The Eugenics Movement in Australasia IV: a Progressive Crusade?

Political History, Racial politics, Regional History, Social History, Society & Culture, Sports history

The period in the first part of the 20th century when advocates of eugenics solutions ran rampant, “playing God” with the lives of society’s powerless unfortunates, was an abomination on many levels. Deeply flawed by racial and class biases, self-righteous eugenicists categorised a typology of ‘lesser’ humans. They then arbitrarily assigned certain of their country’s citizens to this ‘underclass’ of ‘unworthies’, trampling all over their human rights and liberties in the name of an allegedly ‘scientifically’ determined inferiority. The inequity of individuals being singled out for ‘special’ treatment based on perceived racial stereotypes, mental or physical capacity or because of ‘inherited'(sic) criminality, and the denial of their basic human rights, cannot be overstated, nor can the devastating consequences for its victims (segregation, removal from birth family, sterilisation, even liquidation in extreme cases).

The harm and wrong-headedness of eugenics ideology with its ‘scattergun’ approach lies fully exposed to scrutiny today, and is viewed with the opprobrium it deserves. The eugenicists in all countries practicing eugenics were offering nothing less than a recipe for racial cleansing. Notwithstanding the ‘bad'(sic) eugenic applications of that era, it is important to note that the phenomenon paradoxically did lead to changes in Australian and New Zealand health practices that were significant, progressive and far-reaching to society. As cogently argued by Diana Wyndham, putting aside eugenics’ alarming consequences for a moment, the movement in Australia also involved a genuine attempt to “increase national efficiency and vitality through enlightened state intervention programs” in areas such as “sanitation (eg, cleaning up or eradicating slums) town planning and quarantine” … and of course in health[1]. The Queenslander in 1914 praised its state health authorities for pursuing what it called “practical eugenics”, vital pre-natal and after-birth care for the infant, a pre-condition for a “strong and healthy race”[2].

Eugenics as preventative care
Those who enthusiastically took up the banner of eugenics in the early 20th century were in the main well-meaning if ill-conceived in their reasoning. The scientist-eugenicists genuinely saw themselves as engaging in science for the benefit of “social efficiency”, and what they were doing, targeting the “unfit and feeble-minded”, was in accordance with Benthamite principles of the greater good of society. They believed that breeding a higher calibre of person was ‘proof’ of rational, social progress and civilisation … eugenics was just such a simplistically enticing blueprint for society’s ills and problems, eliciting the support of social reformers as well as leading international intellectuals including J Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell☼, T S Eliot, W B Yeats, Virginia Woolf, D H Lawrence and the Fabian socialists H G Wells, G B Shaw and the Webbs, as well as businessmen and politicians, eg, Alexander Graham Bell, the Rockefellers, Teddy Roosevelt (see PostScript) and Winston Churchill[3].

The medical practitioners who sought to introduce eugenic programs (such as Dr. John Cumpston, first director-general of the Australian Commonwealth Department of Health) believed that by stopping the ‘unfit’ from breeding they were in fact practicing preventative medicine (or that’s at least how they rationalised it)[4]. Eugenics in Australasia was the domain of scientific experimenters and social reformers as well as the governors[5], and touched areas which include child welfare, birth control, sex education, moral purity, temperance advocacy and urban planning.

1930s Australian poster warning against VD
1930s Australian poster warning against VD
National fitness and advances in health care
Emphasising one of the eugenics movement’s objectives as national fitness, Wyndham identifies a number of positive spin-offs of in Australia – it put the focus on maternal care and on the care of the child❈; it played a part in the fight against both VD and TB; in the provision of sex education and birth control; it stimulated the study of genetics (before 1938 not part of the university training of Australian doctors). Eugenics influenced the advancement of Australian health services, especially in family planning and public health (introduction of baby health centres, child endowment schemes, a national health bureaucracy, etc.)[6]. New Zealand eugenicist and health reformer Dr Truby King established the Plunket Society (pioneering early childhood health and development service) as well as introducing innovative child-rearing techniques.

Embracing physical culture in Australia
Stephen Garton has noted other positive developments that grew out of the eugenics movement, most prominently a push for citizens to engage in more outdoors, healthy activities. As an antidote to the confining and often unhealthy milieú of urban life, eugenics encouraged people to take to the outdoors and to partake in physical exercise. Bush-walking and hiking clubs were formed, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides associations were encouraged and Police Citizens Boys Clubs sprang up. The establishment of gymnasiums and fitness centres (especially in NSW and Tasmania by the Bjelke-Petersen brothers) extended the emphasis on physical culture, allegedly important to maintain eugenic health[7]. An emphasis on physical culture as the method of attaining good genes also flourished in New Zealand, largely inspired by one German eugenicist.

Sandow the Strongman's 'System'
Sandow the Strongman’s ‘System’
Environmental eugenics and physical culture in New Zealand
Eugenics is commonly described as “the belief in the power of nature over that of nurture”, reducing it to a question of a person’s character being shaped by heredity[8], this is the eugenics orthodoxy. But environmental eugenicists like Eugen Sandow sought to improve the human condition by improving the external factors of one’s environment✤. Sandow, a Prussian-born strongman based in London from the turn of the 20th century, was a eugenicist who believed that the flagging racial stock of the white race could be improved by nurture, which would overcome any natural flaws in a person[9]. He pioneered the art of body-building, developing his own training regime involving repetition and barbells (which he called the “Sandow System”) which he sold to the public by mail order. Sandow toured the world giving “artistic performances” in music halls, including an extended stint in Australasia in 1902-1903. Sandow was principally responsible for popularising the physical culture movement and giving it a kick-start in New Zealand. After his successful tour of NZ Sandow-inspired gymnasiums and physical culture institutes sprang up all over the country[10].

