H-SMT Xpost: Time for a new revisionist history of eugenics?

Peter Knupfer's picture

[Carsten Timmerman of H-Sci-Med-Tech has raised an intriguing query about taking different approaches to the history eugenics (below); you can follow the thread over there and return here to offer your views.  What do you think of this idea? -- PBK, Interim Editor.]


Some of you may have seen the blog post by Antonio Marco, molecular biologist and lecturer at the University of Essex, on Hermann Muller’s eugenics program [thanks to my colleague Matthew Cobb for sending me the link]. Because Muller had long been a scientific hero of his, Marco writes, and because he feared that Muller's interest in eugenics might trouble him, he had been reluctant to read Muller's book Out of the Night: A Biologist’s View of the Future (1935). He finally did pick up the book, and was surprised. It struck him that most of Muller's proposals had become reality:

  • Dissemination of knowledge about birth control, legalisation and regulation of abortion
  • Provision of pain relief during childbirth
  • More effective ways of addressing the diseases of early childhood
  • Public provision of childcare
  • Encouragement for 'women of the highest type of intelligence' to become mothers

Marco's surprise about his findings reminded me of the challenge that eugenics poses for those of us teaching the history of biology.  Yes, the Nazis celebrated eugenics. No, not all eugenicists were Nazis. In fact, a lot of them were not. Eugenicists could be found throughout the political spectrum, from left to right. Moreover, eugenics did not disappear with the defeat of Hitler's Germany in 1945 – the British Eugenics Society, for example, published the Eugenics Review until 1968 and only in 1989 changed its name to the Galton Institute. Its members were not just a bunch of lunatics; their contributions to biology and medicine are often celebrated today. Eugenics did not just, as Jonathan Freedland put it in the Guardian newspaper, lead 'to the gates of Auschwitz', it also provided the foundations for modern medical statistics and thus, for example, the toolkit for epidemiology and clinical trials.

Do we need an accessible yet nuanced, revisionist history of eugenics, which does not stop with the Nazis, and which we can give our first-year students to read?

Or does such a book exist? Here is the H-Net Review of Diane Paul's Controlling Human Heredity (1995) by Richard Weikert. Any other suggestions? Comments?


Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics  (OUP, 2010) provides a good transnational overview, and would also be useful for first-year students.