The University of Cambridge Eugenics Society from 1911-13 and 1930-33 and reasons for its ultimate demise

The University of Cambridge Eugenics Society from 1911-13 and 1930-33 and reasons for its ultimate demise

Veronica di Mambro


This study of the University of Cambridge Eugenics Society addresses the question of the social, political and scientific make-up of the membership during the years 1911-13 and 1930-33, the only years it existed and whether this affected the way in which the Society functioned. In addition, the contribution made by town and gown and involvement of women plus the internal dynamism of the Society is investigated. The reasons why it was only successful for such a short time, what led to its demise in 1913 and its re-emergence and failure again in the 1930s is explored.

An important consideration is whether this was specific to the Cambridge Society with so many forward thinkers in the field, or was it happening nationally with changing attitudes towards eugenics and a better understanding of genetics, so national developments will be studied. Reference will be made to other Societies in Cambridge, town or gown, to see whether or not some of their members were involved with the Cambridge University Eugenics Society. Why some Cambridge scientists interested in eugenics chose not to join must also be examined.

The main source of secondary literature with reference to the Cambridge University Eugenics Society is Mazumdar “Eugenics, Human Genetics and Human Failings” (1992, p22-25, p96-105, p142-151); this provided references to further secondary literature and important primary sources. Some of my findings derive from Farrall’s study (1985) of the membership of the Society nationally and Mackenzie (1976) and Searles’ (1976) writings. Due to the large number of scientists and geneticists who studied in Cambridge, some of whom became College fellows, there is mention of Cambridge lectures, eg the inaugural lecture by Professor W R Inge (later Dean of St Pauls), in other secondary literature.

This is not a study of the scientific basis of eugenics, although mention must be made of the scientific factors involved which led to the formation of the Eugenics Education Society itself (later renamed the Eugenics Society and now the Galton Institute), but a look at how it functioned, the mix of members from the social and political viewpoint as well as the scientific. Eugenists followed two main lines of thought. First, during the nineteenth century Gregor Mendel’s theory of biological inheritance of distinct characteristics (genes had not been discovered at that time) and secondly in the early twentieth century Karl Pearson’s biometrical studies with its implication that we can find out everything relating to evolution and heredity by statistical measurements of small changes.

Some members of the intellectual aristocracy, the professional middle-class, felt that good breeding was very important; identifying the best people intellectually and physically and encouraging them to breed (positive eugenics) and preventing or at least discouraging those without these qualities from breeding (negative eugenics). With the scientific knowledge available at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, early eugenists such as Galton with traditional mainline eugenics proposed that our character, intelligence and physique are dependent on our biology, and that this determines breeding. During the 1930s mainline eugenics gave way to reform eugenics, suggesting that a mixture of environmental and biological factors, nature/nurture contribute to our make up and that if the environment is improved then people will be more successful.
Sources and methods

The main primary sources available for the University of Cambridge Eugenics Society are those in the Eugenics Society Archives at the Wellcome Library, London. The Minute Book with correspondence and Annual Reports of the Cambridge and London Societies provided important information on its functioning and details of the lectures by R A Fisher and W R Inge. Other primary source information was available locally from the Cambridgeshire Collection in the Cambridge Public Library in newspapers reporting the inaugural lectures and other public meetings such as those of the Cambridge Association for the Care of the Feeble-minded. During my research I found unexpected primary sources in The Cambridge Review and Eugenics Review with details of meetings of other societies, a Cambridge Union debate and an address to the Cambridge Marshall Society, the latter of which led to re-birth of the Cambridge University Eugenics Society in the 1930s. I then followed leads to other possibly untapped primary source material such as the Marshall Society address which I found in the Cambridge University Marshall Society Library.

These primary sources have been used to find out who were the members, whether they were all scientists, or from other disciplines within the University, and whether women were involved. Another vital consideration was whether they were all members of the University.

The strength of the primary sources was that they provided invaluable information on who were members. I was then able to investigate why some Cambridge scientists proposing theories relating to eugenics did not join the Cambridge or national Societies. With all the names of members I was then able to find out more information about these people generally and relate it to my specific research area. There was correspondence between the Eugenics Education Society and Cambridge Society, mainly in the 1930s, which provided information on the lectures and finances of the Cambridge Society.