NZ physical welfare instructors early 1940s
NZ physical welfare instructors early 1940s
As elsewhere in the advanced western nations, New Zealanders were plagued by the notion of their supposed physical inadequacies (especially after the Anglo-Boer War in 1899-1902). The disclosure that half of the young NZ men seeking to serve in the British navy were rejected as medically unfit reinforced the view that New Zealanders had poor physiques. Physical culture was presented as a panacea, a remedy to ward off the possibility of physical and mental infirmity. As Caroline Daley has shown, the potentiality of Sandow’s exercise program led to shifts in the way New Zealanders viewed their bodies. Men, with the correct dedicated training, could achieve the “He-man” physique of Sandow. The Sandow technique also pitched its message to middle class NZ women, in line with the eugenic goal of increased procreation by the elite, mothers-to-be could be trained to develop the right muscles for childbirth. After the passage of the Physical Welfare and Recreation Act in 1937 physical culture became “a state sanctioned leisure activity” in New Zealand. The Act was a boost to sport for adults, and with the outbreak of WWII the government promoted the idea that New Zealanders had “a duty to be fit”, it was now patriotic. From its initial eugenic wellspring physical fitness and culture had become firmly entrenched in the mainstream of NZ life[11].

The physical underdevelopment of the nation’s young was much in the mind of New Zealand eugenicists in the early 20th century. In this milieú school physician Elizabeth Gunn pioneered the health camp movement for school age children. An avowed eugenicist, Gunn was instrumental in getting schoolchildren out of indoors, either into active camp life or into classes conducted in the open air [12].

PostScript: Racial fitness in America
imageAgain, like the British eugenicists’ pronouncements, new ideas from America fell on receptive ears in Australasia. The centre of the American eugenics movement revolved around biologist Charles Davenport and his Eugenics Records Office whose activities reached eugenicists worldwide. Davenport and his ERO eugenicist associate Harry Laughlin were both chicken breeders illustrate the link of agriculture to eugenics[13]. Race reinvigoration in the US was championed from the very highest quarters. At the turn of the century soon-to-be president, Teddy Roosevelt, appealed to his country’s citizens to take up “the strenuous life” (his message was aimed primarily at native-born Americans of good Anglo-Saxon stock). And Americans did heed his words: many took up sports for the first time, American (college) football became popular as the ultimate physical test of manhood, competitive athletics and cycling were taken up in the quest to demonstrate masculine physical strength and endurance. Roosevelt’s urgings led to the popularity of hiking, hunting and mountain climbing among Americans. Behind all of these feats of physical exertion lurked the same self-doubts of the dominant white race as elsewhere. The depression of the 1890s and the enervating affects of industrial society accentuated these anxieties. The US was experiencing a shift in immigration patterns at this time which had started to favour especially Southern and Central Europe over immigrants from Britain and Northern Europe⚀. The more affluent, native-born Americans predictably called for a halt to immigration[14] with the purpose of stopping the ‘poorer’ stock of immigrants coming into America (Italians, Jews, Slavs, etc). The pattern of restricting particular ethnic groupings was duplicated concurrently in other western countries (eg, the WAP in Australia).

☼ Nietzsche was another leading philosopher who earlier embraced the theory of eugenics as a panacea
❈ in New Zealand as well, “national efficiency” was high on the agenda … degeneracy anxieties (c.1920 NZ had the world’s 2nd highest mortality rate for mothers, much worse than its (Pākehā) infant mortality rate) prompted a safe maternity campaign in NZ. Eugenic concerns led the state to intervene in maternity services (P Mein Smith, A Concise History of New Zealand)
⚀ immigration from the British Isles, Ireland, Scandinavia and Germany fell dramatically from 1900, replaced by immigration surges from Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia and the Baltics
✤ Known as the science of euthenics (AKA “the science of controllable environment” (Ellen H Richards) – cf. eugenics “the science of controllable heredity”)

[1] D H Wyndham, ‘Striving for National Fitness: Eugenics in Australia 1910s to 1930s’ (Unpub. PhD, Dept of History, University of Sydney, July 1996),
[2] The Queenslander (Bris,), 11-Apr-1914, quoted in E Wilson, ‘Eugenic ideology and racial fitness in Queensland, 1900-1950’, (Unpub. PhD, Dept. of History, University of Queensland)
[3] in a memo to the prime minister in 1910 Churchill said: “The multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger to the race”, V Brignell, ‘The eugenic movement Britain wants to forget’, New Statesmen, 9-Dec-2010,
[4] Wyndham, op.cit
[5] as well as that of socialists, feminists and other radicals, S Garton, ‘Eugenics in Australia and New Zealand: laboratories of racial science’, in A Bashford & P Levine [Eds.], The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics
[6] Wyndham, op.cit
[7] Garton op.cit.; the physical culture school founder, Lt-Col. H C Bjelke-Petersen, exploited the anxieties around eugenics at the time to promote the B-J brothers’ physical fitness schools, E J Wilson, ‘Eugenic ideology and racial fitness in Queensland, 1900-1950’, (Unpub. PhD, Department of History, University of Queensland, May 2003),
[8] C Daley, Leisure and Pleasure: Reshaping and Revealing the New Zealand Body, 1900-1960
[9] the emerging physical culture movement dovetailed neatly into eugenics thinking at the time. Latching on to the prevailing perception that the “racial stock” of white settler societies such as Australia and New Zealand had become “soft and weak”, the tangible positive benefits of an active exercise plan (as illustrated by Sandow) presented itself as the obvious counter to this growing ‘feebleness’ on a national level. The popularisation of the Japanese self-defence skills, judo and ju-jutsu, for women in Australasia early in the 20th century also grew out of the ‘race’ anxieties (athlete and entertainer Florence LeMar toured Australasia with a ju-jutsu vaudeville act in the 1910s), C Macdonald, Strong, Beautiful and Modern: National Fitness in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, 1935-1960
[10] Sandow inspired a generation of home-grown NZ bodybuilders who opened gyms, such as Fred Hornibrook and Dick Jarrett, Daley, op.cit.
[11] ibid.
[12] M Tennant, ‘Gunn, Elizabeth Catherine’, TEARA – The Encylopedia of New Zealand, (Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Volume 3 1996),
[13] S A Farber, ‘U.S. Scientists’ Role in the Eugenics Movement (1907-39): A Contemporary Biologist’s Perspective’, Zebrafish, 2008: December; 5(4),
[14] J Murrin, P Johnson, J McPherson, A Fahs, G Gerstle, Liberty, Equality, Power: Volume II: Since 1863 (Enhanced Concise Edition)

