Nature Vs Nurture and the Unravelling of ‘Scientific Racism’

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

By the mid 1930s the allure of “scientific racism” was on the wane in advanced western countries❈. Although scientists were in the thick of the movement both as eugenicists and as propagandists, significant numbers of scientists and politicians never bought the shonky scientific approach of the eugenics movement. Many in the science community never accepted the methodology for the eugenicists’ grand schemes[1]. Information on heredity was far from comprehensive in that era, the science was misguided and there was a vastly imperfect understanding of genetics, at best rudimentary, at the time. Eugenic hygiene organisations were unable to produce reliable statistics. As John Averell pointed out, “proof’ of research” in the field comprised “primarily statistical correlation within conveniently constructed ‘races’ rather than individual case studies to see if the desirable characteristics were actually inherited”[2].

Mendel's schema
Mendel’s schema
The scientific genesis of the 20th century eugenics movement was located in the rediscovered research of 19th century Austrian monk Gregor Mendel. Mendel experimented in plant hybridisation and his laws of inheritance based on the crossing of garden peas✥ were the foundation for the theories of eugenicists like American Charles Davenport. Davenport et al applied the Mendelian method to human traits such as eye colour which he argued was inherited (as the colour of Mendel’s pea plants were). The eugenicists employed an overly simplified dominant/recessive scheme to account for complex behaviours and mental illnesses, this was a fundamental flaw in their thinking (derived from ‘pedigrees’ based on Mendelian inheritance), a single-gene explanation of human characteristics and conditions. Contemporary science unequivocally accepts that these traits are in fact shaped by (many, many) multiple genes, ie, the existence of polygenic traits[3].

Although eugenics was portrayed by its adherents in the early 20th century as a “mathematical science”, a clinical method of predicting traits and behaviours and controlling human breeding, its drew criticism from scientific quarters on a number of levels. The ‘evidence’ was typically shoddy, such as the research into determining just who was to be classified as being ‘feeble’ and ‘unfit’ in society. The eugenicists relied often on subjectivity, second-hand accounts and hearsay to establish the lineages of the ‘undesirable’ gene pool (see PostScript 1), or on visible observable (physical) features (the resort to phrenology and the like). The theories of eugenics did not seem adequate to explain some traits, such as shyness – rather than being an immutable genetic condition, this could be subject to change over time (ie, some people grow out of shyness!). In addition eugenicists took no account of factors external to a person’s gene makeup in the categorisation of the ‘unfit’, such as his or her contracting a transmissible disease such as syphilis[4].

The scrutiny on eugenics, its growing characterisation as a pseudoscience unable to stand up to academic scientific rigour, prompted some proselytisers of eugenics to claim that eugenics was more than merely science, that it was tantamount to a new religion or moral code[5]. One of the eugenics practitioners who typified this was Alexis Carrel, an American-based French surgeon and Nobel Laurette biologist. Carrel’s eugenics was a strange mix of science, religion, clairvoyance and ultra right-wing politics … his extreme ideas were infused with an anti-materialist, holistic spiritual mysticism. In his 1935 international best-seller, Man, the Unknown, Carrel warned against the degenerative effect of modernity and outlined his notion of an autocratic utopia in which the dysgenic elements were eradicated from society[6].

The eugenics scene in Australasia mirrored Europe and America in questioning the correctness of the ‘science’. The scientific community although entrenched in the vanguard of the eugenic movement threw up its share of dissenters from within its ranks. One such was geographer Griffith Taylor who championed “racial hybridity” and cast serious doubts on the goal of race purity and its assumptions that underpinned eugenics. Moreover there was a lack of cohesion and camaraderie among the individual eugenicists who are often rivals of each other … this of itself did not make for a strong, lasting movement in Australia[7].