The limitations of the primary sources are such that unfortunately quite a lot of information has been lost or destroyed, so I have only been able to make a judgement from the available material in the archives. The Minute Book and correspondence were kept in the Eugenics Society archives at the Galton Institute but subsequently moved to the Wellcome Library. It is possible that paperwork was mislaid during this move, or earlier moves, or simply that records were not kept at the time. Despite many enquiries and research I was unable to find records of some of the lectures given to the Society. Of all the branch Societies, Cambridge is the only one with substantial archive material available. I was unable to find newspaper reports of public meetings in the later years.
Outline of the formation of the Eugenics Education Society in London and subsequent formation of the University of Cambridge Branch

The Eugenics Education Society was founded in 1907 to promote public awareness of eugenic problems, the existence of positive and negative hereditary qualities. Sir Francis Galton, a Cambridge mathematics graduate was subsequently elected its first President. The Society was a popular rather than scientific institution, unlike the Galton Laboratory which Galton founded in 1904 and to which he bequeathed money for eugenic research. He was a cousin of Charles Darwin who was well known for his theory of evolution and natural selection and fear of inbreeding in his family. Galton was interested in the social status of his family and became concerned about heredity and passing on the best genes. Major Leonard Darwin, Charles Darwin’s youngest son, became President of the Society in 1911. Many early Council members were Cambridge dons; W C D Whetham, a physicist, W R Inge, Professor of Divinity (Vice President) and Sir Clifford Allbutt, Regius Professor of Medicine. At the First International Eugenics Congress in 1912, Leonard Darwin, Professor Punnett and Whetham gave lectures.

So Cambridge University men were already quite involved with the Eugenics Society at an early stage, but there were also many middle-class professional men. From the data available more than half were medical men, scientists and academics, but much archive information is missing on particular professions. There were many women before the First World War, many unmarried, a difference from the Cambridge branch. All political parties were present, but they were mostly conservatives with a few socialists and the odd liberal. Provincial branches were subsequently formed, mainly in university cities, with a predominance of academics and undergraduates and a few professional townspeople.

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Ronald Aylmer Fisher (1890-1962)

Photograph courtesy of Professor A W F Edwards by kind permission of Joan Fisher Box

In 1909 the statistician, R A Fisher, went up to Cambridge on a scholarship to read mathematics; as a result of coming across Karl Pearson’s work on statistics he became interested in the mathematics of evolution and genetics. Fisher’s concern with the “eugenic goal of multiplying the socially strong” (Kevles, 1999, p179) spurred him on to form the Cambridge University Eugenics Society in May 1911 and until 1913 it was one of the most active of the provincial Societies, but differed from most of them in being primarily a University Society.

When branch societies were formed it was quite common for lecturers to be invited from the Eugenics Education Society in London. What is interesting and more specific to Cambridge compared with other provincial societies is that those lecturers were actually Cambridge fellows or dons or had studied there – Leonard Darwin, W C D Whetham and Professor Punnett.
Analysis of the University of Cambridge Eugenics Society 1911-1913

The Society’s Minute Book and correspondence in the Wellcome Library archives give a good indication of the membership and details of lectures and speakers during these years. There is more archive information for this Society than any of the other branch Societies which shows how great Fisher’s involvement with the eugenics movement was while he was at Cambridge.

When Fisher had decided to form a local Society, he and a fellow undergraduate C S Stock approached Inge, Punnett and Whetham, Cambridge men who were members of the parent society in London. Professor Albert C Seward, a palaeobotanist, became President and John Maynard Keynes, mathematician and economist, became treasurer. Many distinguished academics, including Inge, Punnett and Whetham, then joined serving as officers or Council as well as various Royal Society members, Masters of Colleges, and three members of the Darwin family, Horace, Francis and Sir George. Most academics were scientists but there were some medical men, one or two economists and literary men. Lord Rayleigh, who was a Nobel prizewinner for physics and University Chancellor, and the Bishop of Ely were Patrons and other religious men were members. Sir Joseph Larmor was Lucasian Professor of Maths and a Unionist MP representing Cambridge University 1911-12. C S Stock, an undergraduate, became secretary and Fisher was Student Chairman of the Council. Members were a mix of fellows and undergraduates.

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John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946)

Photograph by kind permission of Dr Milo Keynes

John Maynard Keynes was treasurer of the Cambridge University Eugenics Society during its early years, in addition to his involvement with other societies. What is interesting is that there appears to be no mention in biographies of his connection with the Cambridge University Eugenics Society. The fact that he was treasurer and not just a member of the Society indicates that he had a keen interest in being involved. He was also a Council Member of the Eugenics Society in London from 1937-1944 and gave the Galton Lecture in 1937 on “Some Consequences of a Declining Population”.