The Eugenics Movement in Australasia III: Sacrificing ‘Coloured’ Pawns to the Altar of a White ‘Racial Fantasy’

National politics, Racial politics, Regional History, Social History, Society & Culture

Probably the most iniquitous part of the eugenics movements’ social engineering, certainly in Australia, was the policies and practices of state governments towards their indigenous populations in the first half of the 20th century. The measures against aboriginals and Māori are the most manifest examples of the premise, the assumption, on which eugenics sits, that “some human life is of more value than other human life”[1].

The systematic discrimination and abuses of native Australians was conducted in the main by paternalistic, middle class white men who believed, or convinced themselves that they believed, they were doing the right thing, the humane thing, for the black people of the continent who were thought to be “irreconcilably backward”.

The perception of the “aboriginal issue” in Australia was fed by the prevailing eugenics ideologies at the time, and the treatment of aborigines was typified by the approach adopted in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. All chief protectors of aborigines in Queensland during the years 1900-1942 advocated a policy of racial segregation❈. Whilst governments and administrators emphasised that this was a ‘protective’ measure for the ‘good’ of the aboriginals themselves, the self-serving eugenic motives of the power wielders was always very close to the surface of public policy.

Orphanage of removed children, WA c1930
Orphanage of removed children, WA c1930
The perimeters of white Australia’s assimilation policy for indigenous peoples was set in the 1937 Commonwealth and states conference which agreed on the policy objective of absorbing at least “the natives of Aboriginal origin but not the full blood”[2]. Australian political leaders and administrators generally followed an assimilation approach which had two planks to it – a mandatory biological assimilation (to ‘outbreed’ the blackness of aborigines), and a cultural assimilation aimed at “half-caste” aboriginals (removing them as children from their indigenous familial environment and nurturing them into the white ways of Australian society and ‘civilisation'[3].

Emily Wilson has shown the extent to which miscegenation and racial contamination was an overriding concern for decision-makers in Queensland✤. There was an inordinate and obsessive fear of “half-castes” whose numbers many thought were on the rise◈. Queensland eugenicists believed this imbalance’ threatened the supposed “inviolate purity” of the White Australian Policy. Marriages or unions between other coloured minorities, such as the Chinese, and aborigines was also frowned upon by the Queensland authorities. Governments went sometimes to extreme lengths to keep whites and blacks separate to spare whites from the dangers of supposed aboriginal degeneration. This meant moving indigenous people out of the cities and into rural reserves where they could be better controlled.

Apprehension of miscegenation played on white minds constantly … fears were voiced on the street and in parliament about that worst of all fates, the mixing of different racial blood, be it black-on-white or coloured-on-white. The political class in Australia, left, right, protectionist or free trader, were all on a unity ticket in the debates on the necessity of achieving a White Australia, eg, (John) Chris Watson, Labor Party leader of the house, vented against the mixing of the coloured and white peoples (resulting in) “the possibility and probability of racial contamination” [Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, 6-Sep-1901]; as did Issac Issacs, high court judge and future governor-general, warning of the need to avoid “the contamination and the degrading influence of inferior races”[Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, 12-Sep-1901].

With Aboriginal protectors like these …
Colonial attitudes of “white supremacy” of the protectors(sic) were at best transparently disguised under the thinnest of veneers … Cecil Cook, the Chief Protector of Aborigines for the Northern Territory, called for authorities to “breed out the colour” of aborigines – making a mockery of his job title![4] Cook also endorsed segregation of black Australians, favouring forcible institutionalisation of aboriginals … Cook argued this was integral to public health policy, describing it as “a prophylactic measure” for white health.[5]. Cook as chief medical officer of NT had a great fear that blacks would with the aid of health interventions come to outnumber the white population in NT. Accordingly his view on aboriginal women with gonorrhoea was to leave them untreated and leave them to die out, putting a hold on aboriginal numbers in the Territory[6].

“Smoothing the dying pillow”
The white majorities in both countries believed that the “full-blood” tribal aborigines and the Māori people were racially inferior and destined to die out[7], and that the country should be inhabited by “good white stock” who would be capable of defending the Empire. The European elite pursued assimilation policies towards its indigenous minorities, the plan was to ‘absorb’ and ‘uplift’ the “half-castes” in society. The indigenous population bore the brunt of policies of eugenics ideology enacted by the government. In Australia A O Neville, an avid proponent of eugenics and Chief Protector of Aborigines for Western Australia for 25 years from 1915, was responsible for the controversial policy of removing aboriginal children from their families (the “stolen generation”). Neville’s two-pronged approach to ‘controlling’ the indigenous population involved “biological absorption” – deciding just who aboriginals under his control could marry, and by ‘assimilating’ the offspring of those marriages into white society.

