Doctors, academics and eugenics: a truly unsavoury mixture


[Sydney  University seminar: Friday 16 April, 2021]

In 2018, Professor John Rasko (a specialist physician in genetic and stem-cell therapy at this university) gave the annual Boyer Lectures on ABC Radio.  These authoritative lectures were inaugurated in 1959 and have featured many eminent Australians, including Bob Hawke, and the historian Manning Clark, as well as about eight important medical people (Macfarlane Burnet, John Eccles and Gustav Nossal amongst them).  Dr Rasko was deservedly in elevated company.

He called his lectures – which were as philosophical as they were scientific – Life Re-engineered and, in the context of the explosion in our knowledge and technical capability concerning DNA, they were

**** unquestionably timely[1].  As a descendant of “Holocaust Survivors”, he considered morality as well as practice in modern molecular biology, while speaking as a realist as well as a philosopher.  He wrote, “The Nazi troops killed six million-or-more Jews during the Second World War and — incredible as it seems — they imagined their final solution was serving the greater good.  In their twisted way, the Nazis thought they were improving the heritable characteristics of the German people and, beyond that, the people of Europe.  To achieve their goal of a master race, the Nazis began eliminating those they judged to be genetically inferior and degenerate -- chiefly the Jews but also people with mental and physical disabilities, ‘gypsies,’ ethnic Poles, homosexuals, political opponents and others.

“They did this in the name of ‘racial hygiene’ or, more broadly, ‘eugenics’.  This word is hard for me to utter.  Eugenics.  It's the systematic effort to breed a superior race or group of people.  The Nazis didn't invent this idea.  More than two thousand years ago, Plato argued in favour of breeding people, much as people have always bred animals and plants.  In Plato's ideal Republic, the Rulers arranged things so that the best men would mate with the best women as often as possible, and the inferior men with the inferior women as seldom as possible.”

In an interview at that same time, Professor Rasko wisely said, “But some in the law and science communities are deeply concerned that eugenics is being resurrected ......that eugenics has returned -- by the backdoor.,"

That enduringly nettlesome word, “eugenics” was coined in England, in 1883, by Charles Darwin’s half-cousin, Francis Galton[2].  A brilliant if ethically-narrow man who was one of the founders of “psychometrics”, he derived his neologism from the classical term, “eugenes, namely, good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities”[3].  “We greatly want a brief word,” he wrote, “[which] takes cognisance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had.”

One of his brilliant acolytes, was Karl Pearson[4] who was a superior mathematics student at Cambridge (1876-1879).  Next, he studied physics at Heidelberg as well as mediaeval law and literature there.  Subsequently, he studied law in London (1880-1881).  He was also a committed eugenicist and was the first occupant of the Galton Chair of Eugenics at the University of London (1911-1933).[5]  This was the same Pearson who devised the chi-square test, and the concept of “standard deviation”, amongst other widely-adopted statistical concepts and techniques.

RA Fisher, another eminent statistician (he invented “Analysis of Variance” and popularised Pearson’s p-value as a widely-used statistical test), was a successor to Pearson both in that UCL Chair and as President of the British Eugenics Society (he had joined in 1910, when aged 20).  He once wrote that “there are many thousands outside the eugenic movement fully prepared to take our racial dangers seriously.”[6]

Fisher[7] subscribed inter alia to what he called eugenic principles for the general population, notably increasing the birth-rate of the “better” and professional classes; the arrogance of a paper that he wrote in 1917 is almost breathtaking.  “The classes concerned are outside the scope of direct legislative interference, and owe their national value to the very fact that by their brains and skill they support society, and are not supported by it.”  This almost solipsistic dismissal of what the “other classes” contribute to the lives of the privileged should strike the modern reader as revolting, even as we also try to keep in mind what the great historian, EP Thompson memorably called “the enormous condescension of posterity”[8].  Fisher’s social blindness was astonishing, in anyone, but especially in someone who was so intelligent.  It appears to be an automatic or reflex assumption of entitlement and privilege.  “To restore to these classes the conditions which they have previously enjoyed, to give to them more ample facilities for marriage and normal family life, and more promising prospects for their children of both sexes, is the social aim to which eugenists [sic], however anxious they may be to avoid social controversy, inevitably become more and more committed.”[9]:  This article (made all the more insensitive for being published in 1917, during the Great War, when so many “Tommies” were losing their lives to defend a society in which that appalling disparity of wealth and power would seek to be ever more entrenched) strove to apply those eugenic assumptions to the wider society.  “The protection afforded by professional societies undoubtedly renders the professions more favourable ground for men of intellect and honour, but the status and dignity to which some of the professions have laboriously reached can only be maintained by a succession of persons duly qualified to justify that trust in their wisdom and integrity to which, in the long run, the respect paid to lawyers and doctors is due. Hence a profession must have power to select its own members, rigorously to exclude all inferior types, who would lower both the standard of living and the level of professional status. In this process the eugenist sees a desirable type, selected for its valuable qualities, and protected by the exclusive power of its profession in a situation of comparative affluence. In the professional societies there is a power of positive eugenics strong enough to turn the tide of national decadence.”  So, entry into medicine, the verification of the “quality” (and, indeed, the very “worthiness”) of all potential entrants to their profession, should be at the absolute discretion of doctors alone?  Professional leaders can be flawed individuals, though they are so often ill-equipped to recognise that truth.

And those people were the inspiration of Australia’s early eugenicists, good colonials as they inevitably were!

