The Eugenics Congress, London 1912

The First International Eugenics Congress was convened at Europe’s largest hotel, the Hotel Cecil in London, on July 24, 1912. This Inaugural Banquet was presided over by Arthur Balfour, former Prime Minister and creator of the Committee of Imperial Defence. Its work took place over 6 days at the Great Hall, Imperial College, University of London. On 25th it heard papers on the subject of ‘Biology and Eugenics’; on 26th, ‘Practical Eugenics’; on 27th, ‘Education and Eugenics’; on 29th and 30th, ‘Sociology and Eugenics’; on 30th, ‘Medicine and Eugenics’.

This great Congress was not a fringe event of right wingers. It was supported by the most prominent establishment figures in politics, law, religion, science, medicine, academia and education. Members of the General Committee included High Clergy, Professors, Doctors and senior military figures in Britain.

The Eugenics Congress had delegates from the Board of Education, many local councils, the Royal College of Medicine, the Royal College of Surgeons, universities such as Oxford, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St. Andrews, London and Bristol, Cheltenham Ladies College, feminist organisations like The Women’s Freedom League and the Jewish Free School of London.

Major Leonard Darwin,the son of Charles Darwin, was President of the 1912 Congress and the Vice Presidents included Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty; Reginald McKenna, Liberal Home Secretary; the Lord Chief Justice; the Presidents of Royal College of Physicians, the Royal Society, Harvard University, the Lord Mayor of London, the Bishop of Oxford, Andrew Graham Bell and the President of the German Society for Racial Hygiene.

The Congress had a strong international element with Consultation Committees and academics present from the U.S., Belgium, France Italy and Germany. An accompanying Exhibition was included: “Professor von Gruber has sent over from the International Race Hygiene Congress held in Dresden in 1911 a collection of exhibits representative of German work.” (Invitational Circular)

The Eugenics Education Society organised the 1912 Inaugural Congress and dedicated it to Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, who was the originator of the science of Eugenics and who had died the year before. Galton had pioneered Eugenics, partly to justify Anglo-Saxon world domination by popularising the idea of race hierarchy, with the Anglo-Saxons at the top and the “lesser races” beneath and needing reduction and strong ruling. The Eugenics Education Society was carrying on Galton’s work by introducing Eugenics into the national consciousness like a new religion.

The Eugenics Education Society was founded in Britain in 1907 to campaign for sterilisation and marriage restrictions for the weak, to prevent the degeneration of the British race. A year later, Sir James Crichton-Brown, who was prominent at the Congress, gave evidence before the 1908 Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded, and recommended the compulsory sterilisation of those with learning disabilities and mental conditions, describing them as “our social rubbish” which should be “swept up and garnered and utilised as far as possible”. He argued that, “We pay much attention to the breeding of our horses, our cattle, our dogs and poultry, even our flowers and vegetables; surely it’s not too much to ask that a little care be bestowed upon the breeding and rearing of our race”. In a memo to Prime Minister Asquith in 1910, Winston Churchill cautioned, “The multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger to the race”.

Over four hundred people from all over the world attended the Eugenics Conference. The Master of Ceremonies for the Inaugural Banquet at the Hotel Cecil was Major Leonard Darwin, who introduced the notables and international speakers from science, medicine and academia. The main thrust of the Eugenics Congress was that race improvement must be instituted as an imperative because the feeble-minded were outbreeding the educated, the non-Aryan was outbreeding the Nordic Aryan, and the Negro was outbreeding the white race. Darwin’s opening speech made it clear that Natural Selection is not Eugenics because fortunately or  unfortunately modern society was caring for the poor, enabling them to breed in abundance and live. In the past disease, poverty etc. would have controlled their breeding in a natural way and decimated the surplus (as it did in Ireland). But Social Imperialism had interfered with this process, for good or ill in Britain, and the well off couldn’t breed as much to counteract it. The point of Eugenics was to reverse this demographic disaster by preventing the breeding of the poor, non-Aryan and black races. Otherwise there would be race suicide.

Major Darwin’s Presidential Address contained the following explanation of what the Eugenics movement sought to accomplish and why it differed from support for pure Natural Selection:

“There is… certainly one agency which has had a great influence in the past and of which much is now known, and that is natural selection, or Nature playing the part of the breeder of cattle in refusing to breed from inferior stocks. This progressive agency, by continually weeding out the unfit, has always tended to make living beings more and more able to seize the opportunities offered to them by their environments. And it seems as if this forward movement had gone on during all the long ages since life first appeared on earth until recent times, when by our social methods we have been doing our best to prevent further progress being made by this same means. The unfit amongst men are now no longer necessarily killed off by hunger and disease, but are cherished with care, thus being enabled to reproduce their kind, however bad that kind may be. It is true that we cannot but glory in this saving of suffering; for the spirit which leads to the protection of the weak and afflicted is of all things that which is the best worth preserving on earth; and we can therefore never voluntarily go back to the crude methods of natural selection. But we must not blind ourselves to the danger of interfering with Nature’s ways, and we must proclaim aloud that to give ourselves the satisfaction of succouring our neighbours in distress without at the same time considering the effects likely to be produced by our charity on future generations is, to say the least, but weakness and folly…

“We must have a bridge to unite the domain of science with the domain of human action, and such a bridge forms an essential part of the structure of Eugenics. Both national societies and international co-operation are needed for the purpose of spreading the light, and the efforts already made in these directions will, it is hoped, be furthered by the holding of this Congress.