Neville, like Cook in the Northern Territory, was haunted by the prospect of aborigines eventually swamping Western Australia with their numbers … his master-plan for realising an “all-white” WA involved the diluting of the skin colour of aborigines – a deliberate but controlled (‘progressive’) miscegenation, so that each succeeding generation would have lighter skin. After two or three generations the result would be an appearance acceptable to the non-indigenous community, aboriginals would be “perceived as white” and the indigenous settlements could be closed … the process would eradicate all aboriginal characteristics from white society. Neville’s scheme was thwarted by the hostile opposition of racist white people in WA who refused to countenance the planned mixed marriages[8].

Māori village, early 20th century
Māori village, early 20th century
In New Zealand the race planners crafted a fail-safe policy to deal with the Māori ‘issue’ – assimilation was proposed for those Māoris who did not succumb to what polygenists thought would be their ultimate destiny, extinction. NZ’s Taranaki Herald of 1852 proclaimed almost triumphantly, “The Maori race is doomed wherever the Anglo-Saxon appears”. The perception of the Māori in NZ as transitory was underlined by the fact that in NZ ‘Official Yearbooks’ prior to 1940 the national population figure was given “exclusive of Māori”. Even after demographic trends had demonstrated that the Māori birth rate was again on the ascent (Māori population rose from 40,000 in 1896 to 50,000 in 1911), many white eugenicists clung on to this prejudicial and outdated notion of ultimate extinction of the race[9].

PostScript: Pākehā Pseudo-medicine, Craniology
The New Zealand eugenicists assumed that the Māori would be fully absorbed into the dominant and supposedly superior Pākehā culture[10]. The dominant Pākehā society accepted the untested conventional wisdom that the Māori had inferior mental capacity, and army surgeon Dr A S Thomson ‘proved’ this in reaching the conclusion after random testing that Maori heads were smaller than European heads![11]

❈ in the 1940s the Queensland absorption policy on aborigines gave way to one of assimilation
✤ the eugenics preoccupations of the governing class in Queensland were further exacerbated by climate conditions. The tropics of Northern Queensland were widely thought unsuitable for white men and women, whereas they were believed to suit the “different constitution” of aboriginal and other coloured peoples (eg, Kanaks) … thus raising another source of anxiety for whites already fearing that their potency was waning
◈ the white elite enunciated this concern whilst completely sidestepping the uncomfortable reality that it was white men who brought about any such increase in “half-castes” by raping and impregnating black women

[1] be the value of that preferred life to the state, the nation, the race, or to future generations, Levine and Bashford described this as the “evaluative logic” at eugenics’ core, A Bashford & P Levine, ‘Introduction’, in A Bashford & P Levine [Eds], The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics
[2] ‘No 3. Aboriginal Societies: The Experience of Contact. Changing Policies Towards Aboriginal People’, (Australian Law Reform Commission),
[3] What Stefan Haderer accurately if somewhat dramatically calls “the white supremacist biological and cultural assimilation project of the twentieth century”, S Haderer, ‘Biopower, whiteness and the Stolen Generations: The arbitrary power of racial classification’, Critical Race and Whiteness Studies, 9(2) 2013,
[4] E J Wilson, ‘Eugenic ideology and racial fitness in Queensland, 1900-1950’, Unpub. PhD thesis, (Department of History, University of Queensland, May 2003),
[5] Cook in 1930 government report, quoted in A Bashford, Imperial Hygiene: A Critical History of Colonialism, National and Public Health
[6] ibid.
[7] this myth lingered on far past its use-by-date, in Queensland still maintaining some currency as late as 1949, Wilson, ibid.. The white colonialists in both countries (Aust. & NZ) subscribed to the notion of “smoothing the dying pillow” (a term popularised by anthropologists Daisy Bates and A P Elkin). To the European mindset aborigines and Māori were assumed to be doomed races and the ‘best’ thing was to facilitate their demise, a miscegenation solution resulting in a hybrid race but one dominated by the “biologically superior” white stock, ‘Smoothing the Pillow of a Dying Race. A.A. Grace’, Maoriland : NZ Literature 1872-1914 (NZ Electronic Text Collection),
[8] ‘Bring them home – chapter 7’, Australian Humans Rights Commission,; G R Robertson, ‘Well-intentioned Genocide’,
[9] ‘Page 2 – Overview of Māori and Pākehā relations in the twentieth century’, New Zealand Race Relations, NZ;
C Leung, ‘Australia’, 24-Feb-2014, (Eugenics Archive Aust). Retrieved 8-Nov-2016 from, J Stenhouse, ‘The Darwinian Enlightenment and New Zealand Politics’, in R M MacLeod & P F Rehbock [Eds.], Darwin’s Laboratory: Evolutionary Theory and Natural History in the Pacific
[10] J Belich, ‘European ideas about Māori – the dying Māori and Social Darwinism’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (assessed 6-November-2016)
[11] Stenhouse, op.cit.