Importantly, from around the time of World War I, the eugenics movement began to exert a deep influence on professional circles in America[10].  I believe that it is highly significant that this was in the era when “Behaviourism” began to impose such a powerful grip on the thinking of so any Americans, notably amongst its “second wave” of psychologists.  This mechanistic ethos really reduced people to the status of mere machines and was driven, in particular, by JB Watson and BF Skinner.  This old idea, deriving perhaps from Descartes (though without his humanity), that people and animals are simply “machines” or mere “automata”, certainly gained a potent hold on psychologists’ thinking in the USA. over the ensuing decades.  Psychology almost “became” the “Skinner Box”.  Yet, it wasn’t only psychologists whose thinking was distorted.  In in his recent book, The Reinvention of Humanity, the political scientist and social historian, Charles King, wrote, “Eugenicists were in no sense on the scientific fringe [in the USA].  They were the establishment: well resourced, armed with a battery of statistics and test results.  And with an outsize influence on law, education and popular culture.........The American Eugenics Society’s “Fitter Families” contests assembled panels of historians, physicians and dentists to evaluate mothers, fathers and children for eugenic fitness.”

King wrote “The Society reached out to churches, women’s clubs, schools and state fairs.” [11] But even before it was established in 1926, the patrician New Yorker and close-friend of Theodore Roosevelt, Madison Grant, had become concerned about “the preservation of his own race against an onslaught of immigration,”[12] and, in 1910 (when the proportion of the US population who were born outside the country had risen to 14.7%) began lobbying for “the insights provided by the new sciences of race and eugenics.”[13]  [That US proportion is, by the way, currently about 13.5%[14]; in Australia it is about 27.4%.[15]]

The Nazis admired and scaled-up what they saw going in the USA.  They just pursued the ideology far more diligently than those British founders did.

But, as Professor Rasko observed, “Australia was no slouch, either”.  Furthermore, often driven by the inspiration and proselytising of their British mentors (with whom some of those Australians had worked), medical academics were, from the outset, prominent in the eugenics movement here.

There were two groups of people involved.  First, there were wives of professional men[16], whose concerns were with family planning, particularly the alleviation of the reproductive burden on poverty-stricken women and those in the lower income groups, generally.  The other cohort, mainly doctors and academics, were largely the early public health physicians and government health administrators who were interested in “racial improvement” as a means of enhancing health and life – essentially white life -- in Australia.  Accordingly, the “Racial Improvement Society” was founded in 1926, though it changed its name, in 1928, to the more euphemistic, “Racial Hygiene Society”.  In 1960 it became the Family Planning Association of NSW.[17]

One of its prominent members was Dr Harvey Sutton, the first Director (from 1930) of the Commonwealth’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at the University of Sydney (1929) and the foundation Professor of Preventive Medicine there (1930).  In 1909, after his return from Oxford (where he took a BSc, already having an MD from Melbourne), he began work as a medical officer in the Victorian Department of Education.  Between 1916 and 1919, he was on war service and, soon after return to his previous post, in 1919, he moved to a similar position in Sydney in 1920.

While still in Melbourne, after his return from Oxford, Sutton had been appointed by the 1911 Australasian Medical Congress to its “Committee on the Feeble-minded”[18] and he was involved with the formation of the short-lived Melbourne Eugenics Education Society in 1914[19]. (its brief life being brought about by wartime difficulties, not a lack of professional interest).  Even then, he was an ardent eugenicist.  When just 31, he gave a lecture in Melbourne in which he stated that though “eugenics was of comparatively recent development, the subject was an extremely broad one and one of the greatest importance to the world generally”[20]  Accordingly, he insisted “eugenics must be applied to marriages.”   Almost as if to demonstrate his eugenic bona fides, he also opined that most marriages and children “do not represent the picked intellectual class of the community.”  Ranging broadly, he went on to say, “The question of immigration should also be regarded most closely from the eugenic standpoint.  No person should be admitted into Australia unless he could produce evidence of his mental and physical soundness.”  Warming to his theme, Sutton ominously declared that “Degenerate idiots et cetera were to be wiped out by segregation and isolation”.  His peroration included the declaration that, “Eugenics was economically invaluable, and its worth from a humanitarian point of view was inestimable.”

After moving to Sydney in 1920, as Principal Medical Officer of the NSW Department of Public Instruction, Sutton was a foundation member of the Racial Hygienic Association (which was also patronised by a few prominent Anglican and Protestant clergy).  Some historians depict him as a “soft” eugenicist – partly because (they believe) he was principally dedicated to the improvement of health, a judgement which is complicated “his belief in the superiority of the Australian racial type”; he was thoroughly concerned that “the British race in Australia was ‘showing evidence of physical deterioration’”[21] -- the white British race, be it noted.  Even worse, in her book, Eugenics in Australia, Dr Diana Wyndham wrote that he “openly supported fascist regimes”[22].  Furthermore, in an impressively diligent biographical article, some years ago, Grant Rodwell wrote of Sutton’s “'hard' eugenics assumptions in regard to what he perceived to be the “incurable dysgenic influence on Australia's race culture”: Rodwell further noted that, even in his student lectures.[23], Sutton “continued to advocate the sterilisation of mental defectives”.  As early as 1909 he had advocated the ideal of state-controlled marriages but was pessimistic about its likelihood here.[24]  In 1925, as Principal Medical Officer of the Department of Education in NSW, he told the Royal Commission on National Health Services that “legislative control of marriages, with a view of safeguarding the nation against an increase of hereditary defectives, mental defectives and epileptics, would be a step in the right direction”.[25]  He also advocated health checks before matrimony, which he was still doing in 1944 in his textbook, Lectures on Preventive Medicine (“The premarital test about a month before marriage helps to prevent the disastrous effects of syphilis and tuberculosis.  This should become a regular custom.”[26])  That book also shows that even then, towards the end of World War II, Sutton was in favour of sterilisation for those conditions: “In England and Australia, therapeutic sterilization is not disputed, but the legality of eugenic sterilization solely intended to prevent propagation of unsound offspring is still debated.  No court decision has been given on an actual case, and till the legal aspect is cleared up no hospital will permit operations, though in private practice no such prohibition exists.”[27]

