King's College London
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Mind Matters: neuroscience and psychiatry

Leonard Darwin

Major Leonard Darwin (1850-1943), the eighth child and fourth son of Charles Darwin, is reputed to have chosen a military career because he regarded himself as the stupidest member of the family. In addition to being an accomplished photographer and chemist, he succeeded the scientist Francis Galton as President of the Eugenics Education Society in 1911, in which post he remained until 1928. An application for fellowship of the Society is on display here.

Applicatition form for Fellowship of the Eugenics Education Society, found in a copy of Leonard Darwin'sThe need for eugenic reform. London: John Murray, 1926 [Institute of Psychiatry Historical Collection h/Dar]Applicatition form for Fellowship of the Eugenics Education Society, found in a copy of Leonard Darwin'sThe need for eugenic reform. London: John Murray, 1926 [Institute of Psychiatry Historical Collection h/Dar]Eugenics – the idea that the physical, mental, and behavioural qualities of the human race could be improved by suitable management and manipulation of its hereditary essence – embraced several intertwined political and social anxieties among influential intellectuals which went far beyond mental health. Since the early days of psychiatry alienists had adhered to hereditary explanations of mental disease in the absence of anything better. Although Henry Maudsley was not himself actively involved in eugenics, others held that his theories had their natural outcome in this movement.

Alcoholism (which increased sharply during the nineteenth century), criminality, low intelligence and mental illness were all seen by eugenicists as interconnected factors which, as they saw it, posed the danger of racial degeneration. ‘Unfit’ individuals were, according to the related theory of social Darwinism, doomed to fall by the wayside anyway, so human society had to find a way of helping nature along, lest the ‘fit’ were dragged down as well.

Eugenicists were divided about the best means to achieve their aims: voluntary or forcible sterilisation, birth control or financial incentives. Some were willing to entertain other ideas, if only to draw back from them at the last minute. In one chilling passage Leonard Darwin asserts:

No doubt capital punishment does produce beneficial racial effects; but the number thus eliminated are likely to be so small that … the keenest eugenist would hardly think it worth his while to advocate its introduction or retention on racial grounds alone..

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