Deliberate campaign behind racial biology in Uppsala
13 December 2021
A century ago, in 1921, the Swedish State Institute for Racial Biology was established in Uppsala following a decision by the Swedish parliament (riksdag). It was the culmination of a deliberate campaign by influential researchers and politicians, driven by new ideas of improved public health, says Sven Widmalm, Professor of the History of Science and Ideas.
Herman Lundborg, the Institute’s first director (1921–35), was a docent of ‘racial biology’ at Uppsala University. A close associate was Herman Nilsson-Ehle, an eminent geneticist and plant breeder at Lund University, who held Sweden’s first chair in genetics (called ‘heredity’ at the time).
During the 1910s, these two scientists along with members of a Stockholm-based society for eugenics lobbied nationwide to set up an institute for racial biology. Their activities included a eugenics exhibition, held in Stockholm, Uppsala, Gävle, Visby and Gothenburg in 1919.
'“It was an effective way of spreading propaganda for racial biology. They also ran media campaigns and published a series of pamphlets on why this new ‘science’ was needed,” Widmalm says.
Improving public health
The campaign focused on the perceived necessity of racial biology for improving Swedish public health. It stressed that many social problems were caused by hereditary illnesses, such as alcoholism. Surveys of various population groups in Sweden might, the campaigners believed, be a means of preventing these problems from being inherited.
“Degeneration – a deterioration of the Swedish gene pool – was seen as a general threat to public health. But for most people the danger of degeneration was probably linked more with social class than with the Sami – or immigrants, who weren’t very numerous at the time,” Widmalm says.
So where did these ideas come from? The science of genetics was so new that it had yet to receive a generally accepted name. In the early 20th century, the Mendelian principles of heredity were rediscovered and began to be applied, first in plant breeding and subsequently in medicine. Contemporary terms for the new science were ‘heredity’ or, for human genetics, ‘racial biology’ and sometimes ‘eugenics’. Lundborg was a pioneer in that field.
Roots in colonialism
As for the interest in how various ethnic groups differ and ideas about the superiority of the ‘Nordic race’, they were rooted in physical anthropology and colonialism.
“Broadly speaking, colonialism was of huge ideological importance. Western colonisation of much of Africa and Asia and the establishing of white supremacy in those countries was taken as evidence of European, including Nordic, racial superiority.”
The basic idea was that races differ for example in terms of cranium shape, eye colour and stature, but also in intelligence and other mental traits.
“They used biometric methods to provide statistical support for the existence of ethnic differences. It is well known that crania were measured but in order to drive home the idea that ethnic differences had genetic causes they really measured everything.”
Link to Nazism
Their connections with German racial biology and German scientists, who were to gain a prominent position in the field during the Nazi period, were strong at first. But with the rise of Nazism, racial biology lost some of its prestige in Sweden. The Institute for Racial Biology in Uppsala was not a large organisation, and fairly soon there were cuts in its research funding, which Lundborg complained about.
“He did many things that the government didn’t think he should be doing, including repeated trips to Lapland to make his measurements and take his photos. In many people’s view, that wasn’t exactly relevant to the purpose of improving public health.”
When Gunnar Dahlberg succeeded Lundborg as director of the Institute for Racial Biology, the hard line of racial biology lost much influence. Dahlberg was an anti-Nazi and more theoretically oriented than Lundborg.
As a medical statistician, Dahlberg did research on general questions relating to biological inheritance based on, for instance, twin studies. Racial biology now became more academically oriented. In 1958, the Institute’s activities were subsumed into Uppsala University’s Department of Medical Genetics.
Connection between science and politics
What can we learn from history? One fascinating aspect is the link between science and politics, Widmalm says.
“It illustrates how politicians like to seize on claims of major scientific breakthroughs in the near future that will help solve big challenges like those of public health. There’s a danger in buying into a scientific rhetoric that’s just not based on reason. That’s been a recurrent theme in research policy debate throughout the 20th century, right up to the present. The Institute for Racial Biology is an example of how badly things can go.”
Around the time when the Institute was set up, some politicians – such as the Social Democrat Artur Engberg and Nils Wohlin of the Farmers’ League (later to become the Centre Party) – undoubtedly had racist leanings too, according to Widmalm.
“It’s often said that the ideas of racial biology in the 1920s were ‘of their time’, but that’s not an adequate explanation. How influential they became was largely down to the activities of some influential propagandists, like Lundborg and Nilsson-Ehle, and the political support they secured. In Sweden it wasn’t wholehearted, but in Germany, they happened to get a regime that based much of its ideology on notions of racial biology, so support for it there became far, far greater than it was here.”
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