According to Dr Warwick Anderson, Sutton “recommended a classification of children by ‘racial stream’, indicating the degree of Australianness and ‘a national stocktaking’”  Dr Mary Booth, whom Anderson called “an early votary of eugenics”, supported that viewpoint.[28]  In 1912 she warmly endorsed “a stock-taking of the physical fitness of the nation and an estimate of the hereditary and environmental factors at work on the whole or sections of society”, which is perfectly unexceptionable in its own terms because, in 1900, she had joined the Department of the Government Statistician in Sydney as an “anthropometrist”.  But in that same paper she went on to say, seeming to confirm Anderson’s judgement, “The eugenicist, in conformity with modern thought that science has its highest sanction when it is of service to man, makes use of the data of anthropometry for his study of what the race may become.”[29]  That “race” was obviously the British one because, while her ADB entry states that “she was an ardent advocate for increased immigration”, virtually all of her  dauntingly diverse activities were Imperially-directed and aimed at maintaining “our own British stock”.[30]   Sydney born and Edinburgh trained, she returned home in 1900, at a time when xenophobia was at a peak in Australia leading to the passage of the notorious Immigration Restriction Act in 1901, the first year of the existence of the Commonwealth.  Ironically for someone with Dr Booth’s ardent pro-British patriotism, until her death, the earliest would-be immigrants against whom the contentious language test of that Act was used were two white Europeans.  After a short period in private practice, Dr Booth worked mainly as a health educator, principally in schools.    Between 1910 and 1912 she was employed by the Victorian Department of Education where she knew Harvey Sutton, who (as I have said) was also on the staff there.  Working together, they conducted extensive examinations of the health of local school children[31]   They had further professional connections after Sutton moved to Sydney.[32]  Booth was then also an active member of the Town Planning Association of NSW (which, according to Wyndham, had close links with the Racial Hygiene Association[33]) and the University of Sydney Society for Combating Venereal Diseases, also a hot-bed of eugenicists.   Rodwell expressed her and Sutton’s attitude thus: “Aboriginal people formed a dysgenic Australian social group which Sutton perceived to be incurable.  Aborigines were socially and economically marginalised and considered to be a fossil race, soon to disappear altogether.”[34]   Sutton gave little attention to their education and health in his writing or lectures.  During the 1930s and 1940s he declared “that they were 'rapidly becoming a minus quantity'”.[35]

As I have already said, being human, “great figures” and “leaders” can have serious lacunae in their characters.  Harvey Sutton was a legend in Sydney medicine but his renown, however, was far wider than that, something that was, doubtless, enhanced by his sporting fame.  He had been an Australian athletics champion and, while at Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar, studying with the staunch eugenicist, JS Haldane[36]), he ran for Australia in the London Olympics of 1908[37]; he was a well-recognised figure, not only in university sporting circles but in the wider society as well (as, in fact, his wife and – in due course – his family were, as well: when he was fined for failure to lodge a taxation return, it was newsworthy).  He was prominent in a dauntingly large array of communal organisations (many of which he had played a part in establishing), more often than not as an office-bearer and, most likely, President.  These were not only eugenic or quasi-eugenic societies, but also such organisations as the Father and Son Welfare Movement, Sydney University Settlement, the Surf Lifesaving Association and the National Fitness Council of NSW.  He achieved extraordinary prominence through the long-running Sydney Health Week (which, with Dr JS Purdy and Dr R Arthur MLA[38] he founded in 1921 and based on models from London and New York 1921); according to Rodwell, the event had “a host of eugenic attractions”[39].  Sutton’s name appeared countless times in the local news and entertainment media: fame, though, can be as corrupting as power, but it does not guarantee wisdom.  The truth is that, notwithstanding his legendary urbanity Sutton certainly shared many of the prejudices of his time and social class: even if Michael Roe’s glowing encomium were true -- “He deployed extraordinary energy and goodness”[40] -- it sounds more like the exhortation of a Vatican advocate for canonisation than the assessment of a cool-headed historian.  Education lays a veneer over our emotions, but it is extraordinarily thin.

The sometime Public Health Minister in NSW, Dr Richard Arthur (a close friend and colleague of Sutton), was also a forthright[41] medical eugenicist.  When the Eugenics Education Society of NSW was founded in 1912, he was its inaugural President.  Michael Roe’s ADB article described him as “A long-term eugenicist” whose causes included temperance (in 1912, in an address on eugenics he urged alcoholics to sacrifice themselves by remaining childless for the sake of the race[42]), “moral purity” (whatever that was), venereal disease (asserting, in 1912, that “every man, before he is allowed to marry, should have to produce a certificate of a clean bill of health”)[43] ,and “mental defectives”.  In 1924, as Diana Wyndham recorded, “he warned that the apparently normal ‘higher grade of defectives’ formed the ‘derelict elements in the community.  This group (she wrote) caused high anxiety to eugenicists who argued that because they looked normal, they could cause more havoc than the obviously defective”.[44]  In November 1921 he told the NSW Parliament, “I believe that in the future far more attention will be paid to the science of eugenics than is done at the present time.”[45]  Paradoxically, Arthur did not consider that British people were, in general, capable of working in the tropics and opposed their migration to populate the north of Australia.[46]  That put him distinctly “off-side” with many of his fellow eugenicists.  In 1905, encouraged by the Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, he formed the Immigration League of Australia: it strongly supported the “White Australia Policy”.

