(a note on content)
Some of the stories in the exhibition feature racist, ableist, and/or homophobic medical terms which are offensive. As curators and writers of this exhibition, we have done our best to use these terms responsibly, with a view to appropriately contextualising and exploring these ideas and their history, and encouraging continuing critical thought in the interests of positive social change in the future.
While trying to address these issues squarely, we are also aware that we may ourselves use racist and ableist language naively or in error. As such, we welcome corrections and suggestions for improving the language used here, and encourage you to get in touch with us to help us learn and improve the language of the exhibition if you feel we have done so. The exhibition also features images of pathology specimens which include human organs.
In addition to social policies to improve the genetic stock of populations through the selection of positive human traits, so-called negative eugenics involved practices of enforced sterilization of people who were perceived to be mentally or physically unfit, disabled, or otherwise not “normal”.
In addition to his views on white supremacy, Galton viewed men as inherently superior to women in their intelligence and abilities. Nonetheless, the role of women in reproduction meant that they were of particular concern to eugenicists, some of whom suggested that women might take a more active role in improving the genetic stock of humans. Members of women’s suffrage movements, particularly in the UK and US, thus sometimes overlapped with the memberships of eugenics advocacy groups (e.g. Love 1979), and as a result, their views often widened the perceived gap between middle class and working class women. This intense interest in reproduction meant that advocates of eugenics often perpetuated broader cultural understandings of what constituted normal or ideal bodies, and in particular, normal social and sexual practices. Intersex, transgender and homosexual individuals were particularly subject to discrimination and their identities marginalised as a result of eugenics.
In addition to social policies to improve the genetic stock of populations through the selection of positive human traits, so-called negative eugenics involved practices of enforced sterilization of people who were perceived to be mentally or physically unfit, disabled, or otherwise not “normal” (Ordover 2003; Carey 2012; Reilly 2015). Petrie, for example, argued the benefits of enforced sterilization for the “worst stocks of women in order to advance society” (see discussion in Sheppard 2010).
In 1913, the British Eugenics Society’s lobbying led to the passing of the Mental Deficiency Act, which allowed for the forced institutional treatment and imprisonment of people deemed to be "feeble-minded" and "moral defectives". In 1931 they attempted to go further to have legislation passed which would have facilitated the compulsory sterilization of "mental defectives". Although this was unsuccessful in the UK, legislation allowing enforced sterilization as a result of lobbying by their own eugenics movement had already been passed in 1907 in the United States, and this legislation remained in place until the 1960s, with the practice continuing unofficially into the 1970s and 1980s. Enforced, coerced and even clandestine sterilization of African American, Latino, and Native American men and women also occurred throughout this period, including the sterilization of women in prison.
The forced sterilization programme developed by Nazi Germany, which targeted disabled people and specified racial, sexual and political groups of people – was strongly influenced by the work of US eugenicists, and eugenics research carried out by Nazi scientists received funding from prominent US foundations (Black 2003). When promoting their eugenic policies in Germany in the 1930s, the Nazis could look to the United States and other European nations, and justifiably say “We are not alone.”
These objects show some of the ways in which gender and sexuality were represented and utilised in eugenics research and social policy, and how false ideas of female inferiority relate to the histories of the social and historical sciences.
Black, Edwin. 2003. War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create A Master Race. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.
Carey, Jane. 2012. The Racial Imperatives of Sex: birth control and eugenics in Britain, the United States and Australia in the interwar years. Women's History Review 21.5: 733-752.
Love, Rosaleen. 1979. 'Alice in Eugenics-Land’: Feminism and Eugenics in the scientific careers of Alice Lee and Ethel Elderton. Annals of Science 36(2): 145-158.
Ordover, Nancy. 2003. American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Reilly, Philip R. 2015. Eugenics and Involuntary Sterilization: 1907-2015. Annual review of genomics and human genetics 16: 351–368. DOI: 10.1146/annurev-genom-090314-024930.
Sheppard, Kathleen L. 2010. Flinders Petrie and Eugenics at UCL. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 20(1): 16–29. DOI: 10.5334/bha.20103
LDUCPC-SOHO P.6ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Gold IUD and Uterus, UCL Pathology Collections, 1945-1988.
At first glance, the intrauterine device (IUD) within a disembodied uterus on display just seems like a standard medical specimen....
LDUAC-UCL1330ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Ceramic head, “Caricature female head, tinted pink, with red lips”, Institute of Archaeology Collections, date of manufacture unknown, collected early 20th Century.
Francis Galton coined the term ‘eugenics’ in 1883; it is derived from the Greek words εὐ, meaning good, and γενής, meaning to come into existence....
LDUAC-2008/32ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Pot from Greater Zimbabwe, Institute of Archaeology Collections, late 20th century.
Among the ancient collections in UCL’s Institute of Archaeology lies this contemporary object, a ceramic bowl from Zimbabwe....