of statistics to human variety marks a nadir of modern science. Several UCL buildings and lecture theatres still bear the names of eugenicists.

The story uncovered by Bricks + Mortals — brainchild of the inspiring Subhadra Das, who curates the UCL Galton and Pathology Collections — is one I was only vaguely aware of. Uncomfortable topics make people uncomfortable: it’s easier to look the other way and pretend that the past belongs in the past. It’s convenient to believe that we gain nothing from considering its sepia-toned mistakes too closely.

This show proves otherwise — and is, moreover, a valuable puzzle piece in a historical jigsaw covering much of the globe. While geneticists today wielding the CRISPR scissors focus on ending disease, Galton had very different ideas for ‘bettering’ society. His theories (as he put it in the 1883 Inquiries into the Human Faculty and Its Development) aimed to allow “the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable”. Galton’s racism and conflations of class and intelligence accelerated an early twentieth-century movement in Britain, Canada, the United States and much of Europe that targeted minority groups and people with disabilities as ‘unfit’ to reproduce (such as the infamous US case of Buck v Bell).

Given the depth of that stain on science history, it’s remarkable that Bricks + Mortals was launched at a comedy show in November, hosted by iconoclastic comic Sophie Duker. As it turned out, comedy was a great way to confront and tackle the topic.

The evening began with short acts performed by UCL students and staff. Biologist Oz Ismail, social scientist Amanda Moorghen, health scientist Asma Ashraf and biochemist Michael Sulu shared their experiences of working in academia with affecting honesty. Their humour worked because we the audience could relate to them — it was a case of if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. For example Ismail, cofounder of Minorities in STEM, shared how during his research he learned about Emil Kraepelin, co-discoverer of  Alzheimer’s disease, and his racism and anti-Semitism. Moorghen, a researcher with the English Speaking Union, talked about the influence of Nazi ideology on education and intelligence testing.

Digging for the backstory

Das then spoke about the Galton collection — the instruments, papers and personal memorabilia endowed by the mathematician to UCL, along with a bequest funding the first chair of eugenics in Britain. The university still has a Galton Professor, although today it is of Human Genetics – yet you’d have to dig to discover that backstory. Das approaches her work with nuance and depth. She is frank about Galton’s racism; she also notes his contributions to ideas and inventions, for example in meteorology and criminology.

Das reminded us that any narrative on eugenics must include its racist and colonialist roots — as well as how its ideas have to some degree seeded research today. As she notes, “When Empire happened, science happened at the same time.”

Bricks + Mortals — a tour marking out UCL buildings with historical links to the university’s involvement in eugenics — is a palpable testament to that. The show’s podcast, downloadable here, can be used as a walking guide for understanding the legacy. For example, the tour describes the Galton Lecture Theatre. The Pearson Building, once home to the department of eugenics and now housing the geography department, was named in honour of the statistician and ardent eugenicist Karl Pearson, a close friend and collaborator of Galton’s.

For me, the comedy night and the exhibition were a reminder that we need to extend the scrutiny Das suggests to all branches of science. For example, it is chilling to appreciate that American physician J. Marion Sims, hailed by some as the ‘father of gynaecology’, experimented on enslaved women without their consent or anaesthesia, because it was widely believed at the time that women of colour were incapable of feeling pain. Indeed, this racist belief exists even today: a recent study demonstrated racial bias in how medical providers assess black patients’ complaints of pain, leading those providers to consistently undertreat black patients and ignore their symptoms. It is sobering, too, to recall that in the seventeenth century, a number of Royal Society members also belonged to the Royal African Company, a key player in the slave trade.

Projects such as Bricks + Mortals provide necessary historical context for understanding today’s scientific concepts. Too often we forget that although science and the scientific method have ideals unencumbered by biases or emotions, scientists are people and are subject to the same cultural norms and beliefs as the rest of society. And as this exhibition and show remind us, we carry the weight of centuries of biases.

Buddhini Samarasinghe is a science writer with a background in molecular biology and cancer research. Her writing can be found at Jargonwall. She is also the founder of STEM Women, an initiative dedicated to promoting and celebrating women in STEM. She tweets at @DrHalfPintBuddy.

Bricks + Mortals runs through 22 December.


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