Rules for the Cambridge Society included a note that “membership shall be open to all members of the University and to such other individuals as the Council shall from time to time determine” (Minute Book, November 1911). This gives a good indication of why membership appears to have been restricted to University members.

Several of the branches became affiliated to the parent Society in London which brought them more money. Cambridge chose not to affiliate but despite this decided to model itself closely on the older organization. This lack of affiliation caused instability and financial difficulties because the branch was not able to charge subscriptions high enough to pay costs for visiting lecturers and this occasionally led to cancellations at the last minute.

Another interesting point about the Cambridge University Eugenics Society is that of the recorded membership during this period there were no women serving as officers, although this may not reflect the membership nationally; “at least half the national membership was women, some of them were officers, and they also formed a large part of the audience” (Kevles, 1999, p64), as may have happened in Cambridge. At this time women were not allowed to receive degrees, although they were permitted to attend lectures and to take examinations. Regarding women and fertility, antifeminist eugenists such as the Whethams inferred that educated women pursued careers and fewer of them went on to marry and have children.

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William Ralph Inge (1860-1954)

Photograph by Allan Chappelow. Reproduced by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral

The first public meeting took place on 22 May 1911 when Professor W R Inge, Professor of Divinity at Cambridge but about to become Dean of St Paul’s, was invited to give the inaugural address on “Some Social and Religious Aspects of Eugenics”. He mentioned that the women’s movement encouraged able women to lead a single life while “the worst examples of their sex married and bred with abandon” (Soloway, 1995, p129). This was favourably reported in the Cambridge Daily News as was the fact that Professor Inge “held that it was the duty of all to study the science of eugenics and to try and stem the current of race degeneration flourishing in this country” (23 May 1911); the paper also reported that both men and women in the large audience applauded him.

Professor A C Seward, a botanist and President of the Society, chaired the meeting and commented that the idea of forming a Society had come from undergraduates. The Society’s aims would be first to educate themselves and other people, and secondly to carry out research. Professor Inge spoke on aspects of eugenics with regard to the feeble-minded, the birth rate and positive eugenics. Fisher proposed a vote of thanks. What is interesting about this lecture is that Inge was invited because of his views and that individuals with religious beliefs involved themselves with eugenics. The founding members of the Society were from the middle and upper classes who had a horror of the urban poor.

A purely undergraduate section of the Society held fortnightly meetings in undergraduates’ rooms. C S Stock gave a paper on Heredity in Fisher’s rooms at the first meeting on 29 October 1911, emphasizing that compulsory sterilization should not be encouraged as there was not enough expert opinion on the matter. This was the parent Society’s view and it is interesting to note that Stock mentioned that the undergraduate section would follow their example in this regard.

Fisher gave a paper at the second meeting of the undergraduate branch on 10 November 1911 on Heredity covering Biometry and Mendelism explaining that both are important for eugenists. What is interesting is that biometry and Mendelism were considered together and it became the Eugenics Society’s public policy to teach and apply both in the study of heredity as Fisher wished to do. His view was that all the best points in man can be improved. There were then several more undergraduate meetings on eugenics and the feeble-minded, Mendelism, eugenics and education, and evolution and society by other undergraduates including Stock and Fisher. Preliminary investigation of Cambridge University archives indicates that a substantial number of undergraduate members were scientists, but a much more detailed study would need to be undertaken to determine a more exact proportion.

Although the Eugenics Education Society gave an even balance to Mendelism and biometry in London, this was not generally the case in Cambridge. Eugenists tended towards Mendelism in their teaching. William Bateson, a Mendelian, the first Balfour Professor of Genetics in 1912, suggested the term “genetics” for research into heredity and variation in 1906. Punnett, who studied under Bateson and was then his colleague, was the second Balfour Professor and Fisher was to become the third.

At the first Annual Meeting on 23 November 1911 W C D Whetham lectured on “The Influence of a Colonial Empire on Race Evolution” which criticized from a eugenic point of view sending men to the Colonies without their wives, as suitable wives are not to be found out there, but potential wives are left at home. This was evidently to discourage men from bringing back unsuitable wives from the Colonies. This public meeting was well attended (250 people), but I could not find any report of how its message was received.

