Why We Should Teach the History of Eugenics
This month, New York University and University College London have both launched initiatives to focus on the history of eugenics. Students and faculty at UCL hosted an event to encourage their institution to face up to its complicity in constructing unjust racial hierarchy through its support of Francis Galton’s research on eugenics. At NYU, a new exhibit, “Haunted Files: The Eugenics Record Office,” opened at the university’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute.
At both universities, these initiatives acknowledge that advances in modern genetic technologies make education about the history of eugenics increasingly important.
Galton’s legacy at UCL is extensive. It began 110 years ago this month, when he contributed funds to establish a position there for a “research fellow” in “National Eugenics,” which he defined as “the study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally.”
The NYU exhibit brings to life the physical offices and paper archives of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, the center of the eugenics movement in the United States between 1910 and 1939. According to The New York Times, the exhibit’s curators relied heavily on Cold Spring Harbor’s online Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement:
David Micklos, executive director of the laboratory’s DNA Learning Center, applied for a government grant to scan files from the office and display them in an online archive, which opened in 2000. “It was a hidden part of American scientific history — people didn’t like to talk about it,” said Mr. Micklos, who added that he was inspired by ethical concerns surrounding the Human Genome Project.
Other educational projects have also aimed to bring to light the history of twentieth-century eugenics. An ambitious online effort called Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada, “directly engages communities in developing accessible resources to bring to light the history of eugenics in Canada.” Two public events have been co-organized by the Center for Genetics and Society – Future Past: Disability, Eugenics, and Brave New Worlds in 2013 and Eugenics in California: A Legacy of the Past? in 2012. The motivations behind these efforts included concerns about misuses of new and emerging genetic technologies.
Many educational institutions still avoid discussing the history of eugenics, and many are reluctant to confront their own complicity in the abuses it facilitated. But studying eugenics in the twentieth century is important not just as a matter of learning history, but as part of what we need to know in order to thoughtfully consider the responsible uses of genetic technologies today.