In 1930, he presented a “Medical Defectives Bill” to the NSW Parliament, but in retrospect it seems plain that the government (in which Arthur was Minister for Public Health) did not have its heart in his proposal.  Because Arthur was concerned that “low-grade mental defectives” were being physically and psychologically harmed by their enforced accommodation with the severest cases (in such places as Milson and Peat Islands in the Hawkesbury River), he sought to increase the categories of mental defectiveness to allow their detention in separate establishments.  separation.  Some of his colleagues in the government were deeply concerned by the cost implications which were pressing in 1930 and, indeed, the Bill was more aspirational than practical (additional institutions would certainly be required).  The Labor Party, on the other hand, were particularly concerned that medical practitioners, without special knowledge of mental diseases, as well as teachers and even blatantly unqualified, inexperienced police constables, were all given too much power to adversely affect the patients’ welfare and freedom through certification and the like.  The Bill, having not passed beyond the “Committee Stage” of the debate, lapsed when the term of the Parliament ended in mid-1930, before the election which swept JT Lang into power.  During the debate, which shockingly revealed that strong views in favour of “racial purity” and “improvement of the blood stock” existed on both sides of the House, Arthur insisted that prominent medical men (doubtless Sutton amongst them) supported his Bill, though whether that was in every respect, he did not say.  More perplexingly, when introducing the proposed legislation, he advised the MPs that, though the Bill made no provision for sterilisation, he would sympathetically consider a move to have that procedure included because "in a very short time, indeed, the wisdom of such a procedure......will be recognised”.[47]  Perhaps his most appalling contribution to that Parliamentary debate (though, because it really just restated the classical eugenicists’ contempt for the lower orders of their society, it could not plausibly be called “shocking”) was when he interjected to say, after a Labor speaker complained that, if the Bill were passed, law-abiding citizens could be thrown into a public institution, “People who cannot get work would be glad to get into one of those institutions”.  Into Peat Island?  Really?

Another “stalwart” of the Eugenics Education Society”[48] (and admirer of Galton[49]) who is, to this day, accorded almost saintly reverence at Sydney University, was the redoubtable Professor Thomas Peter Anderson Stuart, the foundation Professor of Anatomy and Physiology and, later, all-powerful Dean of Medicine there.  As early as 1892 (according to Wyndham) he had told Galton that he planned to emulate his London Anthropometrical Laboratory in Sydney.[50]  In June 1904, after a six-month tour of the world, he told the Sydney Morning Herald that Australia needed “population of the right class.”  He added, “I do not say it should be black or yellow, but we certainly want it.”[51]   An “obsessive, even compulsive organiser”,[52] and, like Sutton after him, seemingly omnipresent in the Sydney press, Anderson Stuart was a prolific joiner of societies and organisations of bewilderingly diverse sorts, one of which was the Sydney branch of Arthur’s Immigration League of Australia (including time as President); another was freemasonry -- he was a member of the University of Sydney Lodge[53] and became Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of NSW.  That fact is also a reminder of how Protestant the University of Sydney was in those times, something which may explain the academic appeal of eugenics, given that Dr Wyndham noted that the Australian Catholic clergy were “implacably opposed” to eugenics.[54]  In December 1908, Anderson Stuart was applauded when he told a meeting organised by that League that it was proposed to add “British” to its name because they “desired to see this land peopled by people of British stock.”[55]  More relevantly, in July 1912 Anderson Stuart was one of four official Australian delegates whom the Commonwealth government supported and accredited to attend the First International Eugenics Congress in London.  Soon after his return, in December, the Eugenics Education Society of NSW was established; Dr Arthur was president and Anderson Stuart was a member.  In 1916, he chaired the first meeting of the Society for Combating Venereal Disease at the University of Sydney; it sounds a worthy cause, but its membership was riddled with prominent eugenicists.  Anderson Stuart, brilliant though he was, might well have been seduced by his power and his renown (both within the university and the wider community); nonetheless, he also seemed to have lacked the self-reflectiveness to allow him to shake free of the prejudices of his class and time.  In that respect, he seemed all too typical of his fellow academics in Sydney and elsewhere.

As might be expected (given the enduring peri-Federation arguments about whether the “white race” could live and work in the tropics) there was also a significant eugenic strand in Queensland.  Two of the most the prominent figures were Dr Raphael Cilento and Professor John Bostock.  An Adelaide graduate in medicine, Cilento was an important pioneer in public health who exerted great influence as Queensland’s Chief Medical Officer.  He was also an admirer of Mussolini and fascistic in his political sympathies.  Bostock was a London graduate who, after practising as a psychiatrist in Sydney and Newcastle, moved to Brisbane in 1927.  In 1940, he was appointed Research Professor of Medical Psychology (later of Medical Psychology, Psychiatry, and Mental Hygiene[56]) in Queensland’s four-year-old Medical Faculty (specialising in children over 20 years before a Chair of Paediatrics was established).  This position combined research with clinical consulting, but (without any such obligations) he also gave undergraduate lectures, which (potentially, at least) allowed him to influence students in their values and ethics.  In 1943, he told one such medical student audience, “Birth control by the more intelligent means that the intelligent stock, which is the life-blood of progress, becomes progressively less, to the point of being overwhelmed......We are tending to perpetuate the unfit” (though he didn’t pause to define that pejorative term, or enumerate his criteria) “and impose burdens on the fit.”[57].  He emphasised his point: ““In a vicious circle of the most virulent type, our race is voluntarily permitting not merely race suicide but progressive race deterioration.”  And, presumably believing that repetition is important in delivering a message to students, he gravely said, “We are far on the way towards national decline and extinction.”

As if unable to pause for, he went on, “We keep imbeciles alive.  We do not make marriage contingent on a clean bill of health; we make it easy for the unfit to have children.  We even reach the supremity of folly by allowing known mental defectives to have children.  We insist on neither segregation or sterilisation.”  Ranging widely, he deplored the fact that, “The vote of a moron hobo is equal to that of a learned judge.”

He was a still more prolific lecturer to clubs and service organisations in and around Brisbane – as senior academics of those times were, in taking their communal obligations extremely seriously.  In 1949 (perhaps reflecting on the two world wars and having served at Gallipoli during the first of them) he wrote, “Man is not primarily a thinking but rather an emotional and instinctive organism”[58]: it could, indeed, be the credo for psychiatrists.  