The Eugenics Movement in Australasia II: “Racial Fitness”, The ‘Melbourne School’ and the Racial Hygiene Association

National politics, Popular Culture, Racial politics, Social History

Melbourne: Hub of the Australian Eugenics Movement
Melbourne, and more precisely, the University of Melbourne, played a pivotal role in eugenics before WWI and especially during the interwar years. Melbourne University was in the forefront of the academic dissemination of eugenics ideology, its academics persuasive in their efforts to shape public policy on health❈. With professor of anatomy Richard Berry the principal advocate of the racial ‘purification’ cause on campus, the university spawned the Eugenics Education Society (EES). According to Ross Jones the EES “eugenicists operated primarily as a pressure group within the university, the education department and various government agencies and committees”[1]. Later the society morphed into the Eugenics Society of Victoria (1936). The obsessive skull-measurer Berry declared war on “rotten heredity”, calling for mandatory sterilisation and segregation of aborigines, the poor, homosexuals, prostitutes, criminals, alcoholics, the mentally ill, people with small heads and those with low IQs. Berry also advocated for a “lethal chamber” to euthanise “the grosser types of our mental defectives” as he described them (including Australian aborigines)[2].

Prof Berry
Prof Berry
Berry was the zealous “campaign director” for the dissemination of egregious ideas about race and the advocacy of eugenic interventions in Victoria, but he had plenty of other willing collaborators at Parkville (the university). Other Melbourne U professors up to their elbows in the eugenics movement included educationalist Frank Tate¤, biologist Baldwin Spencer and one-time vice-chancellor John Medley. Zoologist Wilfred Agar, like the others also honoured with an eponymous building at the university[3], was at one time “chief protector” of Aborigines(sic) in Darwin where he vilified aborigines and happily oversaw the removal of indigenous children from their families[4]. Another influential proponent of eugenics was Berry’s friend, the psychiatrist William Ernest Jones. Jones railed against “low-class Roman Catholic Irish” in whom he detected an “inherent lunacy”[5]

The campaign driven by the Victorian Eugenics Society resulted in mental deficiency legislation passing through Victorian parliament in 1939 but the eugenics policies were never implemented¤ ※ initially because of the onset of war (and later on after shocking revelations about the Holocaust came to light)[6]. Meanwhile, over the border in NSW, eugenicist doctor and minister for health Richard Arthur met similar difficulties with his 1930 mental defectives bill which failed to be passed. The so-called ‘reform’ eugenicists whilst still intent on denying sectors of the community some of the fundamental rights of citizenship (including the right to marry and to reproduce), also undertook interventions aimed at societal improvement (slum clearance, health reforms, educational reforms)[7]. Despite the wholesale discrediting of the eugenics movement from the 1940s the Eugenics Society of Victoria lingered on until 1961, having steered a course away from outright endorsement of eugenic measures.

Other pillars of Victorian society also firmly entrenched in the eugenics camp included newspaperman Sir Keith Murdoch (Rupert’s father), the CEO of the organisation that became CSIRO, Sir David Rivett, and the founder of ACER (Australian Council of Educational Research) Kenneth Cunningham. The involvement of many of the eminent has not received the scrutiny that Berry has … academic Ross Jones suggests a “conscious cover up” of prominent Melburnians took place post-war with the whole subject of eugenics becoming taboo[8] (there seems to be a pattern of excising the unsavoury activities of eugenicists from biographies to ensure reputation preservation for many implicated in the Australasian movements – see also PostScript).

Feminist-Eugenists and the Racial Hygienists
The progressive circles of Australasian society with an interest in eugenics included middle class women’s groups. Several prominent feminists, for the most part well-educated, were in the vanguard of the eugenics movement. Their agenda was focused very much on birth control for poorer, working class women. In Australia the NSW Racial Hygiene Association (RHA), founded by Lillie Goodisson, Marion Piddington (an early advocate of artificial insemination) and Ruby Rich in 1926, endorsed selective breeding to end hereditary disease and defects, and campaigned without success for the “mentally handicapped” to be segregated and sterilised. The Sydney-based RHA started the first birth control clinic in Australia in 1933✤. As the practice of eugenics became increasingly stigmatised the RHA shifted its focus to family planning with an organisational name-change in 1960 reflecting this change.

The RHA were instrumental in campaigning for pre-marital safeguards to ‘purify’ the White stock … hygiene clinics, mental and physical tests and the issuing of certificates of approval to engaged couples who tick all the right boxes for ‘purity’. In a similar vein south of the Murray the Eugenics Society of Victoria were demanding compulsory pre-nuptials health checks for couples as late as 1947[9]. The New Zealand bureaucracy had matrimonial ‘purity’ checks as well … those couples who obtained an official Eugenic Certificate received a piece of paper affirming that they had been adjudged to possess “a perfect physical and mental balance and unusually strong Eugenic Love possibilities (necessary for) “the future welfare of the race”.

New Zealand women for “race improvement”: organised volunteers and ‘femocrats’
Across the Tasman various NZ elite women’s groups were active in combating what they saw as the degeneracy of society. As noted by Angela Wanhalla, “New Zealand women’s organisations were among the most vocal supporters of eugenic attempts at race betterment”[9]. These middle-class dominated groups included the National Council of Women, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Farmers’ Union (Women’s Division)[10]. As well as the volunteer organisations! many ‘femocrats’ in the professions and government bureaucracies added their voices to the chorus advocating eugenics as the way forward to a better New Zealand[11].

‘Grass roots’ racial fitness in NZ
New Zealand’s quest for ongoing, nationwide improvements in the eugenic fabric of the country included the periodical measurement of Pākehā schoolchildren. In 1927 bureaucrats delighted to announce that New Zealand children were taller and heavier than their English counterparts (and than Australian as well!)◘. These findings reinforced the belief that New Zealand was the ideal nursery for British stock. Agricultural-based New Zealand missed no opportunity to promote itself as “Britain’s farm”, the exporter of primary products to the ‘Mother’ country[12].


