Historical Retrospect on Eugenics and Racial Biology – Pt 1


This is my introduction on Eugenics and how it has changed the world view on what is considered “normal” and “abnormal” in human behavior and medical history in terms of genetics and biology. The reason why the word Eugenics does not occur in Swedish early scientific history is due to the fact that the term was coined many years after Sweden already had done research in this topic for several years, then under the name “Rashygien”, “Racial Hygiene.” Another reason is because Sweden often had contacts with Germany from where the expression derives. I have for a long time been interested in Eugenics and racial biology, mostly because it was a concept that was highly regarded early on in Swedish scientific history, and because of the dark history from the past. While I was doing my website “Hate Hurts” on Discrimination and Racism in mid 90s until early 2000, I learned more about the research on Racial Biology performed in Sweden before and during World War 2, that was used to identify and locate individuals or groups of individuals with “unwanted” properties. The Research Institute that was founded in 1922 made revolutionary discoveries that aroused great interest from the rest of the world’s scientific community, not least in Nazi Germany during World War 2. The foundings within this science soon led to research on humans sexuality (read “homosexuality”).


Maciej Zaremba, journalist at Dagens Nyheter (Swedish dayily news paper) has been doing research on the Swedish involvement in Eugenics and the sterilization of its population.

Zaremba’s studies on the subject show that Swedish authorities have tried to hide many details about history of the Swedish racial biology. He also stresses that encyclopedias and textbooks did not mention anything about the Racial biological Institute, its work or racial biology, which may seem peculiar, because it was the first of its kind in the world. The Swedish institute also stood as a model for the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Racial Hygiene in Berlin, according to research made of Zaremba. So, I can see a pattern that there must have been information censored and erased from dictionaries and school books during a long time, if it ever was available at all for the public reader. Zaremba develops the thought that the reason for this may be because the ideas were discussed in general and more theoretically rather than to be practically executed. The thing is that Sweden, runned by the Social Democrats was one of the countries that initiated this practice to eradicate people with unwanted traits, another was Nazi Germany. While these ideas in Great Britain were supported by the Labour Party. As Maciej Zaremba explains;

“You could also express the matter more brutally: in Sweden, it was only under Social Democratic rule and in Germany only under Nazism that citizens could be deprived of their reproductive functions as a result of their origins or their disabilities. The picture does not improve, rather the opposite, when one also learns that the Swedish sterilization laws were passed by unanimous parliaments, in true democratic order, and more or less with the blessing of the Swedish Church*. The circumstances were fairly similar in the other Nordic countries as well.”

(Excerpt from his article “Rasren i välfärden”/Racial Purity in the welfare State – The hidden legacy of the Swedish folkhem”. Available in Swedish, English and Polish). First published in Dagens Nyheter, August 20, 1997)

(* Note: Church of Sweden, Lutheran Protestant church)

Maciej Zaremba, born March 12, 1951 is a Swedish journalist and author, since 1989 employed at Dagens Nyheters as a culture editor. He has received several Swedish honours and awards, and was appointed to the 2009 honorary doctorate at Lund University. He is also author of his 1999 book “De rena och de andra: Om tvångssteriliseringar, rashygien och arvsynd” (The pure and the others: on forced sterilizations, racial hygiene and original sin), Bokförlaget DN, 1999 (available in Swedish)


“Statens Institut för Rasbiologi” – Swedish Institute for Racial Biology (SIFR), was a Swedish institution, founded in 1922, following a political letter from mr. Nils Wohlin, Bondeförbundet (Farmers’ League, now “The Centre Party”), the Social Democrat Alfred Everett and others. There is every indication that the request of a racial biology institute in 1920 was written by Herman Lundborg, who became the first Director of the Institute. The Institute was the first of its kind in the world. We are writing Eugenics history!