“We may thus conclude that though for the moment the most crying need as regards heredity is for more knowledge, yet we must look forward to a time when the difficulties to be encountered will be moral rather than intellectual; and against moral reform the demons of ignorance, prejudice and fear are certain to raise their heads. But the end we have in view, an improvement in the racial qualities of future generations, is noble enough to give us courage for the fight. Our first effort must be to establish such a moral code as will ensure that the welfare of the unborn shall be held in view in connection with all questions concerning both the marriage of the individual and the organisation of the state. As an agency making for progress conscious selection must replace the blind forces of natural selection; and men must utilise all the knowledge acquired by studying the process of evolution in the past in order to promote moral and physical progress in the future. The nation which first takes this great work thoroughly in hand will surely not only win in all matters of international competition, but will be given a place of honour in the history of the world. And the more nations there are who set out on this path, the more chance there is that some one of them will run this course to the end. The struggle may be long and the disappointments may be many, but we have seen how the long fight against ignorance ended with the triumphant acceptance of the principle of evolution in the nineteenth century. Eugenics is but the practical application of that principle, and may we not hope that the twentieth century will, in like manner, be known in future as the century when the Eugenic ideal was accepted as part of the creed of civilisation? It is with the object of ensuring the realisation of this hope that this Congress is assembled here to-day.”

Former Prime Minister, Arthur James Balfour, chaired the Conference. Balfour’s Address to the Eugenicists was printed in full in The Times of 25 July 1912:

“This International Congress, the first, or one of the first, which has ever been held upon the subject, has in my conception of it two great tasks allotted to it. It has got to convince the public, in the first place, that the study of eugenics is one of the greatest and most pressing necessities of our age. That is the first task. It has got to awake public interest, to make the ordinary man think of the problems which are exercising the scientific mind at the present moment. It has also got to persuade him that the task which science has set itself in dealing with the eugenic problem is one of the most difficult and complex which it has ever undertaken. And no man can do really good service in this great cause unless he not merely believes in its transcendent importance, but also in its special and extraordinary difficulty. I am one of those who base their belief in the future progress of mankind, in most departments, upon the application of scientific method to practical life. And, believe me, we are only at the beginning of that movement; we are only at the beginning of this marriage between science and practice. Science is old — even modern science is old, relatively old — but the application of science to practice is comparatively new. I hope and I believe that among these new applications of science to practice it will be seen in the future that not the least important is that application which it is the business of this international congress to further.

We have to admit that those who have given most thought to the problems which are included under the word eugenics, those who have given most thought to the way in which the hereditary qualities of the race are transmitted, are those who at this moment take the darkest view of the general effect of the complex causes which are now in operation.

I hope their pessimism is excessive; but it is undoubtedly and unquestionably founded not upon sentiment, but upon the hard consideration of hard fact. And those who refuse to listen to their prophecies are bound to answer their reasoning, for the reasoning is not beyond what it is in the power of every man to weigh. It depends upon facts which it ought not to be difficult to verify; it depends upon premises whose conclusions follow almost inevitably. And those who roughly and rather contemptuously put aside all these prophecies of ill to the civilisation of the future are bound, in my opinion, to give the closest scrutiny to all these arguments before they reject them, and to say where and how, and in what particulars, they fail to support the conclusions drawn from them. Though certain broad conclusions may seem obvious, the subject itself is one of profound difficulty. I would go further, and venture to say that probably there is more difference of opinion at this moment among many scientific men with regard to certain fundamental principles lying at the root of heredity than there was, for example, in the seventies or eighties of the last century after the great Darwin’s doctrines were generally accepted — as indeed they are, in their outline, part of the universal heritage of the race — but before all the more minute scientific investigations had taken place with regard to the actual method by which inherited qualities are handed on from generation to generation. Eugenics has got to deal with the fact of this disagreement, which is of scientific importance. It also suffers from another fact, which is of social and political importance — namely, that every faddist seizes hold of the eugenic problem as a machinery for furthering his own particular method of bringing the millennium upon earth.