Professor Punnett gave a lecture on “Genetics and Eugenics” from a Mendelian viewpoint at the second public meeting on 5 December 1911. The undergraduate section found this view very important and Fisher proposed that one paper should be devoted to Mendelism each academic year. Punnett’s lecture was favourably reported in the Cambridge Daily News (6 December 1911) in addition to mention of distribution to Cambridge members of Major Darwin’s presidential address to the parent Society and noting that he would be lecturing in Cambridge the next term. It was also reported that following Punnett’s lecture an all-party meeting of members of Parliament were considering a draft Bill for the care and control of the feeble-minded with a promise to deal with the question at the next session. Punnett’s lecture was not intended to educate the lower classes but to explain to his own class that they should use fertility as a weapon against the lower classes.

Major Leonard Darwin gave his public lecture on “First Steps towards Eugenic Reform” on 8 February 1912 which drew attention to the question of eugenics and class, that the poorer classes have more naturally unfit than the richer classes and produce more children. “We eugenists assert that the problem is largely biological ¼ and certainly no relation to class prejudices” (Darwin, 1912, p26-38). This fact was highlighted in the newspaper report on the lecture but without criticism.

All three of these early public lectures were well attended, 200-300 people at each lecture, many of them women, reported Stock, the secretary. So if University women were absent from Society membership, they probably attended these lectures as well as many townswomen. What the archive information in the newspaper and at the Wellcome Library shows is that these lectures were well supported and received by Cambridge scientists, including high college officials, Nobel laureate scientists and powerful senior professors, churchmen, local dignitaries and townspeople.

At the beginning of the next academic year 1912-13 new members were elected to the committee and Council, and a new rule was added that in each academic year there should be one paper on a general survey of the Eugenic field and one on an elementary exposition of the principles of heredity. On 22 November 1912 Fisher gave a public lecture on “Some Hopes of a Eugenist” (Eugenics Review, 5, p309-315). There is no record of how this lecture was received. This appears to have been the only lecture that term as there are no records of other lectures, public or undergraduate, but there are records which indicate that the following term lectures were on scientific breeding, eugenic ethics, limitations of eugenic policy, statistical methods (by Fisher), legal difficulties and eugenics and historic Christianity. Quite a mixture of topics for the last year before it closed down on the eve of the First World War. There is also mention of a final lecture on 19 May 1913 given by Mary Dendy on the Care of the Feeble-minded. There is no archive information other than this, no letters or newspaper reports.

During the years Fisher was at Cambridge, the Society flourished under his chairmanship and as a speaker. He was a positive eugenist encouraging the upper classes to breed rather than preventing the lower classes from doing so. Later he worked for the Eugenics Education Society together with Stock, before taking up a position at Rothamsted on crop research, eventually returning to Cambridge to take up the Balfour Chair. When Fisher went down from Cambridge, the Cambridge Society lost its way and closed down. It was probably partly due to Fisher’s leaving, they may have been unable to find anyone with such enthusiasm to drive the Society forward for another year. Another factor was the First World War which resulted in temporary closure of many of the British Societies.
Notable absentees from membership of the Eugenics Society

Several Cambridge scientists would not join the Eugenics Society nationally or locally. First, Karl Pearson, a statistician, studied biometry and became the first Galton Professor of Eugenics at University College London. He had left Cambridge before the formation of that Society and was unrepresentative of eugenists in Britain as they refused to accept his political and scientific theories. He was left wing and although he did not join the Fabian Society, his views were very much in line with them.

Another Cambridge scientist who would not join the Society was the geneticist William Bateson whose statistics were Mendelian; it is interesting to note from the archives that he attended Punnett’s lecture to the Eugenics Education Society in London in 1912 and opened discussion following the lecture. He was interested in the Society’s problems but never liked the eugenists themselves, though he gave the Galton Lecture in 1921.

Lancelot Hogben, a biologist, became involved with reform eugenics in later years. He went up to Cambridge on a scholarship in 1913, coming from a more humble background than his contemporaries and always felt scornful of those with privileged backgrounds and attacked eugenics in general. He was a contemporary of Fisher, never joined the Eugenics Society, and there is no record of contact with Fisher or other Cambridge eugenists; instead he became secretary of the Fabian Society moving its politics to the left. He was a committed socialist preferring economic rather than biological determinism. It is interesting to note that in later years he became involved with eugenists in London, notably Julian Huxley, Haldane and Crew and at one time even applied to the Eugenics Society for research funds at the same time denouncing eugenists and Eugenics Society leaders. According to Searle (1979) many distinguished intellectuals, such as Hogben, were willing to work under the auspices of the Eugenics Society due to its professional standing, but not because they agreed with its policies.

