(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.
Sweet Pea Measuring Device, UCL Science Collections (Galton Collection), c.1870s.
Heredity refers to the genetic processes by which certain characteristics are transmitted from parent to offspring (Dobzhansky et al. 2019). Many early researchers devoted their time to the study of genetics, Sir Francis Galton included. Inspired by On the Origin of Species (1859), Galton dedicated a significant portion of his career to early genetics and anthropometry. What set Galton apart from other researchers were his statistical ideas, which he used to reinforce his theories on eugenics. Galton believed that mathematics could be used to “solve the problem of heredity,” and once understood, it could be utilised to “resolve the political and social conflicts that plague the race of men,” thereby creating the perfect eugenic state (Cowan, 1972, p.510). This idea was cultivated through numerous experiments which often required various tools, especially anthropometric ones. However, Galton also looked to plant breeding for answers by using seeds in his experiments. This itself needed a different set of tools, one of which is the “sweet pea measuring device.”
This object was named by its intended purpose of tracking the weights of seeds across their generations (Head et al. 2019). It is a small, circular wooden block with seven concave indentations drilled into the surface. The indentations are roughly the same size, and each one has a letter associated to it, written with pencil directly on the wood: K, L, M, N, O, P, Q (Head et al. 2019). The details of how it was used come up in Galton’s Natural Inheritance (1889), wherein he describes an experiment conducted in 1875. He sent parental sweet pea seeds to seven of his friends; they were to plant the seeds (ten seeds of the same weight) and after these grew, the offspring seeds were to be harvested and sent back to Galton for examination (Galton, 1889). The 2019 report on the object proposed that Galton used this device to “store the seven samples of the distributed mother seeds” (Head et al. 2019, p.12).
The significance of this device lies in the fact that studying sweet pea seeds gave Galton what human subjects could not – the ability to study heredity over several generations. Galton was not a believer of environmental influences, but rather stressed genetic factors on human existence and society (Pickens, 1968). This leads back to his pursuit of understanding heredity from mathematics. Physical and mental attributes became quantifiable through measuring tools and tests, accumulating data for interpretation. For example, in the same year of the sweet pea experiment, Galton gathered information on the physiques of boys in town and country schools, wishing to discover if the physiques of town boys were deteriorating (Cowan, 1972). However, the challenge for Galton was that these school statistics could not yield data on the change of populations over several generations, which was crucial information he needed to reinforce eugenic ideals (Cowan, 1972). Thus, the sweet peas proved to be a good substitute. Moreover, the analysis of school and sweet pea data served as proof that heredity processes are probabilistic, meaning you can predict the outcome based on chance (Cowan, 1972). Ergo, inherited human traits can be predicted by calculating the possibility of them occurring.
That being so, after the results were publicised and popularised globally by Galton’s followers, the findings in heredity would be inevitably applied to humans. Eugenicists believed that people had stopped “breeding intelligently,” and that the only remedy was to correct the fertility of the community, differentiating between “good” and “bad” stocks (Galton, 1907, p.11). The results of experiments such as of the sweet peas led to the notion that social problems are caused by the genetic transmission of "undesirable" traits. It comes as no surprise then that the first policies affected would center around procreation, more specifically, sterilization. This is because eugenicists advocated for governments to implement intervention laws over the reproduction of its people, especially in the United States (Lombardo, 2018). By utilizing the knowledge of heredity, eugenic theories had a great amount of influence upon American social and political life, especially between 1900-1929, focusing mainly on “racial improvement” (Pickens, 1968, p.4).
During that period, many laws were passed that criminalised relations based on race, sexuality, and mental capability (Lombardo, 2018). Eugenic sterilization was enforced in thirty-two states by 1937 for reasons such as being “feebleminded”, “socially inadequate” or “defective”; what is more, those laws also incorporated the prohibition of interracial marriage, a vestige of colonialism supported by the contemporary biological and anthropological views of “race” (Lombardo, 2018). The message to the public was that without “the defective” people, the world will be a better and less burdened place. Consequently, by 1963 more than 60,000 individuals were sterilized across thirty-three states due to enforced legislation (Lombardo, 2000).