As early as 1909, the “Swedish Society for Racial Hygiene” had already been formed. In the 1920s the so-called “danger of the degeneration” became a hot topic in the discussions. The “danger of degeneration” dealt with the alleged deterioration of people’s hereditary and biological “material” and “the poisoning of the society”. They were worried that people with “inferior” properties had generated more children than people with the “right” economic, social and cultural background, and that the Swedish people eventually would get what was considered to be inferior characteristics.
On May 13, 1921, the Swedish Parliament decided without a vote, to establish a Governmental Institute of racial biology. Behind the decision was a letter, which was presented to the Parliament’s Second Chamber on January 13, 1920 signed by leading politicians from all political parties. The creation of the Racial Biological Institute had the strongest possible political support.

The officially specified work for the Institute was to biologically research the Swedish population by studying various blood relationships within the Swedish population and other population groups, their living conditions and opportunities of development, to clarify both the biological heritage, the environment’s significance for individuals, families and peoples, as well as to investigate diseases and normal human faculties and heredity conditions.


The Institute’s guiding principle was the prevailing research about Eugenics, which was carried out around several countries by that time. A quote by the British philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) formulates the idea of “the survival of the fittest,” which he makes in his book “Principles of Biology” where he writes:
”…The whole effort of nature is to get rid of the ‘unfit’ and make room for the better.” (“Principles of Biology” of 1864)

Spencer was not a biologist. But he saw the “struggle between the species” as he read about Darwin as a model of a large value for how the “law of nature” could be applied on other areas in society, such as economy and culture. As regarding the development of society, you would not interfer in “natural selection”. And “humanitarian impulses” must be resisted if they are not laws of nature. As was also the case with the economy, would be put out of order. Here is where the “Social Darwinism” took shape.


Another important piece of the puzzle to understand the emergence of Race Biology is the rediscovery of the “Mendel Genetic Laws” that took place around the year 1900. The German-Czechian born Abbot Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) had, after he tried to grow larger peas, noticed some biological laws that governed how certain genes are distributed to the next generation.

From that, he could distinguish between “recessive” and “dominant” predispositions, as well as how different characteristics might appear to “skip over” one generation. Mendel published his foundings already in 1866, but his insights remained dormant until the turn of the century, when they were noticed by modern biologists. One of them was Karl Pearson, closely tied to the statistician Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), a key figure in this context.


Galton was a cousin to Charles Darwin and tried with the help of statistics find medical relations. His motto was “Count everything!” He left lasting contributions including the development of modern meteorology. And he was also one of the explorers of fingerprints.

After reading his halfcousin’s “On the Origin of Species” he wanted to bring the evolutionary idea further to include the human being, something Darwin himself was not quite interested in. Galton wanted to measure and to calculate the human form, the range on the shape of head, the normal length, something we later on associate with later race biologists.

But he was also interested in measuring how “talents” were distributed and how the “intellect” could be inherited. He set up long lists of famous men and their relatives, and claimed there to find statistical relationships. Talented people got talented offspring. It was Galton who in 1883 coined the word “eugenics” which he formed of the Greek words for “well” and “born,” meaning “well fed,” “of good (genetic) background.”

Galton wanted to give the population in England, a kind of a “score,” a kind of social security numbers, numerical codes which would tell how well people were suited to give offspring with each other. He even dreamed of a “eugenic religion” which would change the values of the people. He understood that his thinking would meet to resistance. Galton was well established in his lifetime and after his death, a special professorship was instituted in his name at the University of London.

Now, everything seemed to get together; Galton’s statistical theories, Mendel’s Law, the fear for overpopulation, and the fear that “wrong” type of people would multiply, and Spencer’s ideas on the relationship between economics and Darwinism.

This swept for a new kind of science that would deal with contemporary hazards, using scientific and measurable methods. Galton expressed doubts in using forced methods to prevent certain people from marrying and having children, or to even prevent people from reproducing at all. He believed in a more “positive eugenic,” encouraging the “right” kind of people to have many children, and the “right” people were the ones that climbed high on the societal pyramid. For Galton and his contemporary researchers, that was still the most visible sign on intelligence and ability, that people have pulled themself up into the upper class or upper middle class. While Galton had doubts about forced methods, his successors were more into such thoughts.