Lastly, G Udny Yule was a student of Pearson at Cambridge and became involved with likely causes of childhood disease among the poorer classes. He gave lectures on statistics, using biometric methods, to the Eugenics Education Society using figures on pauperism, but he also added examples from Mendelism. He was a loyal Pearson student, and never joined the Society. John Maynard Keynes was instrumental in getting him appointed as a lecturer in statistics at Cambridge in 1912.

Membership of related Societies

Several Cambridge University Eugenics Society members were also members of other Societies with particular social and political standpoints. The Cambridge University Fabian Society was the first undergraduate club open to both sexes and at its London branch H G Wells, Bernard Shaw and the Webbs led the way with their ideologies combining socialism and eugenics. Pearson was a socialist with Fabian views, but never joined the Fabian or Eugenics Societies. There is no record of Fabians being involved with the Cambridge University Eugenics Society, although they were involved with the parent society. John Maynard Keynes may have had involvement with the Fabians but did not join.

The Cambridge Apostles was a secret society independent of political parties encouraging classical and mathematical learning; it helped to abolish religious tests creating a liberal university free from religious problems and open to women. Several Cambridge men were members of this Society as well as the Cambridge University Eugenics Society, for instance Lowes Dickinson, a historian and early proponent of the League of Nations and the economist, John Maynard Keynes.

The Cambridge Association for the Care of the Feeble-minded, formed nationally by Mary Dendy and Mrs Hume Pinsent in 1896, wrote to the Eugenics Education Society Council in London in 1910 suggesting that the two societies co-operate to pressurize the government to pass a Bill for compulsory segregation of the feeble-minded. On 27 April 1912 Mrs Pinsent gave a public lecture in Cambridge on Mental Defects. The Anglican Bishop of Ely, a Patron of the Cambridge University Eugenics Society, introduced Mrs Pinsent mentioning the importance of the Bill. Apologies for absence were sent by the local MP and the County Council Chairman expressed concern about the urgency of passing a Bill. Following the lecture, Sir Clifford Allbutt proposed a vote of thanks agreeing that an early resolution should be sought and was seconded by Horace Darwin. It was suggested that a home on the Colony System in the neighbourhood of Cambridge should be established. This became the Ida Darwin Hospital. From these records it can be seen that there was public support for segregation.

Notably, more than half the committee members of the Cambridge Association for the Care of the Feeble minded were women, mostly townswomen, but some were wives of University fellows – Mrs Florence Keynes, wife of J N Keynes, political economist, and John Maynard Keynes’ mother, Mrs Jebb and Mrs Whetham. Ruth Darwin, Horace Darwin’s daughter, was Secretary. If women had difficulty joining University societies, this indicates that they had no trouble airing their views in a Society outside the University; a Society which had been formed by women. There were also several Cambridge Aldermen. William Bateson and Professor A C Pigou were also members, neither of whom wished to join the Eugenics Society though Pigou gave the Galton Lecture in London in 1923. Professor Pigou had been an undergraduate with John Maynard Keynes and then became Professor of Political Economy. Many members of this Association became involved with the Cambridge University Eugenics Society, among them Sir Clifford Allbutt, Horace Darwin, Professor Seward and Professor Inge.

It is indeed astonishing that this branch society was able to attract so many men of high intellectual calibre and eminence. Sir Clifford Allbutt was a distinguished and influential figure. Born in Dewsbury he was the cousin of Dr Henry Allbutt, the Leeds practitioner who was struck off the medical register in 1887 for publishing the Wife’s Handbook, a medical manual containing birth control information. He invented the short clinical thermometer which replaced a cruder 12″ long instrument that had required twenty minutes to reach a reliable reading. At the time of the formation of the Cambridge branch Allbutt was Professor of Medicine at Cambridge a post to which he had been appointed in 1892.

W.R. Inge was also a Yorkshireman educated at Eton (where he taught) and appointed to the chair of divinity at Cambridge whilst still in his forties. It was as Dean of St Paul’s, from 1911 to 1934, however that he was best known, acquiring the title of the “Gloomy Dean” for his prognostications on human folly. As a long time member of the Council of the Eugenics Society he struck up an unlikely, but influential, alliance with Havelock Ellis.

At this stage Ronald Fisher’s career was still ahead of him; it was predictably brilliant. A Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 39 he held the chair of eugenics at University College London from 1933 to 1943 and of genetics at Cambridge from 1943 to 1957. He was knighted in 1952. (see Newsletters 39.6 and 42.4).

