As if we’ll now forget Galton and Pearson

Every year in my classes I’ll spend a little time talking about Francis Galton and Karl Pearson. It’s unavoidable. They were early pioneers in genetics and were extremely influential in their time, so I have been and will continue to bring up their contributions and their flaws. Galton was a wealthy guy who endowed a Chair in Eugenics at University College London, and Pearson was the first person appointed to it; just the strong association with eugenics ought to be enough to taint the history of the two men. I like to let my students know about how Galton, for a time, kept a device he called his ‘pricker’ in his pocket so he could surreptitiously score the attractiveness of women he met, which he later published as a list of the quality of women across the UK — the women of London were the most beautiful, while those in Scotland…weren’t. And you thought MRAs were a recent phenomenon!

We don’t need to bestow special honors on these harbingers of a century of racism and oppression, so UCL has decided to dename any buildings with their names on them.

In the meantime, the names have been changed to Lecture Theatre 115 (formerly the Galton Lecture Theatre), Lecture Theatre G22 (formerly the Pearson Lecture Theatre) and the North-West Wing (formerly the Pearson Building).

Not exactly poetic names, but better than trumpeting the names of racists.

Next up: all those corporations and rich alumni who buy the names of university buildings might want to consider the transitory nature of the honor, because when we start an accounting of the crimes of capitalism all those signs might come tumbling down. It’s always annoyed me that some rich dweeb with no real association with what goes on inside them gets to come along and have their name enshrined on the doors to a building.

Ooops, speaking of which, the Natural History Museum has decided that their new director will be the rich parasite who runs Amazon UK.

The new director has extensive experience of running online food businesses, and has also previously served on boards and acted as a trustee for high-profile museums. Gurr was the chair of the Science Museum’s board from 2010 to 2014, and was a trustee of the National Gallery.

He also acted as a non-executive director at the Department for Work and Pensions, which attracted criticism from the Labour MP and tax campaigner Margaret Hodge, who described his appointment as “disgusting” because Amazon was involved in a row over its taxes.

Oooh, “extensive experience of running online food businesses”. That doesn’t even make him qualified to run the museum cafeteria, but now he’s in charge of the whole show? This is a disaster in the making — rich executives are only good at figuring out how to loot and pillage, which, come to think of it, may be his best qualification to run a British museum.


  1. Matt G says

    My grad school used to be called the Cornell U. Grad School of Medical Sciences. It was renamed after Sanford Weill and family gave $100 million. A few weeks after the announcement, I read that Weill was involved in some shady business dealings. Same as it ever was.

  2. chrislawson says

    The British Museum was certainly the repository of colonial pillaging. But it was also an institution of inquiry and scholarship. Seems to me Gurr is only qualified for the first part.

  3. says

    My office at school is in a building named in 2002 after our college’s late vice president of instruction (who was also the former math department dean who hired me). I was told recently that “we’d never do that today” unless his family ponied up at least $100K. The college district has a performing arts center named after our former district chancellor (who went on to become the statewide chancellor). Some people were upset when the board of trustees named the performing arts center in his honor because “we could have gotten a million dollars for the naming rights!” Thank goodness our new STEM building brought in half a million. The honor auction continues!

  4. cartomancer says

    Thinking back, I’m quite surprised no obvious racists or deeply problematic people come up when I review what rooms were named after at my college. CB Fry, The von Trapp family, Maurice Bowra, a certain professor Okinaga from Tokyo. We even had an LGBT and Minorities room named after James Baldwin down in the bowels of the place, and the specialist Persian library was named for Firdausi. The whole college was founded by and named for an obscure Somerset landowner’s widow.

    Going further abroad to the rest of the university, sadly one can’t avoid them. Rhodes House is just along the road, and the Ashmolean Classics Library was refitted and plastered with the Sackler name in the early 2000s.

