U.S. Universities Must Stop Honoring Racist Scientists of the Past

July 14, 2020 | 12:32 pm
USGS/William Henry Jackson
Adam Markham
Deputy Director of Climate and Energy

The names of scientists whose discredited racial theories continue to pervade U.S. society still adorn prestigious college buildings and are attached to awards and prizes, while their statues stand on campuses and their portraits hang in university museums.

To take just one example, the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Environmental Studies is housed in Hayden Hall, named after Ferdinand Hayden, a geologist famous for his explorations of Yellowstone but who described Native Americans as “savages” and Wyoming as “infested with hostile Indians.” He advocated for U.S. expansionism to include the whole of North and Central America “from the Arctic Circle to the Isthmus of Darien” and promoted and helped enable White settlement of the West.  His 1871 US Geological Survey of Wyoming stated that unless Indians “are localized and made to enter upon agricultural pursuits they must ultimately be exterminated.” More than 40 topographic features are named after Hayden, and efforts are underway by Indigenous activists to rename the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park as Buffalo Nations Valley.

Universities have been slow to respond

The history of science is shot through with racism. Ethnology, anthropology, paleontology, archaeology and zoology have all served to support racist theories, doctrines and policies, as have chemistry, medicine, genetics, mathematics and economics. Many scientists who made pioneering advances or whose achievements underpin scientific progress and thinking today held and actively promoted racist views. In their time they were celebrated and honored as important or even great scientists but today it is important that we address their roles in building and perpetuating racist stereotypes, structures and institutions.

University leaders who have been slow to respond to and act upon the legacy of slavery and slave-holding in their histories have been even slower to address the history of racism in science. It was not until 2018 for example, that the University of Pittsburgh stripped Thomas Parran’s name from its Graduate School of Public Health. As US Surgeon General from 1938 to 1946, Parran oversaw the infamous Tuskegee biomedical experiment in which treatment for syphilis was withheld from hundreds of Black share-croppers in Alabama who were tricked into participating in the study. He also approved unethical experiments in Guatemala, where female sex workers, prison inmates, mental patients and soldiers were unknowingly infected with syphilis or gonorrhea.

In recent months, as the brutal police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and others sparked unprecedented nationwide protests and support for the Black Lives Matter movement, calls for action to address racist memorialization on campuses have increased. In June, after resisting years of pressure, the University of Southern California finally took the name of Rufus von KleinSmid–a eugenicist who supported forced sterilization–off the Center for International and Public Affairs building, which had been named for the former university president. At the University of Maine, however, Little Hall still remains named after former university president and eugenicist Clarence Cook Little who supported laws to limit immigration based on race and to prevent mixed-race marriages.

Francis Galton’s disturbing legacy

Eugenics is a major thread weaving through scientific racism. Alexander Graham Bell, H.G. Wells and Marie Stopes were all supporters. Francis Galton, the polymath English scientist & statistician coined the term, meaning “well-bred,” in 1883. Galton advocated the selective breeding of humans to produce a superior race. Eugenics built on Mendelian studies of heredity and Darwinian notions of fitness and extended the principles of plant and animal breeding to humans, with its proponents seeing it as a way to weed out a broad range of “undesirable” traits including mental and physical disabilities and racial inferiority.

Photo of Sir Francis Galton taken at Alphonse Bertillon’s Criminal Identification Laboratory in Paris in 1893.

The roots of some statistical techniques lie in the efforts of Galton and other eugenicists to help prove their racial gene theories. Eminent statistician Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher was the founder of the Cambridge University Eugenics Society. Rothamstead Research, the UK agricultural science laboratory where he worked for many years has recently renamed its accommodation block, Fisher Court to AnoVa Court, and the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies retired the R. A. Fisher Award and Lectureship in June 2020 after 56 years. Freshman statistics students at University College of London (UCL) always had their lectures in the Galton Theatre until it was finally stripped of the name in June 2020. However, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge has yet to remove a stained glass window that honors him and has recently been a target of anti-racist activists.