PostScript: No retrospective … the past practice that dare not speak its name
Devotees of conspiracy theories would revel in the apparent hush up subsequently of the involvement of many prominent Australasians in eugenics. A cursory thumb-through of ADB and DNZB✡ biographies of Australasian public figures (especially medical practitioners, scientists and educationalists), largely written before the 1990s, is very revealing. In the mini-bios of figures who were significant and even integral in some cases to the eugenics movements in Australia and New Zealand, eg, Richard Berry, Frank Tate, Kenneth Cunningham, Raphael Cilento, Harvey Sutton, Elizabeth Gunn, Truby King and Duncan MacGregor, eugenics doesn’t rate a mention – any reference to their key historic roles in eugenic causes have been discreetly omitted (or if mentioned at all their eugenics careers have been swiftly glossed over). By the 1950s most eugenicists still practicing in Australia and New Zealand had, as elsewhere, sought to distance themselves from the negative connotations of the eugenics title by adopting new designations such as “human geneticist”, ‘sociologist’ or ‘demographer'[13].


❈ the University of Melbourne’s counterpart in the US was the University of Virginia, a stronghold of the belief and practice where a “eugenics mania” existed (see also ‘The Eugenics Movement in Australasia IV’)
¤ one of Tate’s pet projects as director of education was aimed at excluding working class kids from secondary and tertiary education, in sharp contrast to his NSW counterpart Peter Board’s equality of opportunity approach
※ compare with the success of eugenics legislation in the US – in the 1920s and ’30s sterilisation laws were passed in 24 of the (then) 48 states
✤ the RHA and other elite other women’s groups were undoubtedly inspired and enlightened by the international trail-blazers in the birth control field … British palaeobotanist Marie Stopes and American nurse and sex educator Margaret Sanger, both strongly committed eugenics ideologists
◘ measurement to determine physical fitness became a pastime of state officials on both sides of the Tasman. In Australia, welfare worker Dr Mary Booth was a consistent advocate for even more anthropometry, as was eugenicist Dr Harvey Sutton. Many of the anthropometrically-inclined like fitness expert H C Bjelke-Petersen were perturbed to discover that the chest-girth of the typical white schoolboy in Australia was “distressingly small”, W Anderson, The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health and Racial Destiny. All of the eugenic emphasis on measurement did have a utilitarian purpose in encouraging statistics-gathering by the state
Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University; Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, NZ Ministry for Culture & Heritage)

[1] R L Jones, ‘Eugenics in Australia: The Secret of Melbourne’s Elite’, The Conversation, 21-Sep-2011,
[2] Australasian politicians were pretty much in synch with the eugenicist-scientists, certainly in regard to craniometry – in 1911 Australian PM Andrew Fisher urged the state premiers to regularly measure the heads of state schoolchildren, Walker, op.cit. Craniology – examining the human skull to ascertain supposed racial differentiation, harks back to the earlier (19th century) pseudo-science of phrenology which purported to divine(sic) character and mental capacity by also examining the skull; E Cervini, ‘A theory out of darkness’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13-Sep-2011,
[3] community disquiet about the retention of eugenicist nomenclature at Melbourne University is a topic that is gaining heat, E Cervini, ‘Its time Melbourne Uni stopping honouring eugenicist Richard Berry’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 6-March-2016. The focus remains on the unapologetic Berry who never recanted his eugenicist beliefs and maintained a collection of aboriginal ancestral remains in the Anatomy building on campus
[4] M Dobbin, ‘Heart of darkness: Melbourne University’s racist professors’, The Age (Melbourne), 30-Nov-2015,
[5] S G Foster, ‘Jones, William Ernest (1867–1957)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 19 November 2016
[6] Jones, ‘Secret of Melbourne’s elite’, op.cit.
[7] R L Jones, ‘The master potter and the rejected pots: Eugenic legislation in Victoria, 1918-1939’, Australian Historical Studies, 1999; 30(113)
[8] A C Wanhalla, ‘Gender, Race and Colonial Identity: Women and Eugenics in New Zealand, 1918-1939’, Unpub. Thesis for MA in History, (University of Canterbury, NZ, 2001)
[9] Cervini, ‘Theory out of darkness’, op.cit.
[9] Wanhalla, op.cit.
[10] A Bashford, Imperial Hygiene: A Critical History of Colonialism, National and Public Health
[11] A Rees, ‘The Quality and not only the Quantity of Australia’s People. Ruby Rich and the Racial Hygiene Association of NSW’, Australian Feminist Studies, Vol 27 2012 – Issue 71,, pub. online: 07-Mar-2012; ‘The Racial Hygiene Association of New South Wales’, (Wikipedia),; A C Wanhalla, ‘Gender, race and colonial identity : women and eugenics in New Zealand, 1918-1939’, (CORE, University of Canterbury 2001),
[12] P Mein Smith, A Concise History of New Zealand
[13] D H Wyndham, ‘Striving for National Fitness: Eugenics in Australia 1910s to 1930s’, (Unpub. PhD thesis, Department of History, University of Sydney, July 1996)

The Eugenics Movement in Australasia I: Preserving the White Elite from Dysgenic Degeneracy

National politics, Popular Culture, Racial politics, Social History

The belief in eugenics, the science (or as modern eyes would see it – the pseudoscience) of “improving the quality of the human race, especially by selective breeding”❈, had a powerful hold on societal thinking in Australia and New Zealand in the first half of the twentieth century, as it did elsewhere in the world, predominantly in western countries or western-implant societies.