Swedish scientists were already in the 1700’s at the forefront when it came to botany and zoology. In the tradition after Carl von Linné (Carl Linnaeus), scholars such as mr. Anders Retzius and his son Gustaf worked in the 1800s to map the form and spread of the human. They invented the concepts of “long-headed” and “short-headed” to classify humanity scientifically. Sweden was now entirely in line with the rest of the scientific world! The Swedish concept has its own origin, which merges with the international – the early successful rich Swedish “research on naturalia” or botany, with Carl von Linné as the brightest shining star.

In the wake of Linnaeus attempts to classify humans (or “Homo sapiens” as he classified us in 1758) in different “varieties,” Anders Retzius (1796-1860) drew up a “scale index” which assumed the shape of the human cranium. Retzius was a professor of Anatomy and early linked to Karolinska Institute. He wanted to divide the humanity and not least the Swedish population into two main types: “dolichocephalic” (long headed) and “brachycephalic” (short headed). He tried to see such differences in head shape as an explanation for a kind of underlying conflict between two different “human races” in Sweden: the long headed, which was northern Europeans, “enterprising, warlike”, against the short headed, Slavs and people of Eastern European origin, “lethargic, passive, conservative.” Such ideas now spread rapidly in popular education and popular science. As the doctor and teacher Anton Nyström (1842-1931) when he in “Allmän Kulturhistoria”, Första bandet 1885 – (General Culture History, vol. 1, 1885), suggesting that the rural poor are closer to negroes and barbarians!

Galton and Retzius “scientific knowledge” becomes the backbone of the science during the late 1800s under the name “Physical anthropology” for those who want to study precisely the differences between people. Here we see once again how scientific evidences, in themselves can be checked, they are included in superior stories without scientific basis.

Anders Retzius’ son Gustaf Retzius (1842-1919) takes over his father’s title as a professor at the Karolinska Institute and also his scientific methods. He is interested in the differences between Finns and Swedes, and above all, he is the publisher of the great encyclopedia “Anthropologia Suecica” (Swedish anthropology) in 1902. It was based on careful measurements of 45.000 men doing military service. With his measurements, Retzius claimed to be able to determine different “traits of races” in different parts of the country.

There is a difference between people; in the background there was always the idea of a distinct North-European, “Nordic” race, which would be the “highest” ranking human being. That is an assumption that is rarely backed up, but rather taken for granted – yet another fascinating example of how myth, conjectures and chauvinism in racial biology merges with accurate and “hard science.”

Gustaf Retzius is also interesting in another way: this founder of Swedish eugenics was not politically conservative. On the contrary, he was clearly liberal and participated in the radical Aftonbladet which he also owned for a time. (Aftonbladet, Democratic news paper). With father and son Retzius the foundation is laid for Eugenics as a “science” in Sweden.

End of part 1 of “Historical Retrospect on Eugenics and Racial Biology”

Note: Carl von Linné or Carl Linnaeus (1707 -1778), was a Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist, who laid the foundations for the modern scheme of binomial nomenclature. He is known as the father of modern taxonomy, and is also considered one of the fathers of modern ecology. Many of his writings were in Latin, and his name is rendered in Latin as Carolus Linnæus (after 1761 Carolus a Linné). He was a contemporary of Jean-Jacques Rosseau (1712-1778) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832).

• Edwin Black: “War against the weak” (Four walls, eight windows 2003)
• Gunnar Broberg: “Statlig rasforskning”/“Governmental Research on Race”, (Lunds universitet 1995)
• Maria Björkman, Akademic dissertation
• Nils von Hofsten, “Eugenics and sterilizations during 1909-1963”
• Gunnar Broberg och Mattias Tydén: “Oönskade i folkhemmet”/“Undesirable in the Swedish Heimat”, (Gidlunds 1991)
• Stefan Kühl: “The Nazi Connection” (Oxford University Press 1994)
• Bosse Lindqvist: “Förädlade svenskar”/“Processed Swedes”, (Alfabeta 1997)
• Encyclopaedia Britannica, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (electronic resources)
• Maciej Zaremba: “Rasren i välfärden”/“Racial Purity in the welfare State”, first published in Dagens Nyheter, August 20, 1997

© 2012 Jonathan Axelsson
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“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 1881-1955)
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