The dark shadow of eugenics

Eugenics was widely embraced in the U.S. scientific and political establishments, and the dean of Harvard Medical school, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. was an early promoter of it. Holmes believed “Boston Brahmins”–the White elite of Boston–to have hereditary and superior bloodlines.

Harvard students, faculty and alumni are now calling for the renaming of the Holmes Society of the university’s medical and dental schools. In 1927, Holmes’ son, the former Harvard law professor and Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote the court’s opinion in Buck v Bell which, with the infamous words, “three generations of imbeciles is enough” upheld the right of the Commonwealth of Virginia to sterilize a woman regarded as feeble-minded (she wasn’t) and opening the floodgates to state laws allowing sterilization.

Charles Davenport created the member-based Eugenics Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor in 1910 and Stanford’s David Starr Jordan was the group’s first chair. It received funding and institutional support from philanthropist Mrs. E. H. Harrington, John Harvey Kellogg, the Carnegie Institution and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Davenport provided expert testimony for The Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 which used eugenic arguments to restrict immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. By 1931, 28 US states had sterilization laws and by 1936 at least 60,000 forced sterilizations had been performed, mostly on poor Black people. The Carnegie Institution eventually concluded that there was no scientific merit in eugenics and withdrew funding in 1939.

The U.S. eugenics movement helped to provide the intellectual underpinning for Nazi racial theories and sterilization policies. In Germany, Nazis lauded the success of California’s sterilization laws and used them as a model for their own legislation in 1933. Even after the full horror of the Nazi sterilization programs and extermination camps was uncovered, eugenic ideas maintained a grip in the mainstream scientific community. For example Nobel Prize winning geneticists Francis Crick and James Watson both believed that Black people are genetically inferior, and Crick was an advocate of sterilization.

Roots of scientific racism

Decades before eugenics took hold in the U.S., scientific racism had already been firmly established and many of its founders are still memorialized on campuses today.

Louis Agassiz, founder of Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (CMZ) and one the first “celebrity scientists” was a leading polygenist, believing that several human races were  created separately according to their climate and geography and that the White European race was superior to all others. Agassiz was inspired by the anthropologist Samuel George Morton who used craniology–the measurement of brain capacity in the skull–to try to demonstrate that Caucasians were racially superior.

A statue of Louis Agassiz (left) who believed Black people were an inferior race stands above the entrance to a Stanford University hall named after the eugenicist David Starr Jordan. Scientist and abolitionist Alexander von Humboldt (right) argued that there were no biological different races. Photo: Creative Commons/Dicklyon.

Morton collected and measured hundreds of skulls and proposed that there were five biologically distinct races to which he assigned immutable character traits that he derived from, among other things, reading travel literature. Despite being shot through with biases and distortions and lacking any shred of scientific merit, Morton’s work was nevertheless widely accepted in the scientific community. It provided credibility for arguments in defense of slavery, segregation, and the dispossession and killing of Native Americans.

A statue of Agassiz has stood for more than 100 years over the entrance to Stanford University Psychology Department’s Jordan Hall. The hall itself is named after David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s founding president, an ichthyologist and prominent eugenicist. Stanford is currently reviewing a request from faculty and students to remove the statue and change the name of the hall.

The Confederate surgeon who popularized scientific racism

In another egregious example of campus memorialization, the honors college building of the University of Alabama is named in honor of one of the most influential scientific racists of the 19th century. Josiah C. Nott was a surgeon, anthropologist, founder of the University of Alabama School of Medicine and a slaveholder.

He was a polygenist, who believed that if Black and White races mixed, it would lead to extinction through degeneration, and thought Black people to be “the lowest point in the scale of human beings.” In 1854, with the British Egyptologist George Gliddon he published the book Types of Mankind.