Sir F Galton
Sir F Galton
The term “eugenics” itself was coined in the latter 19th century by English polymath and statistician Francis Galton, whose views had been informed by the theories on “the preservation of favoured races” (Origins of the Species) of his second cousin Charles Darwin (coincidentally Darwin’s son, Leonard, was a leading eugenicist in Britain). Galton linked heredity to Social Darwinism. Sometimes called “race science” or more euphemistically “racial hygiene”, eugenics ideology in its day had a duality to its basis. On the one hand it assumed the natural superiority of the white race (because of its ‘good’ genes), on the other, that same ‘superior’ stock was being assailed by a countervailing threat of physical, psychological and moral degeneration of the race coming from those elements of society labelled as ‘inferior’ (the dysgenic or cacogenic sections of society).

A cycle of low fertility rates in the West commencing in the late 19th century together with rising levels of crime and the emergence of welfare state dependency provoked concerns of moral and physical degeneracy of the white race[1]. In Australia this concern prompted a Royal Commission into the Decline of the Birth Rate in NSW in 1904. The widespread perception in Western countries was that the decline was hitting the “good stock” hardest, as a consequence ‘inferior’ people of “low racial stock” were out-breeding the ‘superior’ stock of the country❇.

White societies like Britain and the Dominions were viewed as becoming ‘soft’ and ‘weak’ and the foundations being laid for the welfare state in the UK were attacked as contributing to this ‘decay’ – the survival and multiplication of the poor, the deranged and other “social undesirables” was a financial burden on the state, driving up the welfare costs. Even the man who later provided the blueprint for the British welfare state post-WWII, pursued a strong eugenics agenda. William Beveridge in 1909 called for the ‘defectives’ within society to be denied their “citizen rights” – “the franchise … civil freedom and fatherhood”[2].

Britain, the US, New Zealand, Australia and other countries were informed by ‘scientific’ notions of eugenics and sought to implement policies and practices which remedied this trendஐ. This was a two-fold process, the first involving so-called positive eugenics – elevating or ‘purifying’ the racial stock by encouraging the so-called ‘fit’ people in society to procreate more (in New Zealand the act of providing literature on contraceptives was proscribed in the 1900s). Simultaneously the states sought to deal with negative eugenics (or more precisely dysgenics¤), identifying those members of society thought to be ‘unfit’ for procreation (people of unsound mind, of physical deformity, the intellectually handicapped, the epileptic, the criminal classes including prostitutes, slum dwellers, homosexuals, dipsomaniacs, the indigenous non-white population and other marginalised sections) and either segregating them, preventing them from marrying or having them sterilised to stop their sexual reproduction[3].

The E tree
The E tree
Some of the contemporary popular fiction produced in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, etc. played on the anxieties of a “race war” which put the supremacy of the white European in peril. Influential writers such as Charles H Pearson in Australia, helped to shape these perceptions with books like National Life and Character: a Forecast which argued that it was the “racially defiled” non-white races with their higher birth-rates, not the white race with its relentless imperial juggernaut, that was on the ascendency[4].

What sectors and groups of society were in the Vanguard of the Eugenics Movements in Australasia?
The eugenicists and fellow travellers of the eugenics movement were drawn from the elite circles of Australian and New Zealand society§ – including politicians, scientists, medical practitioners, educators, academics, social workers, women’s groups, churches and clergymen (excluding the Catholic Church). Other professionals such as psychiatrists, anthropologists and magistrates aided and abetted the work of the movement. Eugenics was not a left /right thing, support for it came from across the political spectrum – from socialists and conservatives both.

Opponents of Eugenics in Australasia
Although eugenic thought was accepted as the normative approach to tackling social problems in the interwar period, it was not universally countenanced by all sectors of Australian and New Zealand society. Opposition to eugenics came from organised working class elements, ie, the trade unions, as well as from the Catholic Church, from moral campaigners (concerned that sterilisation might lead to increased promiscuity), from some medical practitioners (also concerned that the poorly educated sterilised would be sexually indiscriminate and spread VD[5], plus wary of the legal ramifications of sterilising citizens), and from public intellectuals and scientific dissenters.

The eugenics movement in Aeotearoa
New Zealand in the first 40 years of the 20th century presents a similar story to its large trans-Tasman neighbour. The New Zealand Eugenics Education Society, founded in 1910, led the call for eugenic measures necessary it claimed to manage the population and ensure a healthy country. Grass roots pressure prompted a government investigation in 1924 which concluded that there was a birth-rate disparity distorting the population’s genetic balance – “the ‘fit’ were being swamped by the ‘unfit'”. It informed a view that NZ was in racial decline as a consequence of growing numbers of the feeble-minded and social defectives which eugenicists argued posed a social menace[6].

Chief Justice Sir Robert Stout was one of the leading figures in NZ eugenics in the first half of the century. Stout in a discursive and often anecdotal lecture to the Wellington Eugenics Society in 1912 espoused the standard eugenicist position. Stout linked heredity to fatal diseases, condemned high levels of alcohol consumption and cigarette-smoking, and warned that “the peerage” was committing “race suicide”, “the best blood” was being “enervated” and supplanted by the “second best”, “the extinction of the race was being seen everywhere”, etc[7]. Chief Justice Stout’s race views carried even more weight because he had previously been premier of NZ in the late 19th century. William Chapple was another leading NZ eugenicist who was influential in the NZ movement through his dual roles as medical practitioner and Liberal Party politician. His book Fertility of the Unfit advocated enforced sterilisation in certain circumstances.