Bostock was, politically and professionally, profoundly conservative (even reactionary), and did not hesitate to lard those lectures with his social views (disguised though their essence might have been by his professorial title): in February 1948 he told a Rotary audience they were experiencing “an upsurge of alleged humanitarianism which acts on the idea that man is near perfect......that the cane is barbaric, punishment should be minimal, and hanging for murder is cruel”.[59]

Bostock had the gift of sounding high-minded, often referring to the “brotherhood of man”, for example.  But the book which he published in 1934 – Whither away? (with its ominous sub-title, “A Study of Race Psychology and the Factors Leading to Australia's National Decline”) – made it perfectly clear that his elevated sentiments were exclusively reserved for the “White race”.  That book referred to the “noble ideal of a White Australia”; and approvingly to Mussolini; it insisted that “race safety depends on race discipline” (whatever that is); and – paradoxically for a clinician -- that “in the olden days the physically inferior died in infancy and the mentally weak were pushed aside”.  It unedifyingly insisted that “the offspring of [an improvident] class we shall have with us always as a parasitical force”.

The “action” wasn’t all north of the Murray, needless to say.  Eugenics was, arguably, strongest in Melbourne.  I have already mentioned the foundation of the Eugenics Education Society there in 1914; its successor, the Eugenics Society of Victoria, was established in 1936 and survived for about 30 years.  The membership of the ESV included some powerful and influential people: Keith Murdoch (the journalist and newspaper proprietor – Rupert’s father) was one.  Wilfred Agar, the Professor of Zoology at Melbourne University, was its longest-serving President: some of his social writing was pretty unequivocally pro-Nazi[60].  For many years, his Vice-President was David Rivett who was (from 1934) Professor of Chemistry and also (from 1927-1949) the major driving force of the CSIRO.

Even earlier, the best-known (or the most notorious) eugenicist in Melbourne was an expatriate Briton, Richard Berry, Professor of Anatomy (1905-1929) and, in the 1920s, Dean.  His contemporary, WA Osborne, the brilliant polymath Professor of Physiology, was also an active eugenicist; according to Barry Jones, in the ADB, “his views reflected the eugenics of Karl Pearson, with whom he had worked”.[61]  However, Berry was matchless.  He developed a following as a broadcaster (“shrewd and lively”[62]) and public controversialist, especially about eugenics.  In his history of the Anatomy Department at the University of Melbourne, Ross L Jones wrote, “Rarely has the University played such an influential role in public life as it did during Berry’s tenure as Professor of Anatomy.  Australian educated thinkers, doctors, educators and virtually the whole of the print media embraced his views.”[63]  He had the gift of a media-friendly turn of phrase.  In 1924, he wrote in the Melbourne Herald what its editor called a “strong and powerful article”, in which he claimed, at one point, that “it is beginning to appear as though the A1 members of our population will be poisoned by a miasma of syphilitic and mentally defective C3’s; for these latter breed like weeds, and are just about as useful”[64]  He went on to say, “There is no royal road to happiness.......and modern democracy is only too ready to let the future look after itself.”   He recommended three “parallel lines” of policy, one of which was, “The foundation of special village communities to which the less fit could be removed and made happy and self-supporting in that relatively simple environment for which Nature has constructed them.[65]  Harsh though it may sound, there are still others who would be happier in a lethal chamber or allowed to pass through life in a completely sterile condition.  To plead the sanctity of human life is to forget the victim of the lust of the brute, but in any case this is a matter for the State, not for the individual.”  These degrading notions were published in Australia almost nine years before the National Socialists seized power in Germany.  Yet, over the following fortnight the paper published no readers’ responses and, certainly, no objections to Professor Berry’s opinions.  He enjoyed unqualified support from the rest of the mainstream Melbourne press, too, and the Medical Journal of Australia.[66]  Only the year before, the Sun News-Pictorial published a sympathetic interview with him which included this aperçu: “There are only two possible things to do with such [mentally defective] children – sterilise or segregate them; and I do not recommend the first because I am very cautious and because, in spite of rendering them unable to reproduce their kind, they would still be free to disseminate their ideas.......They breed like rabbits – more of their own kind.  ‘What do you think,’ he is asked, ‘of the suggested medical certificate before marriage?’.   He shakes his head.  ‘No,’ he says, ‘People won’t have their marriages interfered with.  Not yet, at any rate!   Still, they’ll come to it.’”[67]  [As I have mentioned, I have yet to discover whether Berry canvassed his appalling eugenics with his students, two of whom were the future Nobelists, MacFarlane Burnet and John Eccles (and, as a staunch Catholic, Eccles would have been outraged by such notions and prescriptions).  Eccles’s daughter, Mary, wrote in The Book of Eccles (2003)[68] that “Dr Rivett was a wonderful teacher of Chemistry” and that he sent an appreciative letter to the young Eccles at the end of his first-year studies.  We also know that, as a result of his studies in first-year Zoology, Eccles read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species that year.  He seems, though, to have made no comment on Berry, either as a teacher or a thinker.]

Berry’s problems, it seems to me, were conceptual as well as attitudinal.  When writing, for example to the Medical Journal of Australia to protest against  what he claimed were misrepresentations by its extremely sympathetic and supportive editor, Dr Henry Armit[69], he appeared confusingly prone to obfuscate his experiments and their intent, notably on the correlation of intelligence and brain size (or, rather, its convenient surrogate: head size – his own head was considered to be large).[70]  His grasp of the nascent discipline of statistics (and variability) seems meagre.  He was also prone to hyperbole, believing, for example. that “social inefficiency” (whatever he really meant by that ominous-sounding term) was “the greatest evil with which this nation was confronted”.[71]  Perhaps worse, like many a zealot he was prepared to bend or change evidence to suit his convictions.  For years he overstated the incidence of “mental deficiency” in Australia and comparable societies, (claiming, even in the 1950s, that it was 10%[72]) despite lesser claims by other authorities (including his friend WE Jones, the Victorian Inspector-General for the Insane, who in 1928-29 found it to be 3.2%[73]); this was because, in his tenacious commitment to his beliefs, Berry was prepared to overlook the sagacity of the eminent Tasmanian psychologist, EM Miller who, in 1924, had pointed out that “criminals with abnormal [brain] functionings, usually classified elsewhere as psychopaths, are popularly designated here as mental defectives” and deplored “a confusion of terms and such a misguided and over-estimated association of defectives with crime.”[74]  Those remarks were implicit (if unspecified) criticisms of Berry because they precisely summarised his modus operandi.