“But further, I am not sure that those who write and talk on this subject do not occasionally use language which is incorrect in itself, and which is apt to produce a certain prejudice upon the impartial public. I read, for instance, as almost an ordinary commonplace of eugenic literature, that we are suffering at this moment from the fact that the law of natural selection is, if not in abeyance, producing less effect than it did when selection was  more stringent, and that what we have got to do is, as it were, to go back to the good old day of natural selection. I do not believe that to be scientifically sound. I say nothing about its other aspects. The truth is that we are very apt to use the word ‘fit’ in two quite different senses. We say that the ‘ fit ‘ survive. But all that that means is that those who survive are fit: they are fit because they survive, and they survive because they are fit. It really adds nothing to our knowledge of the facts. All it shows is that here is a class, or a race, or a species, which does survive and is adapted to its surroundings, and that is the only definition, from a strictly biological point of view, of what ‘ fit ‘ means. But it is not all the eugenist means.

“He does not mean that mere survival indicates fitness: he means something more than that. He has got ideals of what a man ought to be, of what the State ought to be, and of what society ought to be, and he means that those ideals are not being carried out because we have not yet grasped the true way of dealing with the problems involved. If you are to use language strictly, you ought never to attribute to nature any intentions whatever.

“You ought to say ‘ Certain things happen ‘. Everything else is metaphor, and sometimes it is misleading metaphor. For instance, those who are interested in this subject will read constantly that in certain cases the biologically fit are diminishing in number through the diminution of their birth-rate, and that the biologically unfit are increasing in number because their birth-rate is high. But according to the true doctrine of natural selection, as I conceive it, that is all wrong. The professional classes, we are told, have families so small that it is impossible for them to keep up their numbers. They are biologically unfit for that very reason. Fitness means, and can only mean from the naturalistic point of view, that you are in harmony with your surroundings, and if your numbers diminish you are not in harmony with your surroundings, for there is not that adaptation which fitness in the naturalistic sense implies. In the same way, I am told that the number of feeble-minded is greatly increasing. That can only mean, from a naturalistic point of view, that the feeble-minded are getting more adapted to their surroundings (laughter). I really am not making either a verbal quibble or an ill-timed joke. It is all-important to remember, in my opinion, that we are not going to imitate; and we do not desire to imitate natural selection, which no doubt produces wonderful things, wonderful organisms, in the way of men, but has also produced very abominable things by precisely the same process. The whole point of eugenics is that we reject the standard of mere numbers. We do not say survival is everything. We deliberately say that it is not everything; that a feeble-minded man, even though he survive, is not so good as the good professional man, even though that professional man is only one of a class that does not keep up its numbers by an adequate birth-rate.

“The truth is that we ought to have the courage of our opinions, and we must regard man as he is now, from this point of view — from the point of view of genetics — as a wild animal. There may be, and there are, certain qualifications to that. I suppose there are both among barbarous and among civilised tribes marriage customs and marriage laws which have their root, I do not know whether in formulated laws of eugenics, but which at all events harmonise with what we now realise are sound laws of eugenics. Still, broadly speaking, man is a wild animal; and we have to admit that if we carry out to its logical conclusion the sort of scientific work which is being done by congresses of this sort, man must become a domesticated animal. I am aware that that is a sort of phrase which is liable to misinterpretation, but it is absolutely correct. The eugenist thinks, and must think, that he ought deliberately to consider the health, the character, and the qualities of the succeeding generations. That is characteristic of domestication; that is totally absent from animals in the wild state. And what we have to do is ultimately — not we of this generation or the next generation, or for a limited number of years, but ultimately, we shall have to look at this question from an incomparably more difficult, but also more important, aspect of the very kind of questions which we have to consider when we are dealing with the race of domestic animals upon which so much of our happiness, and even our existence, actually depends. But to say that — I hope it does not seem too paradoxical or too extreme to those to whom I am speaking — shows how enormously difficult is the problem with which we have to contend.

“It is not a problem of the individual, but of society. I sometimes see it stated that, after all, society is the sum of the individuals who compose it. In one sense that is true — the whole is always the sum of its parts; but in that sense it is quite an unmeaning and useless proposition. In the only sense in which it means anything it is not true; and, whether we shall ever know exactly how a complex society should be composed and how we ought to lead up to its proper composition — whether we shall ever get that degree of knowledge, I know not: but the idea that you can get a society of the most perfect kind by merely considering certain questions about the strain and ancestry, and the health, and the physical vigour of the various components of that society — that I believe is a most shallow view of a most difficult question.”

The proceedings of the conference are detailed in Abstracts of Papers read at the First Eugenics Congress, University of London, July 1912 and Problems in Eugenics: Papers communicated to the First International Eugenics Congress, University of London, July 4th to 30th, 1912, Volumes I and II. I will deal with the papers in another article.


    • has two publications from the conference. Many of the sponsors and attendees are given. There is a search engine that will locate the Eugenics Congress pamphlets.


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