In touch with the latest currents in eugenics thinking in Britain and the US, eugenicists in Australia and New Zealand whole-heartedly set about rejuvenating the racial ‘fitness’ of Australians. This would be achieved they believed by encouraging the elite in society to procreate, whilst at the same time, with the aid of legislators, denying those they labelled as “social misfits” or ‘degenerates’ that same right to reproduce[8].

The Scoutmaster-General
The Scoutmaster-General

PostScript 1: British Models
The Australian and New Zealand eugenics movements took impetus from the larger and more advanced movements in Britain and the US. The leading British eugenicists themselves acknowledged a debt to Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouting movement. Baden-Powell’s emphasis on the traits of character[9], discipline, citizenship and patriotism were appealing to eugenicists such as Karl Pearson and Caleb Saleeby. Dr Saleeby wrote in ‘The progress of eugenics’: “If national eugenics is ever achieved in Great Britain, it will come through the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides”[10].

PostScript 2: Eugenics, an agricultural template
Sidestepping the moral and ethical considerations, some contemporary eugenics enthusiasts made the argument for efficacy based on agricultural models. They advocated the utilisation of the successful principles of selective stock and plant breeding, applying them to the reproduction of humans to improve the quality of future generations. One US agricultural society member in 1911 summed it up in a straightforward, no nonsense sort of way, “better horses, better cattle, better hogs …. (why not) … better babies?”[11] The agriculture/eugenics nexus has a further dimension in the US … two of America’s foremost eugenicists, Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin, had been chicken breeders.

❈ some basic definitions to begin with – the etymology of the word ‘eugenics’ is Greek, from eugenes, root derivation: eu-, ‘good’ or ‘well’, + -genos, ‘birth’ or ‘stock’ … contrast with dysgenics, dys (‘bad’ or ‘ill’) + -genos, Collins Concise Dictionary (Australian Edition, 1995)
ஐ the US in particular was a hotspot of the eugenics movement, producing pro-eugenic films like The Black Stork (1917) which preached a chilling message of “Kill defectives, Save the Nation”
¤ this dysgenic sensibility, that race disintegration was occurring was so universally pervasive in the early 1900s that even black intellectuals in America led by W E B DuBois advocated that the ‘Negro race’ guard against racial decay by elevating up the “talented tenth” of the black community
Charles Darwin himself was ahead of the movement expressing elitist eugenics views in 1871 in The Descent of Man, “We civilised men…. do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick.. . thus the weak members of society propagate their kind.”
❇ the offspring of “low stock” were characterised as “the increasingly disproportionate progeny of the criminal” who were “swamping civilisation”, R Waddell, (Preface) The Fertility of the Unfit, cited in E J Wilson, ‘Eugenic ideology and racial fitness in Queensland, 1900-1950’, Unpub. PhD thesis (Department of History, University of Queensland, May 2003),
§ pointedly, many of the top figures (especially the medical doctors) in the Aust/NZ eugenics movements were born in Britain and migrated to the Antipodes

[1] the self-doubt harboured by Britons and by colonials in other dominions of the Empire was accentuated by a further sense of diminution after the Anglo-Boer War felt by the British professional classes, resulting what has been described by C L Bacchi as a “gloomy heredity determinism”, C L Bacchi, ‘The Nature-Nurture Debate in Australia, 1900-1914, Historical Studies, (19) 1980, quoted in M Cawte, ‘Craniometry and Eugenics in Australia: R.J.A. Berry and the Quest for Social Efficiency, Historical Studies, (22) 1986
[2] D Sewell, ‘How eugenics poisoned the welfare state’, The Spectator, 25-Nov-2009,
[3] ‘Story: Contraception and sterilisation Page 5 – Information about contraceptives’ Encyclopedia ; ‘Eugenics – Positive And Negative Eugenics’,; some eugenicists, driven by fear of miscegenation, advocated complete segregation of races, especially prominent in South Africa and the USA; S Dubow, ‘Placing “Race” in South African History’, in W Lamont [Ed.], Historical Controversies and Historians, (1998),
[4] ‘Charles Henry Pearson’, Wikipedia, The race war notion – especially in regard to Japan’s emerging Pacific presence – found a fervid home in the Australian and New Zealand press and literature in the early century, eg, ‘The Commonwealth Crisis’, published in The Lone Hand, presents a fantasy scenario of a Japanese invasion of the Northern Territory, D Walker, ‘National Identity’, in J Jupp [Ed.], The Australian People: An Encyclopaedia of the Nation, Its People and their Origins
[5] Venereal disease was exceptionally virulent during the Great War, and in the prevailing eugenics environment in Australia, an indicator of what constituted racial ‘unfitness’ … the dilemma for society’s ruling elite as the war went on was that ‘respectable’ citizens also found themselves victims of the disease!, M Larson, ‘The iconography
[6] A Wanhalla, ‘New Zealand’, 23-Oct-2014, (Eugenics Archive NZ). Retrieved 8-Nov-2016 from
[6] ‘Eugenics – Problem of the Race – a lecture by Sir Robert Stout’, Evening Post (Wellington), 6-Aug-1912
[7] Neo-Malthusian ideas informed eugenics thinking, especially regarding fertility control, R A Soloway, ‘Neo-Malthusians, Eugenists, and the Declining Birth-Rate in England, 1900-1918’, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Autumn, 1978)
[8] Baden-Powell declared in 1911: “Our business is to … pass as many boys through our character factory as we possibly can”, M Rosenthal, The Character Factory: Baden-Powell and the origins of the Boy Scout movement
[9] M A Hasian, The Rhetoric of Eugenics in Anglo-American Thought
[10] C Muir, The Broken Promise of Agricultural Progress: An Environmental History