Racism seems to have been an inevitable characteristic of the medical eugenicists of that time and Berry was no exception to that generalisation.  In his (understandably) unpublished memoir, which he completed in 1954, he recalled being in South Africa and taking a ride in a rickshaw which was pulled by a Zulu man.  “It is not beyond the possibilities,” he wrote in ruminating on this memory, “that the time may come when it will be a white man who is between the shafts and the black man who is sitting in the place of honour.  Fortunately, I will not be there to see it.”[75]

When Berry arrived in Melbourne, he found that he had “inherited” some skulls of indigenous people and he subsequently acquired many more on frequent family holidays in Tasmania.  Thereafter, in addition to acquiring the dubious title of “Consulting Psychiatrist”, Berry performed fallible research with several colleagues on the alleged brain-size of criminals, and on school-children and undergraduates with Stanley Porteus, a school teacher and researcher who had sought to improve on the then newly-devised “Binet Intelligence Test” with his own “Maze Test”, which was a non-verbal intelligence measure.[76]  Professor Warwick Anderson has written that “according to Berry, Aborigines were simply another group of small-headed people [who] therefore might be classed......among the feeble minded.”[77]  Berry concluded one paper – a comparison of the brain of a single Australian indigenous man with a “selected” European brain -- with this extraordinary generalisation: “In other words, the infinitely greater ‘intellectuality’ of the higher races is gained by the growth of the educational portion of the neopallium at the expense of the visual area of the lower races”.[78]

Berry was a complex man and, for all that they were forcibly and frequently espoused, I suspect that his attitudes and biases were, to a degree, confused and intertangled.  They were also widely endemic in the British-influenced Australian community.  In his history of the Anatomy Department at the University of Melbourne, Dr Ross Jones wrote, “The climate was right for Berry’s views as the degeneration of the racial stock was an underlying fear of most middle-class Melburnians.”  [Warwick Anderson discussed these fears, errors and prejudices at some length.[79]]  “During the First World War, Berry wrote a regular opinion column in the Herald newspaper in which he frequently took over a page to present his arguments promoting the ‘Newer Imperialism’; a version of national efficiency.  This was an economic and political philosophy[80] that promoted intelligence and efficiency over ‘one man one vote’ representation.  It was an early form of fascism and fashionable among the educated middle class......Berry had powerful supporters in his efforts.  Medical graduates were among his most enthusiastic supporters, as was the Medical Journal of Australia.  Four Melbourne graduates, Stanley Argyle (Minister for Health, and later Premier of Victoria and knighted); Jean Craig (Chief Health officer of the Education Department and Royal Commissioner); John Cumpston (first Director of the Commonwealth Department of Health); and Harvey Sutton (eventually Professor of Population Health at the University of Sydney) were prominent among them.”[81]

In 1929 Berry returned to England to become Director of Medical Services at a “colony” for “mental defectives” in Bristol and Chairman of the British Medical Association’s expert committee on mental deficiency.  Despite holding that position, he was critical of his committee’s report in 1932.  In his memoirs he called it “a somewhat messy seat on the fence”.  What were his reasons for that unpleasant disagreement with his colleagues?  Discussing sterilisation, they said that the committee had “given [it] the most careful consideration”, but added “having seen what they did see, the word sterilisation leaps to the lips, but the Committee has not, in spite of this experience, adopted a hasty and possibly unreasoning attitude.”

As we have seen, Berry supported sterilisation, but his other attitudes were even more extreme.  He wrote in that autobiographical typescript, “Euthanasia the [BMA] committee avoided though it, too, is a part and a very necessary part of the subject”.  He recalled his many public lectures around the world, and, especially, one to the British Society of Public Health Medical Officers when his comment “that the speechless, hopeless, helpless idiot should be put in a lethal chamber was applauded to the echo.”  In another, he told his audience, “The danger to civilization comes not from the segregated idiots and imbeciles in Institutions, but from your neighbours and fellow voters – so many of whom are quite definitely of the feeble-minded class.”[82]

It is little wonder that Professor Rasko found that word, “eugenics”, hard to utter.  However, the ideology has not disappeared.  Indeed, Rasko was correct:  it is making a return, only with its adherents but also because there is an increasing recognition that its shadow overhangs over us all[83], especially our universities.  Both Berry and Porteus were publicly disgraced a few years ago – Berry at the University of Melbourne (in 2016[84]) and Porteus at the University of Hawaii (in 2001)[85] – when their names were removed from major university buildings

For similar reasons and, likewise, in response to agitation by students and staff at University College London (a catalyst was a series of “secret” and “invitation-only” conferences at UCL, beginning in 2015, “designed to discuss research linking human intelligence and race”.[86]) in October 2018, that university established a “Commission of Inquiry on the History of Eugenics at UCL”.  The investigation acknowledged the long association between UCL and Galton (and, presumably, some of the influential staff of his time).  “Although a very different place than it was in the 19th century, UCL is also historically associated with eugenics,” its report stated and acknowledged further, “Through the financial donation of Galton to UCL, racism was allowed to be married to science and within UCL this link between science and racism was embraced.”[87]

One of the six “key principles” of its operation was that “UCL must confront its role in eugenics by understanding the past. This past should not be hidden but openly and critically discussed – it should be talked about more not less, in a way that restores agency, visibility and dignity to its targets.”[88]  Its recommendations included that “UCL [should] undertake work to embed the teaching and learning of Britain and Empire in schools in the UK” and that it should “re-name spaces and buildings which bear the name of eugenicists and find ways to acknowledge this history so that it remains visible.”[89]

I suspect that it is only a matter of time before a few Australian universities are similarly compelled to establish comparable official investigations.  And perhaps universities elsewhere as well (as a number in Britain and the USA have already done).[90]