John Maynard Keynes was undoubtedly to become the most famous and revered of all. According to A J P Taylor he single-handedly “invented most of modern economics” and played a statesmanlike role in the settlements following both world wars. At Versailles he opposed the harshness of the reparations imposed on Germany which undoubtedly led to World War II and in 1944 played a leading part in the establishment of the International Monetary Fund. He died just prior to being awarded the OM.


From 1913 to 1930 there was no Eugenics Society in Cambridge although the parent Society was still functioning in London and genetic research was progressing and becoming better understood. This was not specific to Cambridge as most provincial branches had closed as the First World War had led to membership dispersal. The Eugenics Education Society generally was going through difficult times due to changing ideologies with conflicts over heredity and environment. The Society began to recover in the late 1920s, membership rose with many academics and scientists joining, but amateurs including many women abandoned it for social and political reasons. As the economic situation deteriorated, many conservative middle-class intellectuals began to worry about unemployment with consideration being given to birth control and voluntary sterilization.

In the 1930s the mainline eugenics of Galton and Leonard Darwin stressing hereditary class differences and the need to breed out pauperism was rejected. Thanks to Fisher geneticists reconciled Mendelian genetics with Darwinian selection and this led the way to reform eugenics, a combination of heredity and environment which became more relevant politically with the prevailing intellectual move to the left. Progress in genetic research defeated voluntary sterilization and birth control was accepted. Dr C P Blacker became secretary of the national Eugenics Society and reshaped it as a professional body to include people from all political parties and a wider variety of academic disciplines. It was probably a mixture of social, economic, religious and scientific changes that led to this. The Society flourished in the 1930s due to its finances being boosted by a bequest from an Australian sheep farmer, Henry Twitchin, who left it a substantial sum of money.

In Cambridge, on 23 January 1930 Dr Aikman, a medical man who had been at Cambridge in the early years, but had not joined the Society, addressed the Cambridge Marshall Society of Economics and Politics on the subject of Eugenics proposing that the government should adopt compulsory sterilization as was the case in the US. Dr Aikman admitted that his case for eugenic methods had been based mainly on economic grounds but it could also be based on moral and humanitarian principles. At the end of his lecture he urged that the Cambridge University Eugenics Society should be refounded, and subsequently assisted actively in organizing this, becoming Vice President in 1931.

Three officers and a committee of six, all undergraduates, were set up with considerable support from prominent representatives of the University and a few townspeople, notably a couple of women. The President, N Way of Clare College, wrote to the national Society regarding revival of the Cambridge branch and invited Major Leonard Darwin to give the inaugural address on 24 February 1930, but he refused. Professor Holmes from the University of California was then invited and Leonard Darwin gave an opening address. Darwin gave a brief account of the old Society, particularly mentioning the valuable work done for eugenic research by Cambridge men such as Dr Fisher and Dr D Ward Cutler. Professor Holmes lectured on “The Eugenic Predicament” dwelling on the tendency of those with good hereditary endowments to produce fewer children than the less intelligent or desirable members of society.

Following further correspondence between Khuner, the branch secretary, and the London secretary, details of the Cambridge Society’s organization and financial arrangements were proposed. The local group would be left free autonomy regarding subscription arrangements and “when the moving spirit in a locality becomes inactive, through illness or otherwise, HQ can step in to propose or provide interim meetings until local substitutes can carry on again” (letter to Khuner from London secretary, 27 Feb 1930). This is an interesting proposal and perhaps it was put forward in view of the fact that in the early years, when Fisher left Cambridge the Society closed down.

Blacker, a reform eugenist and promoter of birth control, was invited to give the next lecture on Birth Control and the State, but was unable to come, although the archive letters imply that at first he accepted the invitation. E J Lidbetter, who had studied pauper pedigrees, stepped in at short notice with a lecture on Human Heredity. He later reported to the branch that it had been a good meeting, very well attended with many questions about sterilization; other questions were always about undesirable qualities “no-one seemed interested in human heredity on the constructive side” (letter 12 March 1930). In April Dr Aikman gave a talk on Eugenic Sterilization with reference to California, and in June Dr Ward Cutler who had trained in Cambridge and was now at Rothamsted Experimental Station was invited to talk on Heredity and Environment but was unable to come.