J B Watson, Behaviourist
J B Watson, Behaviourist
The Behaviourist counterpoint:
The rise of behaviourism in the West as a valid analytical tool for explaining human nature was a counterweight to the biological determinism of eugenics whose advocates preached that biology was destiny. The behaviourist backlash against the persuasive eugenics ideology was led by pioneering American psychologist John B Watson▣ around the time of the Great War. Watson, rejecting Freudian concepts of the unconscious mind, or that mental states or ‘instincts’ were significant, arguing instead that observable behaviour was the key to explaining human traits and complex mental states. In doing so, Watson was also refuting the view that heredity played a role in this construct. For Watson, and for B F Skinner who later took up his mantle as a radical behaviourist, the environment, modelled behaviour, was the source of human change. The work of Watson and Skinner and other behaviourists undercut the eugenics movement’s singular reliance on nature by shifting the debate to the significance of nurture in the process[8].

PostScript 1: ‘Feeble’ family studies template
The belief of eugenicists that all social ills – poverty, alcoholism, prostitution, criminality, venereal disease, epilepsy – could be traced back to one genetic flaw, and that intelligence was determined by heredity, was shaped by seminal pioneering studies in the field. One of the most influential was by psychologist Henry Goddard (1912) who analysed the genetic pattern of one man’s lineage (known as “Martin Kallikak” – fabricated name derived from the conjunction of ‘kallos’ beauty and ‘kakos’ bad). ‘Kallikak’ produced two widely divergent types of families (one ‘good’, one ‘bad’), which despite being nurtured in two radically different environments, the patterns of which Goddard concluded was solely the result of heredity[9].

PostScript 2: Polygenism debunked
The polygenists accepted that the species had more than one origin (cf. monogenism – deriving from one, common ancestor). Morton (see FN 2 below) believed that races were arranged in order of intelligence … the fairer the skin the more intelligent. DNA evidence, tracing human markers, has disproved the theory by proving that all Eurasians, Americans, Austronesians, Oceanians and Africans, share the same, common ancestor[10].

❈ Scientific racism uses ostensibly scientific or pseudoscientific techniques and hypotheses to support or justify racial inferiority or superiority, Scientific racism’, Wikipedia,
Scientific racism was denounced by UNESCO in a 1950 statement on race
✥ for what Mendel described as ‘factors’ (the “heredity unit”), the early eugenicists substituted the word ‘genes’
▣ Watson’s life reads like some kind of early 20th century Mad Men persona (influential ad man, marital infidelities, monumental falls from grace, self-exile, etc)

[1] for instance in the interwar period, Thomas Hunt Morgan, a Noble Prize winning evolutionary biologist, rejected the eugenicists’ inadequate methodology, ‘Eugenics in the United States’, Wikipedia,
[2] this view prescribed a hierarchical order of races, an Anglo-Saxon ‘race’, a Nordic ‘race’, and so on down the line. Polygenists in the 19th century like Samuel G Morton contended that different races were in fact different species, each with separate origins, ‘Science: 1770s-1850s: One Race or Several Species’, RACE,; J Averell, ‘The End of Eugenics … or is it?’, Melrose Mirror,
[3] ‘Mendelian genetics cannot fully explain human health and behaviour’, DNA from the beginning,; ‘Rocky Road: Charles Davenport’,
[4] Eugenics and scientific racism had been described as “folk knowledge validated by scientific inference”, S A Farber, ‘U.S. Scientists’ Role in the Eugenics Movement (1907-39): A Contemporary Biologist’s Perspective’, Zebrafish, 2008: December; 5(4),
[5] A H Reggiani, ‘Drilling Eugenics into People’s Minds’, in S Currell [Ed.],
Popular Eugenics, National Efficiency and American Mass Culture in the 1930s
[6] ibid
[7] D H Wyndham, ‘Striving for National Fitness: Eugenics in Australia 1910s to 1930s’ (Unpub. PhD, Dept of History, University of Sydney, July 1996),
[8] ‘Eugenics movement reaches its height 1923’, A Science Odyssey (PBS),; ‘John B. Watson’, Wikipedia,
[9] ‘Kallikak Family’,
[10] ‘Scientific Justifications for Racism’ (Polygenism),

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