Exploring the Legacies of Eugenics in Psychiatry – Part II
03 November, 2022
By Marius Turda, Professor in 20th Century Central and Eastern European Biomedicine, Oxford Brookes.
Prominent British psychiatrists remained attached to eugenics after 1945. This blog post gives particular attention to the views of three psychiatrists active during the post-war period: D. K. Henderson, C. P. Blacker and Eliot Slater. In so doing it also contributes to the ongoing, larger discussion that is taking place regarding to the intertwined legacies of eugenics and scientific racism.
In 1946 David K. Henderson (1884-1965), Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh and Superintendent at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Nervous and Mental Disorders gave the presidential address at the annual meeting of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association (RMPA)―the predecessor body of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Post-war psychiatry, Henderson argued, aimed to fulfil two interrelated goals: firstly, to understand ‘the science of man’ and, secondly, to maintain ‘the mental health of the individual so as to enable him to conduct his life at the highest level of efficiency.’ Psychiatrists, in turn, needed to study ‘how nature and nurture can be […] synchronized and controlled’. That meant, according to Henderson, the application of a ‘wide social programme dealing with the quality of the race and the conditions under which we live.’ (1946, p. 688)
Reading these lines, it is hard not to ponder the similarities between Henderson’s views on psychiatry and those of Francis Galton on eugenics. Henderson made the influence explicit, noting that Galton had long ago argued for a programme of racial improvement through ‘an assessment of backgrounds in relation to personal and family qualities.’ He also cited approvingly Galton’s complaint that ‘The land is over-stocked and over-burdened with the listless and incapable’. (Ibid.)
Henderson had embraced Galton’s eugenics in the 1930s. In February 1934, he gave a talk to the Medico-Chirurgical Society of Edinburgh entitled ‘Psychiatry and Race Betterment’, in which he highlighted the importance of heredity in the development of mental diseases. Familiar with developments in psychiatric genetics, particularly in Germany, Henderson subscribed to Ernst Rüdin (1874-1952)’s strong insistence on the close connection between eugenics and psychiatry. The eugenic objective for psychiatrists, therefore, was ‘to study how human beings may be brought into the world free from unfortunate mental or physical hereditary tendencies.’ (1934, p. 108)
Henderson’s affinity for German psychiatry was particularly poignant, given that the talk was given only a month after the Nazi sterilisation law came into effect (it was passed into law in July 1933), and that Rüdin was one of its architects. However, Henderson did not support compulsory sterilisation and thought the law would be very difficult to enforce. He was similarly sceptical of the eugenic benefits of voluntary sterilisation, believing it not ‘to be of great assistance for race betterment.’ (1934, p. 114) What Henderson preferred was ‘a positive eugenic programme with all the emphasis possible on conscious selection […] and some form of State subsidy in the case of those families who are producing healthy children.’ (Ibid.)
It was this form of eugenics hat Henderson continued to promote 12 years later. He defined as the ‘study of the quality of the race, the science of man’. (1946, p. 688) Galton’s influence still loomed large. To bring about the ‘human progress’ that was needed, Henderson believed, required a means to ‘improve the law of averages so that the inefficient, listless, incapable type are replaced by the efficient and employable.’ (1946, p. 669) Different types of practical and theoretical work were needed to achieve different purposes in psychiatry. Yet it was felt that eugenics remained useful when dealing with the mental health of the population and when providing psychiatric services. Its popularity, according to Henderson, had been assured by its wide applicability as ‘the most fundamental of all the applied sciences.’ (Ibid.)
But eugenics was more than just a science. As explained by Carlos P. Blacker (1895-1975), Secretary of the Eugenics Society and a psychiatrist at Bethlem Royal Hospital and Maudsley Hospital, Galton understood eugenics as ‘a complex subject comprising fields outside science. It can, indeed, be seen from three aspects, as a system of thought, of feeling, and of behaviour; or as science, sentiment, and policy.’ (1952a, p. 13) Even after its scientific credibility was lost and the word itself was tarred by its association with the Nazi regime, eugenic sentiments remained strong among psychiatrists such as Henderson and Blacker.
Eliot Slater (1904-1983) was another prominent psychiatrist who believed Galton’s eugenics kept its relevance in the post-war period. In 1960 Slater gave the Eugenics Society’s annual Galton Lecture. This was a year after he helped establish the Medical Research Council Psychiatric Genetics Unit at the Maudsley Institute of Psychiatry and a year before he took editorship of The British Journal of Psychiatry. Slater began by noting that while scientists around the world had commemorated the centenary of the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species a year earlier, the work of Darwin’s half-cousin, Francis Galton, was less highly appreciated than it deserved to be. ‘Fame has passed Galton by,’ Slater noted with regret. (1960, p. 91)
Did Slater share Blacker’s concerns about how the Nazi experience of eugenics compromised Galton’s vision of human betterment? Blacker sensibly reflected that after the Holocaust ‘the inexorable fact remains that whatever our own views may be, the word eugenics has […] suffered degradation in the eyes of many people and organizations, including the War Crimes committee.’ (1952b, p. 19) Writing a few years later, Slater was less categorical but accepted that he, and others, would have to abandon Galton’s ‘ideas about diplomas of eugenic worth, the encouragement of fertility in eminent families and imposed restrictions on the fertility of the socially incompetent.’ (1960, p. 102) Yet Slater did not reject eugenics completely. The hope, as he put it, was that ‘those of us who in some specialised field of activity are rather less feebleminded (sic!) than the average will have to do what we can for those who are rather more so.’ (Ibid.) Aware of the fact ‘that the whole complex of ideas comprised under the heading of eugenics arouses strong opposition, not least among biologists’ (ibid.), Slater remained faithful to one of the main tenets of Galtonian eugenics: parental responsibility towards future generations.
It is possible that the lectures given by Henderson, Blacker and Slater softened the hostility of critics of eugenics but evaluating the impact of their ideas on other psychiatrists, particularly those entering the profession during the 1950s, remains a challenge. As we continue to explore the legacies of eugenics in science and society more broadly and in psychiatry in particular, we need to be aware of eugenics’ continual and constant reinvention.
Blacker, C. P. Eugenics, Galton and After, 1952a
Blacker, C. P. “‘Eugenic’ Experiments Conducted by the Nazis on Human Subjects,” The Eugenics Review 44 (1952b): 9-19. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2975316/]
Henderson, D. K. “Psychiatry and Race Betterment,” Edinburgh Medical Journal 41 (1934): 105-128. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5329310/]
Henderson, D. K. “Experientia docet,” Journal of Mental Science 92 (1946): 667-681. [https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.92.389.NP]
Slater, E. “Galton’s Heritage,” The Eugenics Review 52 (1960): 91-103. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2972790/]