Following this there was correspondence between Blacker, now the national General Secretary, and the branch regarding affiliation. The affiliation fees would be waived and the Vice President would stand for election to the parent Council as representative of the Cambridge Society. Blacker also suggested that the secretary should give him names of undergraduate members going down each year in order that they may be invited to join the parent Society as full members. It is possible that these measures were undertaken as a consequence of the problems that the branch had faced in the early years as it had chosen not to affiliate at that time and this had affected its financial situation with lecturers being unable to come due to lack of sufficient funds to reimburse their travelling expenses. However, the situation did not improve because they still had difficulty finding lecturers as correspondence between Blacker and the branch indicates. There were to be discussion groups once a fortnight and several lectures were organized in 1931, but they did not all take place. The secretary wrote to Blacker that the Society still retained some financial instability inherited from the original officers, “but it is at least now firmly established and having some very interesting meetings” (February 1932). However, these meetings did not all take place. It is interesting to note that during this period there were more organized lectures given by academics rather than the informal undergraduate meetings.

The last recorded meeting was the Cambridge Union Debate on 9 February 1932 on Sterilization. Dr Blacker was invited to present the case for sterilization. The Cambridge Review (February 1932) favourably reported that Dr Blacker “achieved the rare success of combining instruction with a first class speech”. The motion for sterilization was passed with a majority of 3:1. From the report in the Cambridge Review on this debate, no Cambridge University Eugenics Society members are listed as speakers; they were urged to support this debate, but evidently not invited to take part; Blacker subsequently wrote to the treasurer that it was “unjust that the President of the Union did not consult with the Eugenics Society” (12 February 1932).

The last entry in the archives is 9 November 1933 when Blacker asked the new secretary to be the Cambridge representative on the Council. Evidently from this time no further lectures took place and no correspondence with London, although this was the beginning of a new academic year with new officers. They must have found it difficult to continue, and although they were offered support from London if they had difficulties, it does not appear to have materialized. As eugenics was going through a difficult time nationally, maybe this was one of the reasons they were unable or unwilling to help.

Turning to the officers and members of the Society at this time, from the records there is a marked change in the membership. The officers were made up of a mixture of academics, town and undergraduates. Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson was now Vice President; he was in Cambridge during the early years but had not served then. Quite a large proportion of the known membership was female, mostly undergraduates but one or two townswomen, a fact that was not recorded in the early years indicating that either they were not allowed to join, or chose not to. This differed from the national situation where women were disassociating themselves from the eugenic cause in the 1930s.

For by this date there was a well-established birth control movement which provided women with more direct and obviously effective endeavours. Yet there can be little doubt that women like Frida Laski, Dora Russell and Bessie Drysdale were able to employ in this new context the skills of advocacy and administration which many had acquired in the eugenics movement.


Only the redoubtable Marie Stopes managed to continue to remain active and influential in both movements.


Throughout the years of the Cambridge University Eugenics Society, it is interesting to note that it was very much an academic Society; in the early years members were all University, but during the latter period there were one or two townspeople serving as officers as well as women undergraduate members. It is much more specific to Cambridge than other provincial branches where there was a greater mix of professional people as well as academics. This may have been due to fewer academics being interested in eugenics in these towns. It may not have been that Cambridge had difficulty attracting professional people from the City to become members, but more likely that they preferred to be more of a closed Society as the Rules laid down in 1911 indicate that Council would decide who could join. With such a preponderance of intellectuals and scientists who were at the forefront of scientific research in eugenic and other fields, they may not have been establishment figures, but they were an elitist Society and townspeople would have felt excluded. This is an interesting difference from the Association for the Care of the Feeble-minded which had a mix of town and gown with many women involved.

The Cambridge Society’s demise before the First World War may have been due to several factors. When Fisher left Cambridge either he was unable to find a successor to keep eugenic interest going, or it was a combination of lack of a successor and the First World War. With men going off to fight and eugenics losing importance these were difficult times. The situation in the inter-war years was national with fluctuating interest in eugenics and changes in social, scientific and political viewpoints. The national Society only managed to survive into the 1930s with its bequest from Twitchin, so the reformation of the Cambridge Society and its survival for such a short period is not surprising. Despite Blacker’s suggestion that affiliation would assist the finances and ensure support from London, this did not materialize. It may have been a stagnant Society due to those Cambridge scientists who had been involved over the years retiring or dying and not enough new blood coming in to take over. It consisted mainly of university men and would have had more success with a greater mix of town and gown. The internal dynamism had withered away socially, scientifically and financially. The public view of eugenics was also changing though it is perhaps worth observing that there is not a single year in the history of the parent society when its Council did not contain at least one Cambridge academic.