It sold three and a half thousand copies in the first four months and ran to ten printings over 17 years. Scientific “proof” of the inferiority of Black people was just what the slaveholders of the South were looking for. Frederick Douglass in his commencement address at Western Reserve College in 1854 said that of all the efforts “to disprove the unity of the human family, and to brand the Negro with natural inferiority, the most compendious and barefaced is the book, entitled Types of Mankind.

Robert A. Smith of Pittsburg State University argues that Types of Mankind “fixed the issue of ‘race’ in the minds of everyday Americans. The concept of ‘race’ had been isolated, identified, and finally popularized. The mere fact that we consider race to be an issue at all in the twenty-first century is due in no small measure to Nott and Gliddon’s efforts in the nineteenth.” And yet still Nott’s name remains attached to a building at the University of Alabama (UA).

Nott Hall at the University of Alabama, named to honor Josiah Nott in 1922. Photo: courtesy of Hilary Green.

In her ongoing Hallowed Grounds Project, Dr. Hilary N. Green, a UA historian, highlights a vilely racist and incandescently angry 17-page letter from Nott– “the greatest living anthropologist of America” –to O. O. Howard, head of the post-war Freedman’s Bureau, that was published in the July 1866 issue of the Popular Magazine of Anthropology. In it, Nott claimed that “History proves indisputably, that a superior and inferior race cannot live together practically on any other terms than that of master and slave, and that the inferior race, like the Indians, must be expelled or exterminated. In every climate where the White man can live and prosper, he drives all others before him.”

Nott soon joined the ranks of what historian Daniel Sutherland has termed the Confederate Carpetbaggers, who moved to the Northern states seeking to regain their wealth and status. In New York he became president of the New York Obstetrical Society and a close friend of J. Marion Sims, sometimes referred to as the father of gynecology. Sims is known for his experiments on enslaved women without the use of anesthesia. After years of protests, his statue was eventually removed from New York’s Central Park in 2018. But monuments to Sims still stand on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse and the Alabama state capitol.

Removing names and statues won’t end racism, but it’s the right thing to do

History is an ongoing effort to understand the past, and heritage is the range of cultures, traditions, buildings, monuments and objects we inherit and pass on to future generations. Both are dynamic and constantly undergoing interpretation, with heritage demanding choices about what is important, to whom and why. Removing or re-contextualizing a monument, changing the name of a building, or taking a portrait off a wall does not erase history as some have argued, but it can reflect a better understanding of past events and motivations, new societal norms, or the values of local or affected communities. Some say that re-naming structures only facilitates forgetting about the past and that what is needed is an explanatory plaque instead, but why should a BIPOC student be forced to be reminded of Louis Agassiz or John Nott’s abhorrent views whenever they walk by or enter a particular campus building?

There are many ways to unwrap, interpret, teach and remember the complex histories of science and race in universities without maintaining honors and monuments that were bestowed or created many decades ago, not infrequently to uphold and celebrate a racist worldview or create an implicitly White space on campus. In some cases there may be an opportunity to leave a monument or an artwork and create a powerful new one beside it to catalyze reflection and discussion. Such an approach was tried in 2018 at the University of Kentucky, where Black artist Karyn Olivier was asked to create an artwork in dialogue with a controversial 1934 New Deal era mural in its Memorial Hall. In June, however, the university announced that it will remove the original mural, despite the fact that doing so removes the context for Olivier’s responsive work and will silence a contemporary Black voice.

An anti-racist reassessment of whose stories get told and how, is urgently needed on U.S. campuses. Scientists whose views promoted and legitimized genocide, slavery, segregation, forced sterilization, race-based immigration restrictions and structural inequality should no longer be memorialized.

There are many ways that the scientific community must reckon with the harm it has caused through its history and present complicity in racist actions. Removing names from buildings or busts from hallways won’t bring an end to systemic and institutional racism in universities, but it is an essential part of the process. And it cannot wait.

N.B. An excellent reading list of decolonizing science resources has been prepared by Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. Kit Mead has a good eugenics reading list