  5. benedic says

    6 Cartomancer
    i’m sure all your rooms were named for impeccable folk but some had their quirks.
    A review of a biography of Maurice Bowra in the Guardian Newspaper reads:

    “However, Bowra had a commanding, narcissistic personality that, within the narrow horizons of Oxford, resulted in much distasteful social and professional manoeuvring. He compulsively selected acolytes. From his undergraduate years at New College, he insisted on dominating every gathering, imperiously surrounding himself with a fawning set. Even those who were favoured were racked with anxiety of imminent ridicule or exclusion.”

  6. cartomancer says

    Oh, I’m sure many of them were deeply unpleasant people. But that’s not quite the same as founding the science of eugenics, overseeing the oppression of Africa or making a fortune selling slaves.

  7. leerudolph says

    Cartomancer@6: “I’m quite surprised no obvious racists or deeply problematic people come up when I review what rooms were named after at my college.”

    I can only remember one named room from my college (I graduated in 1969, so I may well have forgotten several others). My small single dormitory room for my senior year of college (big enough for a long bed, a smallish desk with a straight chair, a chest of drawers, an armchair, and a small refrigerator, on the second floor of a building where everything that required water—to wit, the toilets, the communal showers [this was just before coeducation; newer dorms already had private bathrooms, but not 1915 Hall], and the coin washers that had only been installed that year, a campus laundry employing scholarship students having theretofore done all student laundry for a small fee) had a small brass plaque on the wall above the door on the inside, honoring the memory of Eberhard Faber V, class of 1915. That dormitory has since been torn down; I have no idea what happened to the plaque, but the internet informs me that that particular scion of the pencil-manufacturing dynasty now has his name attached to a lecture series in the humanities (perhaps with an emphasis on Italian literature). My guess is that he was at worst a dilettante, and that his family money was fairly clean as 19th manufacturing money goes (but I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if it weren’t).

  8. says

    The building I worked in at the U or Oregon was called Science III, prosaically enough. It got renamed while I was there to Heustis Hall, after a distinguished former faculty member. As long as he wasn’t a flaming racist, that seems like a good way to go. After I left, Science I was renamed Streisinger Hall, which I very much approve of.

  9. says

    The current Director of NHM is Sir Michael Dixon, about whom Wikipedia says
    “The appointment of Dixon at the NHM is noteworthy in its marking a break with tradition in which the Director has been an eminent practising scientist.”

    So it goes.

  10. A. Feesh says

    One things the students/some faculty at Iowa State got right was in the stadium naming. It’s not named after a wealthy donor, but after Jack Trice, the first Black student-athlete who played for Iowa State. In his second football game (against the University of Minnesota) he was badly injured and ultimately died. The stadium is named Jack Trice Stadium in his honor. It is the only stadium in Division I football to be named after a Black athlete.

    This letter was found in his jacket pocket after his death:
    My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life: The honor of my race, family & self is at stake. Everyone is expecting me to do big things. I will! My whole body and soul are to be thrown recklessly about the field tomorrow. Every time the ball is snapped, I will be trying to do more than my part. On all defensive plays I must break through the opponents’ line and stop the play in their territory. Beware of mass interference. Fight low, with your eyes open and toward the play. Watch out for crossbucks and reverse end runs. Be on your toes every minute if you expect to make good. Jack.

  11. divbyn says

    If it is any consolation, we also have to provide similar “historical context” when teaching both introductory statistics and advanced probability. However, I’ve found that students actually respond positively to these digressions.

    In a physics class, you can pique student interest with “Here’s how assholes used ballistic equations to kill people”. In mathematics, we get attention with “Here’s how assholes used regression to the mean to justify eugenics”.

  12. jrkrideau says

    Galton was a wealthy guy who endowed a Chair in Eugenics at University College London

    Exactly. What did Galton ever do for us?


    blockquote>Sir Francis Galton, FRS (16 February 1822 – 17 January 1911) was an English Victorian era statistician, polymath, sociologist, psychologist, anthropologist, eugenicist, tropical explorer, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, proto-geneticist, and psychometrician.

    Renaming a lecture theatre will hurt his reputation.

    BTW, if I remember the story correctly when gathering anthropometric data he set up a booth at something like the Great Exhibition and charged people to let them participate. Grant-starved researchers take note.