University of Eugenics30 November 2013
The year is 2002, and the government has requested that University of Melbourne take inventory of its human remains collection. A slovenly research intern has been granted the prestigious task of ferreting around in the dusty archives of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, on the hunt for any human-remains-related paperwork. This is the sort of boring, non-essential task that permits the use of a walkman (playing Liam Lynch’s ‘United States of Whatever’).
One of the boxes unearthed by the intern is lighter than the others and rattles. When the intern opens it she finds a bunch of discoloured Halloween props inside. Really good ones, with realistic, detachable teeth and—the intern recoils in horror and drops the skull as it suddenly dawns on her that these are most definitely not Halloween props. She goes looking for somebody more important to handle the situation, because there is no way in hell she’s going to try and explain a bunch of human remains just hanging out in the archives, like, yeah, whatever.
So how did the remains even get there? It’s a mystery that sounds like it wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Scooby-Doo. Only, it doesn’t culminate in the unmasking of Old Man Jenkins and the confirmation that everything always turns out fine because things aren’t as creepy as they seem. Rather, the discovery of skeletons in a Melbourne University closet leads to a much darker place: eugenics.
Eugenics in Australia enjoyed a certain reputation from the years 1910 to 1939. Many will recognise Dr Richard Berry from the Mathematics building that bears his name. However, Berry’s legacy to the University was not mathematics. A notable proponent of eugenics who enjoyed a dedicated following, Berry was the head of Anatomy at the university during the early 20th century. He was also known for the creepy practices of judging ‘beautiful baby’ contests and measuring skulls—any and all skulls. Children skulls, ex-con skulls, donated corpse skulls, you name it. Over the years, Berry measured over 10,000 different people’s skulls, with an aim to prove that there was a correlation between head size and intelligence. Up to 400 of these skulls were found stashed in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology nearly a century later. The details of exactly how they came into Berry’s possession remain unclear.
Rationalisation for eugenics research rests on the idea that it was undertaken with an aim to improve ‘national efficiency’, through the selection of the fittest and fine-tuning of human biology. Kind of like breeding a pedigree dog. If this is all sounding familiar, that’s because it was the same reasoning adopted by the Nazis before the Second World War in a 1939 policy called Aktion T4. This endorsed the segregation of the “mentally and physically disabled [and] emotionally distraught” and led to the mass extermination of millions in concentration camps. Eerily, a notice in a 1928 edition of Melbourne paper, Argus, revealed that “a complete system for the education of the subnormal child and the proper control of feeble-minded adults” based on similar principles was proposed for Australia long before this. Australia’s eugenics policy was designed for the management and gradual phasing-out of “slum-dwellers, homosexuals, prostitutes, alcoholics […] those with small heads and low IQs,” and “the Aboriginal population.”
This policy would have had a huge effect on the Australian education system as it is known today. Berry justified withholding education from eugenically inferior demographics and their offspring on the basis that “you can’t put a brain where there isn’t one”. Furthermore, after the proposed policy was followed up by national survey of mental deficiency (BYO skull-measuring device), findings purportedly suggested that the most “mentally deficient” people occupied working-class areas. Namely, the developing northern suburbs.
Dr Ross Jones, a Sydney University historian who hails from Melbourne, told The Age in 2011 that he believes that there is a link between Berry’s beliefs and the growth of Victoria’s tertiary education institutions during the twentieth century. He claims that eugenics was behind a proposed streaming system at secondary schools, which would assess 12-year-olds to determine whether they were suited for university. Students deemed unfit for the rigours of university education would be assigned modified secondary training that would filter them into technical schools. One of Berry’s fellow eugenics enthusiasts was Victoria’s Director of Education at the time, Mr Frank Tate. Records show that in the years leading up to the Second World War, Tate began projects involving the expansion of the Collingwood technical school and the establishment of another technical school in Preston. These areas were both known at the time for their high concentration of blue-collar workers and non-whites.
By the end of the Second World War, Nazi atrocities had been exposed and Aktion T4 was coming to be recognised as an international embarrassment. In Australia, eugenics was fading into obscurity. “The whole thing came to be taboo after World War Two,” Jones explains. Technical schools in Preston and Collingwood had been re-utilised to rehabilitate veteran soldiers and train people from a wider range of socio-economic backgrounds. Presumably, it was around this time that the remains of Berry’s human remains collection were shoved into a cupboard, never to be seen until their accidental rediscovery in 2002. Their recovery prompted new exposure for Berry’s controversial research. However, the Mathematics building still announces his name to anyone who walks down Monash Road. All this despite the fact that many have argued that nobody who endorsed the arbitrary delegation of education based on class, race, and head size should continue to be honoured.