Even the renowned and redoubtable Oxford University is unlikely to be spared, perhaps as much for the present as for the past.  Julian Savulescu is currently a philosopher and Professor of Practical Ethics there.  A medical graduate (of Monash University) with a PhD which Professor Peter Singer supervised, he professes what he terms “liberal eugenics” and has coined the euphemism, “procreative beneficence”[91].  He affirms that “parents have significant reasons to select the most advantaged children”[92], though this seems to me to involve dauntingly complex technology.  He also argues that this “procreative beneficence” is a “moral obligation” – which appears to take “eugenics” a step further and to suggest an aspiration to make it legally mandatory.  The Christchurch philosopher, Professor Nicholas Agar, also supports “liberal eugenics”.  “Reproductive freedom,” he wrote, “as it is currently recognized in liberal societies, encompasses the choice of whether or not to reproduce, with whom to reproduce, when to reproduce, and how many times to reproduce. What I call liberal eugenics adds the choice of certain of your children’s characteristics to this list of freedoms.”[93]   There are, doubtless, articulate contemporary advocates of neo-eugenics elsewhere.

The lesson is that eugenics is making a disturbing resurgence and, as of old, academics are actively involved.  Universities must be on guard lest, like too many of their forebears, they abandon the obligation of their calling to rely on evidence, independence of mind and rigorous scrutiny of their own possible prejudices.  Therefore, no doctor can escape the complexity of the ethical challenges which confront all medical professionals let alone the obligation to think seriously about those responsibilities.

John Carmody, 2021.

[1]  The full texts are available on the web-site of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: (accessed 21 February 2020).

[2]  Galton took a pass-level BA in mathematics at Cambridge (later MA).  He did not complete his medical studies.

[3] Inquiries Into Human Faculty and Its Development. Macmillan. 1883. p.24

[4]  Pearson was a superior mathematics student at Cambridge.  He studied physics at Heidelberg as well as mediaeval law and literature, there.  He also studied law in London.  He was the first Galton Professor of Eugenics at UCL.

[5] “Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL – Final Report (2020)”: (accessed: 6 April 2020)

[6]  Fisher, AR: “Eugenics, academic and practical” (1935),

[7]  In 1912, Fisher gained a first-class honours degree in mathematics at Cambridge University.  In 1943 he took the Balfour Chair of Genetics there.  From 1957 until his death in 1962, he lived in Adelaide where he worked in the CSIRO.

[8]  Thompson, EP: The making of the English Working Class (Vintage Books, 1963), p. 12.

[9]  Fisher RA “Positive eugenics”, The Eugenics Review (1917) 9, 206—212.

[10]  O'Neil WM: “American Behaviorism: A Historical and Critical Analysis”, Theory and Psychology (1995), 5, 285-305.

[11]   King, p. 177.

[12]   King p. 88.

[13]  King, p. 90.

[14]  US Census Bureau website: [accessed 26 April 2020].

[15]  Australian Bureau of Statistics data: Australian Demographic statistics (Table 8; September 2019); released 19 March 2020 [31010DO001-201909].

[16]  Such as Marian Piddington and Lillie Goodisson (“the driving force behind the Racial Hygiene Association”) whom Diana Wyndham wrote about in “Eugenics in Australia: Striving for National Fitness” (2003).  See also, their entries in volumes 11 and 9 of the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

[17]  Information in Wyndham, op. cit.; notably in her tables on pp. 123-125.

[18]  Wyndham, op. cit., p. 269.

[19] Rodwell, G: “Professor Harvey Sutton: National hygienist as eugenicist and educator”, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society (1998), 84, 164-179.

[20]  The Age, 30 April 1913, p. 11.

[21]   Rodwell (1998), op. cit., p. 169.

[22]   Wyndham, op. cit. p. 314.

[23]  Sutton, H: Lectures in Preventive Medicine (1944, Consolidated Press, Sydney).

[24]  Rodwell (1998), op. cit., p.166.

[25] Sydney Morning Herald, 5 March 1925.

[26]  Sutton, HV: Lectures on Preventive Medicine (Sydney, 1944), p. 65.

[27]   Lectures, op. cit. p. 48.

[28]   Anderson, W: The cultivation of whiteness: Science, health and racial destiny in Australia (2005, Melbourne University Press), pp. 169 and 170.

[29]  Booth, M: “School anthropometrics: The importance of Australasian measurements conforming to the schedule of the British Anthropometric Committee, 1906”, Report of the 13th meeting of AAAS Sydney 1911 (Sydney 1912), pp. 689-693.

[30]  Roe, JL “Mary Booth (1869-1956)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, (volume 7, 1979), pp. 345-346.

[31]   The Age, 16 February 1910 (p. 6).

[32]   Sydney Morning Herald, 17 November 1933 (p. 10).

[33]  Wyndham, op. cit. p. 225.

[34]   Rodwell, op. cit., p. 168

[35]  Rodwell (1998), op. cit. p. 168.

21   Rodwell, op. cit., p. 166

[37]  Walker, DR: “Harvey Sutton”, Australian Dictionary of Biography 12 (1990), Melbourne University Press), pp. 143-144.  

[38]  Rodwell, op. cit.  p. 175.

[39]  Rodwell, op. cit. p. 176.

[40]  Roe, M: Nine Australian Progressives, p. 141

[41]   Roe, M: “Richard Arthur”, Australian Dictionary of Biography (1979), Melbourne University Press), pp. 103-104.

[42]  Wyndham, op. cit. p. 248.

[43]   Wyndham, op. cit. p. 288.

[44]   Wyndham, op. cit. p. 285

[45]   Cited by Wyndham, op. cit. p. 80.

[46]   Wyndham mentions this issue and Arthur’s controversial involvement with it several times in Chapter 2 of her history, op. cit.

[47]  Hansard (NSW Legislative Assembly) 13 March, 1930.

