Eugenics: An eight letter word that is shrouded in mystery and suspicion. For those who are not familiar with the phrase, it is centered around the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics – and is a topic that very few people tend to explore as much as they should regarding it’s critically important nature.
Controlled breeding can be attained through many methods, including sterilization, and was a very real concept throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. Many professionals in the scientific and biological fields rigorously researched ways to improve the human race through means of breeding, and its dark ideas still continue to this day.
In this feature, Ethan Nash explores the origins of Eugenics in Australia, how Melbourne’s eugenic elite almost succeeded with their vision, and how this closely kept secret is being brought back to the surface almost 100 years later.
The term Eugenics was historically “founded” by Sir Francis Galton in 1883. Many believe Eugenics initially started as a ‘positive’ thing, encouraging healthy, capable people of above-average intelligence to bear more children, with the idea of building an “improved” human race.
This was until the power-hungry elite of the United States took their own approach to the theory, beginning a very dark, secretive period in human history that continues in modern form to this very day.
The center of the American Eugenics Movement was the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor in New York. Biologist Charles Davenport established the ERO, and was joined in his work by Director Harry H. Laughlin.
Both men were members of the American Breeders Association. Their view of eugenics, as applied to human populations, drew from the agricultural model of breeding the strongest and most capable members of a species while making certain that the weakest members do not reproduce.
This ideology quickly spread on an international level, most notably to Germany and other countries. Many people are not aware, however, that it also spread like a plague to our own backyard.
EUGENICS IN AUSTRALIA
Australia is very familiar with following in the footsteps of international agendas.
Eugenics is another term you can add to that list, as an underworld of Melbourne Eugenicists rose from the ashes during the early 20th century, and along with some important political influences, brought about a period mostly forgotten throughout the span of Australian history – a push for perfection.
The first person that comes to mind when discussing Eugenics in Australia is Richard Berry. Berry was a Professor of Anatomy at Melbourne University from 1903 to 1929, and his worked was based around measuring people’s heads in pursuit of a theory that a small head indicated that a person had low intelligence.
Berry favoured the establishment of a ”lethal chamber” to euthanise what he called ”the grosser types of our mental defectives”. He began working frantically with others to bring the ideas of Eugenics to the public eye, and started gaining momentum amongst various government agencies and committees as a result.
Photo: Melbourne Medical School
This significant push would lead to an attempt to legalise Eugenics in the form of three Mental Deficiency Bills that were presented to Parliament in 1926, 1929 and 1939 by Premier Stanley Argyle, a man who has close relations to Berry.
The bills would target slum dwellers, homosexuals, prostitutes, alcoholics, as well as those with small heads and with low IQs, in an attempt to institutionalise and potentially sterilise people who fell under these categories. The Aboriginal population was also seen to fall within this group.
The first two attempts to enact the bills failed, not thanks to any significant opposition, rather the political atmosphere around in Australia at the time. The third was passed unanimously in 1939, but (thankfully) not enacted in the first instance. This would later be due to the outbreak of World War II and social uproar against the ‘Holocaust’.
As a result, people were beginning to see how devastating the subjugation of a race could become, but it didn’t stop the Eugenics movement from spreading across Australia.
State parliaments and various groups (pictures below) were inspired to also institute such legislation, after Berry traveled across the country, delivering lectures in many town halls.
Eugenics in Australia continued during the 1920s, as Royal Commissions gave birth to a range of eugenic reforms including measures relating to child endowment, marriage laws, pensions, and a national survey of mental deficiency that was introduced by the Federal Minister for Health, Sir Neville Howse in 1928.
Neville is historically known as the figure head of half caste breeding during the Stolen Generation period, a more familiar form of Eugenics throughout Australian history.
Along with the Chief Inspector for the Insane in Victoria, William Ernest Jones, the two vigorously fought as it was tabled before Parliament. They claimed that the statistics collected showed the incidence of mental deficiency was rising, mainly due to genetics, and was more often found in the working class, and desperate action was needed to topple this issue.
This was all put to a stop during the Great Depression, as Australia didn’t have the money to fund such programs. But, yet again, it wouldn’t stop the movement, as Eugenics was introduced into Victorian High Schools by the first Director of Education, Frank Tate. Tate was a close friend of Berry, and strongly supported his research on head size and, on occasions, introduced his public lectures.
The development would lead to substantial momentum, as the first Director of the Australian Council for Educational Research, Kenneth Cunningham and one of the most significant early psychologists, Chris McRae, began publishing research claiming to show that working class children were unfit for academic secondary education.
As Richard Berry returned to England in 1929, others took up the reigns of the movement, founding the Eugenics Society of Victoria in 1936.
Its membership was comprised of some of Melbourne’s most influential people, including the Chief Executive Officer of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, the President of the Royal College of Physicians and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria.
Although the aims of the society included supporting the sterilisation of mental defectives, more and more they were involved in environmental reforms (such as slum clearance) and the birth control movement.
BRINGING LIGHT TO THE DARKNESS
The Eugenics Society of Victoria continued operating until 1961, before ‘fading out’ as new ideas of equality began rising across the world.
One man who continues to address the issue is Dr. Ross Jones, an Australian Research Council postdoctoral fellow at the University of Sydney. Jones discovered this hidden past after looking through files of long-forgotten papers stored in musty archives. What he found shocked him, as he stumbled upon the uncomfortable details about the promotion of eugenics and racial science in Melbourne during the first half of the 20th century.
“I’d be happy to put my head on the block and argue with any historians that Melbourne was the centre of eugenics in Australia,” Jones spoke in 2011.
How is it that such an important issue has long been forgotten with the passing of time?
One explanation, he says, is that there was a conscious cover up.
“The whole thing became taboo after World War II.”
Dr Jones hopes to publish his research about eugenics in Melbourne, which he began during his PhD studies at Monash University. He says knowing about people’s involvement in eugenics is important because it helps us understand the influence they had on Victorian social and education policy. Their influence, he says, can still be felt.
“The story of eugenics needs to be remembered.”
Eugenics continues to be hardly mentioned in the official histories of the university, and although Melbourne may wish to forget its dark past, it cannot escape the fact that powerful leaders of the eugenics movement once controlled the city, and their beliefs influenced an entire generation. Does it continue to this day? Is political influence in science a dangerous thing? It is our duty as Australians to raise these questions.