Other countries around the globe had also implemented strategies to control the procreation of its people to varying degrees. In Australia, the eugenic dialogue revolved around a “pure” white British race, which resulted in policies that removed mixed race Aboriginal children from their parents (Leung, 2014). Another example is in Canada, where in 1928 a Sexual Sterilization Act was passed in Alberta (Samson, 2015). Initially, the Canadian law operated around institutionalised individuals and sterilized approx. 2,800 people, mainly women, and took away informed consent from those who were “feebleminded” (Samson, 2015). The reasons for sterilization included mental disability and deficiency, similar to the US. Furthermore, in 1942 the Act changed to include non-institutional candidates, widening the number of individuals targeted by eugenic programmes (Samson, 2015).
At their basis, these laws share the eugenic desire of breeding out the “bad” stock, based on the ideas of heredity provided by Galton’s experiments and subsequent findings. Thus, while seemingly innocuous in its purpose, the sweet pea device was an instrument of a much bigger narrative in eugenics, one that mobilised the creation of laws which allowed governments to control procreation, and eliminate those which were considered a social and economic “burden.” It did not only affect law making in the UK, but many other countries where eugenic ideas had spread.
By Karolina M. Pekala
Cowan, Ruth. 1972. Francis Galton's Statistical Ideas: The Influence of Eugenics. Isis 63(4): 509-528. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/229774
Dobzhansky, Theodosius et al. 2019. Heredity. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/science/heredity-genetics
Dyck, Erika., Samson, Amy. 2015. Alberta. Eugenics Archive. 26 March. https://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/connections/5514846d5eff8d344d000003
Galton, Francis. 1889. Natural Inheritance. London: Macmillan.
Galton, Francis. 1907. Probability, the Foundation of Eugenics: the Herbert Spencer Lecture delivered on June 5, 1907. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Available at: https://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b18023058#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=15&z=-0.1167%2C-8.6245%2C2.2333%2C18.9089
Leung, Colette. 2014. Australia. Eugenics Archive. 24 February. https://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/connections/530b8d09acea8cf99a000001
Lombardo, Paul. 2018. The Power of Heredity and the Relevance of Eugenic History. Genetics in Medicine 20:1305 – 1311. Available at: DOI: 10.1038/s41436-018-0123-4
Pickens, Donald K. 1968. Eugenics and the Progressives. USA: Vanderbilt University Press.
Head, Amy., Indek, Elizabeth., Peel, Sarah., South, Lois., and Yang, Xi. 2019. Sir Francis Galton’s Sweet Pea Measuring Device. UCL Internal Report [Unpublished].
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.
This gold-plated stem pessary is an early version of an intrauterine device (IUD). This contraceptive device would have been....
LDUAC-UCL1319ACCESSION 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, “Ceramic caricature male head, tongue sticking out”, Institute of Archaeology Collections, date of manufacture unknown, collected early 20th Century.
Perhaps in an attempt to comprehend our exceptionalism in a universe of unknowns, our attempts to reflect ourselves....
LDUCE-UC33278ACCESSION 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.
Racial ‘type’ head from Memphis, Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology, date of manufacture unknown, purchased or excavated early 20th century.
In the Petrie Museum at UCL, there is a painted terracotta sculpture of a head, which was either....
LDUEC-I.0035ACCESSION 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.
Southern African Beaded Girdle, UCL Ethnography Collections, late 19th/early 20th century.
In the UCL Ethnography Collection, one can find object I.0035, a beaded Zulu girdle from South Africa....
LDUGC-040ACCESSION 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.
Hair Colour Gauge, UCL Science Collections (Galton Collection), 1905.
In the Galton Collection at UCL lies a peculiar object. What could be mistaken for a large glasses case....