Science

How Francis Galton’s theory of eugenics led to the murder of MILLIONS

How Francis Galton’s theory of eugenics led to the murder of MILLIONS

He created a hat with ventilation to keep the head cool, invented a new way to cut round cakes and came up with an algorithm for making the perfect cup of tea.

But Francis Galton’s achievements as an inventor, meteorologist and statistician pale into insignificance compared to what he is mostly remembered for.

The Victorian scientist was the founder of eugenics: a movement that aimed to remove supposedly undesirable human traits from the population.

Now, the new one BBC A Radio 4 documentary presented by renowned scientist and author Adam Rutherford is set to tell the dark history of eugenics.

Beliefs became very popular around the world at the beginning of the 20th century, and the first international congress on this topic was held in London in 1912.

Among those present were eminent figures, including the future Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell.

But the idea that the genetic quality of the human race could be improved ultimately led to some of the worst horrors of the 20th century.

The first sterilization law – which prevented some disabled people from having children – was imposed in the US state of Indiana in 1907. About 70,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the country until the practice was finally stopped in the 1970s.

The ideas of eugenics were then enthusiastically embraced in Nazi Germany, first with a similar sterilization program and then with the Holocaust, when six million Jewish men, women and children were killed during World War II.

Francis created a hat with ventilation to keep the head cool, invented a new way to cut round cakes and invented an algorithm for making the perfect cup of tea. But the Victorian scientist was also the founder of eugenics: a movement that aimed to remove supposedly undesirable human traits from the population.

Galton’s work outside of eugenics was wide and varied.

He was the first person to create a weather map and create a ‘beauty map’ of Britain which rated women on a scale from attractive to repulsive.

Galton, who was very proud of the fact that he was a cousin of Charles Darwin – the father of evolution – coined the term eugenics in the 1880s by combining the Greek words for “good” and “born”.

His initial ideas were inspired by reading Darwin’s famous On the Origin of Species, which laid out his theory of natural selection.

Galton practiced eugenics to give, in his words, ‘the fitter races or strains of blood a greater chance of prevailing over the less fit’.

He also said it should be pursued as a ‘Jihad, a holy war against the customs and prejudices which mar the physical and moral qualities of our race’.

Speaking to Dr Rutherford in Bad Blood: The Story of Eugenics, historian of science Professor Philippa Levine said: ‘Galton’s particular contribution, beyond the term eugenics, is this principle of bringing together quantification on the one hand and the dream of improving the human race on the other.

About 70,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the country until the practice was finally stopped in the 1970s.  Above: Families in Topeka, Kansas compete in the 'Fitter Family' contest designed to find the most eugenically perfect family in 1925. These contests were a popular form of eugenics education in the 1920s

About 70,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the country until the practice was finally stopped in the 1970s. Above: Families in Topeka, Kansas compete in the ‘Fitter Family’ contest designed to find the most eugenically perfect family in 1925. These contests were a popular form of eugenics education in the 1920s

The ideas of eugenics were then enthusiastically embraced in Nazi Germany, first with a similar sterilization program and then with the Holocaust, when six million Jewish men, women and children were killed during World War II.  Above: Auschwitz prisoners are photographed after the liberation of the death camp in 1945.

The ideas of eugenics were then enthusiastically embraced in Nazi Germany, first with a similar sterilization program and then with the Holocaust, when six million Jewish men, women and children were killed during World War II. Above: Auschwitz prisoners are photographed after the liberation of the death camp in 1945.

Eugenics Society photos of 'Indian Dwarfism' from 1912 Dwarfism refers to people who are 4 feet 10 inches or under as a result of a genetic or medical condition.  Before the atrocities of Nazi Germany, eugenics - the system of measuring human traits, searching for the desirable and removing the undesirable - was once practiced around the world.

Eugenics Society photos of ‘Indian Dwarfism’ from 1912 Dwarfism refers to people who are 4 feet 10 inches or under as a result of a genetic or medical condition. Before the atrocities of Nazi Germany, eugenics – the system of measuring human traits, searching for the desirable and removing the undesirable – was once practiced around the world.

‘And when you put two and two together you get an explosion of, I mean, eugenics.’

The notion of eugenics proved extremely popular in the wider society, with more than a hundred novels written on the subject.

Galton’s ideas were taken over by the Eugenics Educational Society, which was founded in Britain in 1907.

She campaigned for sterilization and restrictions on marriage for the weak to prevent the degeneration of the British population.

A year after Galton’s death in 1911, the International Eugenics Congress was attended by the great and the good.

Among the talks at the conference were those who argued about the supposed inferiority of the poor and the working class.

As Home Secretary, Churchill went on to write the first drafts of the Mental Deficiency Act, which became law in 1913.

It allowed for the involuntary institutionalization of those deemed to be ‘feeble-minded’, but crucially, the law did not include any program of forced sterilization.

In the US, however, forced sterilization is embraced with fervor in 32 states.

Winston Churchill went on to write the first drafts of the Mental Deficiency Act, which became law in 1913.

Winston Churchill went on to write the first drafts of the Mental Deficiency Act, which became law in 1913.

French researcher Alphonse Bertillon demonstrates how to measure a human skull in Paris, France, 1894. Bertillon was the criminologist who first developed a system for measuring physical parts of the body - especially the head and face - to determine whether someone might be a criminal

French researcher Alphonse Bertillon demonstrates how to measure a human skull in Paris, France, 1894. Bertillon was the criminologist who first developed a system for measuring physical parts of the body – especially the head and face – to determine whether someone might be a criminal

In California alone, from 1918 to 1953, more than 20,000 people confined to mental institutions underwent the procedure.

In Virginia, between 1924 and 1979, more than 7,000 people became permanently infertile.

Other countries that passed similar sterilization laws in the 1920s and 30s included Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland.

But it was in Nazi Germany that the most barbaric crimes were committed in the name of improving society.

In a network of death camps that included Auschwitz-Birkenau in Nazi-occupied Poland, millions were killed in gas chambers and by other means from 1941 to 1945.

In Auschwitz alone, 1.1 million people met their fate.

The Nazis killed thousands more of the disabled, the mentally ill, and homosexuals.

But even after the atrocities committed in the Second World War, eugenics did not disappear.

China is believed to have sterilized 10,000 women who broke the former one-child rule.

Chinese authorities reportedly use this practice on thousands of Uighur Muslims.

In India, millions of people are believed to have been forcibly sterilized under the policies of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

The first episode of Bad Blood: The Story of Eugenics airs on Monday at 4.30pm on BBC Radio 4.



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