[48]  Wyndham, D: Eugenics in Australia: Striving for national fitness 2003, The Galton Society, London), p. 136.  Earlier, on p.119, she had described him (in 1905 as “sympathetic” to eugenics.  In 1912 (Wyndham, p. 119), Anderson Stuart was an “official representative” of Australia at the First International Eugenics Congress in London.

[49]  “Eugenics Society”, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 February 1914, p. 12.

[50]   Wyndham, op. cit. p. 272.

[51]  “Need of Population.  Dangers ahead”: Sydney Morning Herald, 20 June, 1904; p. 10.

[52]   Young, JA: “Sir Thomas Peter Anderson Stuart”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12 (Melbourne University Press, 1990) pp. 130-132.

[53]  The late Professor Joan Kerr once told the author of seeing a room in the Quadrangle Building at the University of Sydney which was fully set up as a Masonic Temple.

[54]  Wyndham, op. cit. p. 4.

[55]  “The right Immigrant”: Sydney Morning Herald, 8 December, 1908, p. 7.

[56]  University of Queensland Calendar: 1945, p. 45.

[57]   Bostock Papers (Box 2), Fryer Library, University of Queensland.

[58]  Bostock, J: “Psychological medicine and the community”, Medical Journal of Australia, (1946) p. 730.

[59]   Bostock Papers (Box 2), Fryer Library, University of Queensland.

[60]  Wyndham, op. cit., p. 314.

[61]  Jones, BO: “William Alexander Osborne”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, (1988), pp. 103-105.

[62]  Russell, KF: “Richard James Arthur Berry”, Australian Dictionary of Biography (1979, Melbourne University Press), pp. 276-277.

[63]   Jones RL: Humanity’s Mirror” 150 years of anatomy in Melbourne (Haddington Press, 2007), p.106.

[64]   “The Problem of the Unfit”, Herald (Melbourne), 3 May 1924, p. 11.

[65]  For all that this is utterly repugnant, it is an example of the turbidity which often characterised and muddled Berry’s thinking.  What, to any rational biologist (or untrained person, for that matter), could this phrase possibly mean?

[66]  Jones, op. cit., pp. 109-110.

[67]   “Danger children”, Sun News-Pictorial, 11 July 1923, p.

[68]   Mennis, MR: The Book of Eccles: A portrait of Sir John Eccles.  Australian Nobel Laureate and Scientist. 1903-1997 (Lalong Enterprises, 2003), p. 7.

[69]   In his editorials: such as the comments “Moreover, we have definite evidence that the male prostitute, the victim to the homosexual pervert, is invariable a mentally defective individual.” And, “Surely the establishment and proper administration of a modern scheme for the detection and permanent control of deficient individuals is not merely desirable, it is essential to the welfare of the race.  We have pleaded for a proper reform of this nature.” in “Feeble-mindedness and Prostitution” (Editorial): Medical Journal of Australia, (1919), II, 71-72.

[70]  For example: a letter by R Berry and S Porteus, “Size of brain and intelligence” in the Medical Journal of Australia (1917), II, 155.

[71]  “British Medical Association News: Scientific” in the Medical Journal of Australia, (1917) II, 536-544 (a report of an address by Professor Berry in Melbourne).

[72]  In: “Chance and Circumstance” p. 143, as cited by Jones in Humanity‘s Mirror, p. 112.

[73]  Jones WE: “Report on Metal Deficiency in the Commonwealth of Australia (1920) cited by RL Jones in “Humanity’s Mirror”, p. 112.

[74] Miller, EM: “Observations (mainly psychological) on the concept of Mental Deficiency”, Medical Journal of Australia (1925), I, 133-140.

[75]  These quotes by Berry are from the typescript of his [unpublished] autobiography, “Chance and Circumstance” (1954).  A complete photocopy is held by the Archives of the University of Melbourne.

[76]  Berry, RJA & Büchner, LWG: “ The correlation of size of head and intelligence as estimated from the cubic capacity of brain of 355 Melbourne criminals.”, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria (1913), 25 (2), 254-267; and “The correlation of size of head and intelligence as estimated from the cubic capacity of brain of 33 Melbourne criminals hanged for murder”, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria (1913), 25 (2), 254-267.

[77]  Anderson, op. cit. p. 216¸ citing p.132 of Berry’s memoir, Chance and Circumstance (1954).

[78]  Berry, RJA: “The Sectional Anatomy of the Head of the Australian Aboriginal: A Contribution to the Subject of Racial Anatomy”, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1911), 31, 604-626.

[79]  Anderson, Whiteness, pp. 66-68.

[80]  In which fields he had no notable or formal education or expertise.  He was plainly and blatantly abusing his position as a specialist medical Professor and exploiting his readers’ predilection to defer to an “authority” in order to promote his eugenic and conservative social and political views.

[81]  Jones RL: Humanity’s Mirror: 150 years of Anatomy in Melbourne (Haddington Press, 2007), pp. 108-109.

[82] Berry, Chance and Circumstance (1954), op. cit.  

[83]  The UCL report (see following note uses this phrase repeatedly e.g. on p. 7.

[84]  See: (accessed: 7 May, 2020).

[85]  See: (accessed, 7 May, 2020).

[86]  Report of Commission of Inquiry on the History of Eugenics at UCL” (2020), p. 9.

[87]   UCL report, p. 6.

[88]  UCL “Report” p. 4.

[89]  UCL “Report”, p. 5.

[90]  See for example, p. 11 of the UCL “Report”.

[91]   Savulescu, J: “Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children”; Bioethics (2001), 15, 413–426.  “If couples (or single reproducers) have decided to have a child, and selection is possible, then they have a significant moral reason to select the child, of the possible children they could have, whose life can be expected, in light of the relevant available information, to go best or at least not worse than any of the others.”

[92]  Bioethics (2001), op. cit.

[93]  Agar, N: Liberal Eugenics In defence of Human Enhancement (Blackwell, 2004), p. vi.

Doctors, academics and eugenics: a truly unsavoury mixture

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