There is also a difference between the two periods. During the early years the Cambridge Society held mainly undergraduate lectures with the occasional public lecture. These were well documented and supported in newspaper reports at the time. During the later years a change can be seen to more lectures being given by specialized academics rather than undergraduates, but no newspaper or other records were found on these.

Because of the attitude to eugenics in more recent times, biographies of many of the members do not record their involvement with the Eugenics Society, Cambridge or London; the only list I found was the Eugenics Watch website list of members.

Due to limitations of space it has not been possible to give fuller details of lectures and membership. If more archive information had been available, additional insight could have been gained regarding the Society’s functioning and pattern of membership.

Primary Sources

Aikman, K B, Eugenics, Lecture to Marshall Society, Cambridge University Marshall Society Minute Book, 1930, Marshall Library, Cambridge, p131

Cambridge Daily News reports on public lectures:

23 May 1911, Some Social and Religious Aspects of Eugenics, Prof Inge

6 December 1911, Genetics and Eugenics, Prof Punnett

10 February 1912, First Steps towards Eugenic Reform, Major L Darwin

29 April 1912, Mental Defects and Social Dangers, Mrs Pinsent

Cambridge Union Debate on Sterilization, 9 February 1932, reported in The Cambridge Review, February 1932, p255

Cambridge University Year Books, 1911-1913, 1930-1933

Darwin, L, 1912, First Steps towards Eugenic Reform, Eugenics Review 4, pp26-38

Eugenics at Cambridge, Eugenics Review, No 22, 1930, p43

Eugenics Society archives, Wellcome Library, Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, Euston Road, London:

Cambridge University Eugenics Society Minute Book, 1911-1913

Correspondence and details of some lectures:

Stock, C S, Eugenics, 29 October 1911

Fisher, R A, Heredity, 10 November 1911

Punnett, R C, Genetics and Eugenics, 5 December 1911

Kidd, F, Natural Selection and Mendelism, 13 February 1912

Doncaster, L, Sex Limited Inheritance, 14 February 1912

Cambridge University Eugenics Society Minute Book, 1930-1933

Eugenics Education Society, Sixth Annual Report (1913-1914)

Fisher, R A, 1914, Some Hopes of a Eugenist, Eugenic Review 5, pp309-315

Inge, W R, Some Moral Aspects of Eugenics, Eugenics Review 1, pp26-36
Secondary Sources

Blacker, C P (1952) Eugenics – Galton and after, London, Duckworth

Carey J (1992) The Intellectuals and the Masses – pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939, London, Faber

Dictionary of National Biography, 1905-1950

Eugenics Watch,

Farrall, L (1985) The Origin and Growth of the English Eugenics Movement 1865-1925, Garland Publishing, New York

Freeden, M (1979) Eugenics and Progressive Thought, The Historical Journal, 22, pp645-71

Jones, G (1992) Eugenics in Ireland: the Belfast Eugenics Society, 1911-15, Irish Historical Studies, No. 109, 28, pp81-95

Kevles, D J (1985) In the name of Eugenics, Berkeley

MacKenzie, D (1976) Eugenics in Britain, Social Studies of Science 6

Mazumdar, P (1992) Eugenics, Human Genetics and Human Failings, London, Routledge

Moore, J (2002) Good Breeding: Science and Society in a Darwinian Age, Study Guide, Open University

Paul, D B (1984) Eugenics and the Left, Journal of the History of Ideas 45, No. 4, pp567-90

Searle, G R (1976) Eugenics and Politics in Britain 1900-1914, Noordhoff International Publishers, Leyden

Searle, G R (1979) Eugenics and Politics in Britain in the 1930s, Annals of Science, vol 36, pp159-69

Searle, G R (1981) Eugenics and class, Offprint 11, Open University

Skidelsky, R (1983) J M Keynes, Vol 1, Hopes Betrayed, 1883-1920, Macmillan, London

Soloway, R A (1995) Demography and Degeneration, Chapel Hill

Veronica di Mambro lives in Cambridge and is stimulated by its lively intellectual environment. She is a part-time lecturer in Information Technology and has just graduated from the Open University with a BSc Honours degree. The History of Science and Technology formed a large part of her studies. This dissertation was the culmination of a final year course on “Good Breeding – Science and Society in a Darwinian Age”.

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