Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics

The Eugenics Society archive

Eugenics is the science which deals with all influences which improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those which develop them to the utmost advantage.

Sir Francis Galton, 1904

The archive of the Eugenics Society provides a unique perspective on changing social attitudes towards birth and breeding during the 20th century.

For much of the 20th century, the Eugenics Society sought to increase public understanding of heredity and to influence parenthood in Britain, with the aim of biological improvement of the nation and mitigation of the burdens deemed to be imposed on society by the genetically 'unfit'. It was never a mass participation organisation: membership peaked at around 800 in its 1930s heyday. However, its members included a diverse range of influential figures, and it maintained a high profile through its programme of education and propaganda.

Bar graph showing falling birth-rate

'Falling birth-rate' poster, 1930s
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While the members were broadly in agreement about the national importance of eugenic ideals, they often differed about how to achieve them. There was a lively tension, for example, between supporters of  'positive eugenics' - encouraging the fittest to have more children - and their 'negative' counterparts, who wanted to prevent people with undesirable characteristics from breeding.

The interests of the Society were correspondingly broad. They ranged from the biology of heredity, a subject that developed rapidly during the first half of the 20th century, to the provision of birth control methods, artificial insemination, statistics, sex education and family allowances. Prominent members included the economist John Maynard Keynes, the scientists Julian Huxley, R A Fisher and Peter Medawar, and the birth-control pioneer Marie Stopes.

The archive is remarkably complete. It includes annual reports, minute books and collections of press cuttings from the Society's earliest years. There are also a number of posters, pamphlets and other ephemera relating to its propaganda activities that provide striking visual illustrations of contemporary attitudes to the family, race and breeding.

The use of eugenic arguments to justify policies against people with disabilities and ethnic minorities in Nazi Germany led to a swing away from widespread social or political acceptance of eugenic ideals in Britain, although as early as 1933 the Eugenics Society had publicly dissociated itself from Nazi 'race hygiene'. In 1963 the Society became a charity and ceased its propaganda activities. Today, as the Galton Institute, its aims are to support the scientific study of human heredity and its social implications, and to promote public understanding of these issues and their ethical and moral dimensions.

The archive covers the history of the Society from its foundation to 2008. Its files document not only the administrative history of an influential organisation but also the widest possible range of opinions and evidence on human heredity and its social consequences.

Originals held by...

This material is held by the Wellcome Library where originals may be consulted.

View details in the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue

Francis Galton

Sir Francis Galton
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The Eugenics Society was founded in 1907 as the Eugenics Education Society, on the initiative of the social reformer Sibyl Gotto and the geneticist Francis Galton. Galton, who had coined the term 'eugenics' to refer to human selective breeding, was elected its first president. Its declared aims were to "bring all matters pertaining to human parenthood under the domination of eugenic ideals" and to "effect improvement of the race" through knowledge of the laws of heredity.

Eugenics is the science which deals with all influences which improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those which develop them to the utmost advantage.

Sir Francis Galton, 1904

In its early years the Society enjoyed widespread support among members of the scientific and political establishment. In 1931 it drafted a bill providing for the compulsory sterilisation of "mental defectives", which was introduced into Parliament by Major A G Church, the MP for Wandsworth. The bill failed, as did subsequent attempts, but they achieved the aim of raising awareness of the eugenic project.

From 1930 onwards the Society's general secretary, Carlos Blacker (whose papers have also been digitised), shifted its focus towards making methods of birth control, including voluntary sterilisation, more widely available. This was controversial among the members, as they feared that middle-class couples would have fewer children while the poor would continue to multiply. The Society's premises in Eccleston Square in London provided space to organisations with similar aims, including the National Birth Control Association.

As support for eugenic policies declined in the years following World War II, the Society's membership dwindled. It became an educational charity in 1963, and in 1988 moved out of its Eccleston Square property. The following year it was renamed the Galton Institute. Since then, its aim has been to foster understanding of the interaction between biological and social aspects of human heredity.

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