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Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics

The Carlos Paton Blacker papers

Carlos Blacker was a decorated war hero and psychiatrist who as its General Secretary from 1931 to 1952 gave the Eugenics Society a new focus on birth control and population planning.

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Carlos Blacker receives the Galton Medal from Charles Galton Darwin, December 1957
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Carlos Blacker (1895-1975) was a key actor in a period of extraordinary social change. His papers reflect the often bitter policy disputes that took place within the Eugenics Society during his time as General Secretary. Under his forceful leadership its policies shifted from coercive segregation and sterilisation of the 'unfit' to the promotion of medically managed birth control, which some members feared would limit the breeding of those with social, intellectual and economic advantages. The separate records of the Society itself are also held by the Wellcome Library (SA/EUG) and have been digitised.

During this time public opinion swung from broad tolerance of eugenic thinking to widespread disgust at 'race hygiene' policies such as those that led to the Nazi extermination camps. Although a promoter of eugenic policies, Blacker had no truck with what he saw as the perversion of race hygiene under the Nazis. After World War II he undertook an assessment of Nazi sterilisation experiments and reported that they had no scientific value. His correspondents include many of the 'great and good' of British science, including Sir Julian Huxley, Sir John Cockcroft and Sir Charles Galton Darwin.

Blacker features prominently in the history of the National Birth Control Association (later the Family Planning Association, FPA), the International Planned Parenthood Federation, and the Simon Population Trust (of which he was Chairman). These organisations undertook much practical work in the area of fertility control. From the 1930s the FPA coordinated a network of family planning clinics in the UK; in the 1960s the Simon Trust was largely responsible for establishing the legality of male and female voluntary sterilisation, and conducted the first follow-up study of men who had had vasectomies. Papers in the Blacker collection document the establishment and activities of these organisations and correspondents include Marie Stopes, Margaret Pyke and Sir Ernest Simon.

The papers illustrate how these voluntary organisations led the way in providing services on birth control and advice on population policy, which was later adopted by government departments. Blacker was instrumental in the establishment of the Royal Commission on Population, which sat from 1944 to 1949. He also formed a close alliance with the Research Group on Population of the influential think-tank Political and Economic Planning, and contributed to its 'World Population and Resources' report in 1955.


Blacker in 1949

C P Blacker (left) with Dr E B Strauss, 1949
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Carlos Paton Blacker was a tall, energetic figure of military bearing, who used his psychiatric training to impressive effect in achieving agreement, often between hostile opponents. He was born in Paris to a British father and an American mother, and grew up bilingual. His paternal grandmother was of Peruvian descent. After Eton he joined the Coldstream Guards in 1915 and was wounded in action on the western front, winning the Military Cross; he also served with distinction as a medical officer in World War II.

Blacker obtained first-class honours in Natural Sciences and Zoology at Oxford in 1922 before training in medicine at Guy's Hospital in London. He joined the psychiatric staff of the Maudsley Hospital in London in 1936. During his medical training he married Helen Maude Pilkington, and they had three children.

It was while training as a doctor that he encountered as patients large numbers of poor women exhausted by caring for their large families. Already enthused by the theories of Sir Francis Galton on eugenic improvement, he saw the Eugenics Society as the means of promoting his conviction that birth control, if properly managed by the medical profession, could be the route to individual and national wellbeing. As a highly effective General Secretary of the Society for more than 20 years, he sponsored research and supported the work of like-minded organisations.

Blacker published many books in support of his arguments, always careful to recognise that eugenics and contraception were controversial topics. While today his enthusiasm for eugenics seems illiberal, he did not differ from other pioneers of contraception in being largely motivated by compassion for those worst affected by frequent childbearing and large families.

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

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If it is true that large families... are born to subnormal and irresponsible parents, it is also true that many of their pregnancies are unplanned... Hence the need for eugenically enlightened social services.

Carlos Blacker, from the Eugenics Society's submission to the Royal Commission on Population, 1945

Digitised book

Family planning in Fiji 1966

Family planning in Fiji 1966

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In The Timeline

1931: Carlos Blacker appointed general secretary of the Eugenics Society

Carlos Blacker appointed general secretary of the Eugenics Society

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