Eugenics: The Scientific Scandal That Helped Hitler Murder 300,000 Disabled People

Eugenics is a concept often associated with the horrors of Nazi Germany. But, as disability rights activist Adam Pearson explores in a new documentary series, the ideology had its roots in 19th century Britain—and still affects people alive today.

Known as the "father of eugenics," British Victorian scientist and statistician Sir Francis Galton developed the since debunked theory that individuals deemed "superior" according to factors such as their race or class could be socially engineered. Those regarded as biologically inferior and "feeble-minded" should, meanwhile, be prevented from having children, he argued.

Cherry picking the theories of his cousin Charles Darwin, who pioneered the theory of evolution, Galton developed a ranking of humans—for instance placing Australian Aborigines one "grade" below Africans.

In the decades that followed, these ideas have inspired horrifying policies from the murder of thousands of disabled people in Nazi Germany, to the sterilization of tens of thousands of people in the U.S. in the early 20th century.

Newsweek asked Pearson, a presenter and anti-bullying campaigner, what he learned while filming BBC Four's Eugenics: Science's Greatest Scandal Pearson alongside science journalist Angela Saini.

Adam Pearson, bbc four, Angela Saini  Science’s Greatest Scandal
Disability rights activist Adam Pearson (left) and journalist Angela Saini explored the origins of eugenics in Britain in the BBC Four documentary Eugenics: Science’s Greatest Scandal. BBC Four

Were theories related to eugenics dark from the start, or did they come from a place of genuine scientific curiosity and later misused?

Everything comes from a place of curiosity, and science is a weapon of great power for change. The extent to which change happens, and more significantly, how it is allowed to happen, all comes down to those people who are wielding it. In this instance, the power was in that hands of well-thought of men who—in what we now know to be misuse—was left to go unchallenged.

What are some policies that were influenced by or based on the theories of eugenics?

One of the big ones, as pertains to disability, was The Mental Deficiency Act of 1913. Whilst the act wasn't used until 1919, due to us [Britain] being at war, what it meant was that individuals whom were deemed "imbeciles" on grounds of both intellect and morality, could be segregated from society and literally locked away in an asylum. The number involved and the loss of freedom, with the benefit of retrospection, is truly shocking and heart breaking.

What were the most shocking things that you learned while filming this program?

We went to one of the earliest of examples of these asylums in Leeds [U.K.], a place called Meanwood Park. Mark Davis [a photographer and archivist] who I met was fascinated by the whole place and has kept loads of archives from its history.

If you add up the amount of years served by its 35 longest-serving inmates—who had committed no crime other than being disabled—it comes to just under 2,000 years. Truly heartbreaking.

Do any moments from filming the program stand out to you?

There was no one moment in particular, but there was an overwhelming sense of "this would have been me." Had I been born in those times I'd definitely been sent to one of these asylums, or even worse taken to a Nazi Aktion T4 camp and executed as one the 300,000 disabled people murdered under Hitler's regime.

As a disability rights activist, how did learning about eugenics and creating this documentary make you feel?

I've honestly been all over the spectrum of emotions. I've felt seething anger, great sorrow and even mild heartbreak. I interviewed a man called Harvey Waterman [a man in his eighties] who was kept in one of these asylums, a place called St. Lawrence's [in Caterham, Surrey, U.K.]

As a journalist and activist, I'm no stranger to pain, but this is the only interview where I have to take a break halfway through. I pretended to need to toilet and had to take time to pull myself together. Though, more importantly, I felt inspired and hopeful. Having met several other activists, alongside medical professions and scientists, I believe the weapons of science are now in safer hands.

How much did you know about the history of eugenics before you started filming? Do you think it is a topic there is enough awareness of?

I knew the term, as should everyone, though I was unaware of the extent of how well respected it was. Even Winston Churchill [British Prime Minister during the World War II] was a heavy endorser of eugenics and what it stood for.

Are people still suffering from the effects of the ideology? I believe you met a woman who was sterilized?

Yes, Elena [Gorolova]. She was sterilized due to medical complications during child birth—that was the medical answer. However, there are a disproportionate number of Roma Gypsy women from her country of Czechia who this has happened to.

She set up a campaign group and after years of fighting for justice politicians, finally passed a bill in order to compensate them. It just proves that while the term eugenics has been laid to rest, eugenic thinking is still alive, well and thriving in society.

Amid a divisive political climate which saw white supremacists rally in Charlottesville in 2017, do you worry that the theories of eugenics will drawn upon once again?

I do, but by the same token I like to think that we have learned enough from the past to be able to halt such propaganda and eugenic thinking as and when it arises.

Moving forward, how can we avoid ideas reminiscent of eugenics becoming widespread—particularly as scientists make breakthroughs in fields like genetics and so-called human enhancement?

We have a whole area of science called bioethics, whose sole job is to ensure that this whole "designer baby" debate doesn't happen, and that science and medicine are always used for the betterment of patients, not to make a master society.

What do you want viewers to take away from the documentary?

That eugenics has a history and that it affects all of us. It isn't just a disabled issue, or Jewish issue. It's a humanity issue. I want people to watch this and feel the weight of the issue like Angela and I did. If this documentary makes you feel highly uncomfortable then good, it should.

nazi party, germany, Nuremberg, adolf hilter, getty
A huge crowd of soldiers in combat gear stands at attention beneath the reviewing stand at Nuremberg, Germany, listening to a speech by Adolf Hitler during the Nazi Party rally of 1936. The theory of eugenics was used as a basis for Nazi social policies. Getty