Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Ronald Fisher in 1957

Science & Tech <>
28 July 2020
RA Fisher and the science of hatred

The great statistician was also a racist who believed in the forced
sterilisation of those he considered inferior.
By Richard J Evans <>

In 1989, the fellows of Gonville and Caius College (founded in 1348, and
one of Cambridge University’s largest, wealthiest and most prestigious
collegiate institutions) had the genial idea of fitting stained-glass
windows in the dining hall to commemorate prominent scientists who had been
among its members, counterbalancing the many lawyers and divines whose
portraits adorn its walls. By the early 2000s the collection included a
double helix, paying homage to Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the
structure of DNA, and other windows showing the scientific achievements of
men such as the mathematician and philosopher John Venn, the physicist
James Chadwick and the physiologist Charles Sherrington.

The collection also includes a “Latin Square”, a mathematical device
invented by Ronald Fisher, who is widely regarded as the most important
biostatistician of the 20th century. Richard Dawkins has called him “the
greatest biologist since Darwin”. His book *Statistical Methods for
Research Workers*, published in 1925, exercised a huge influence, and he is
often referred to as the father of modern experimental design – the subject
of another important book. For a long time he taught at University College,
London, where a professorship is named after him, before moving to
Cambridge as Balfour Professor of Genetics and Fellow of Gonville and Caius
College, where he had studied as an undergraduate between 1909 and 1912.

Fisher’s work in statistics was closely integrated into the science of
eugenics – the supposed improvement of the human stock through selective
breeding, the encouragement of "superior" genetic stock (Fisher himself put
his beliefs into practice by siring no fewer than eight children), and
discouragement, either by persuasion or by some form of compulsion
(including sterilisation) of "inferior" lines of heredity. Head of the
Department of Eugenics at UCL, editor from 1934 of the *Annals of Eugenics*,
and a prominent member of the British Eugenics Society, he was also
co-founder in 1947 of the journal *Heredity* with the Oxford Professor of
Botany, Cyril Darlington. Darlington claimed that as slaves in America,
Africans “improved in health and increased in numbers” because they were
living in an environment far superior to that of their home continent;
emancipation had destroyed this advantage, he argued, by removing the
discipline under which they had lived as slaves, leading to problems of
“drugs, gambling and prostitution” in the African-American community.

Racist and eugenic ideas such as these were widespread in the first half of
the 20th century, but they were discredited by the crimes of the Nazi
regime in Germany, which, besides enacting measures to encourage healthy
members of the “Aryan” master-race to have more children, also sterilized
some 400,000 supposedly inferior Germans and, during the war, murdered by
gassing, lethal injection or starvation and neglect anything between
100,000 and 200,000 German men, women and children. More than 400
mixed-race Germans, the legacy of Germany’s pre-1914 colonial empire in
Africa, were forcibly sterilized, while on a larger scale, the Nazis’
General Plan for the East envisaged the death of at least 30 million
“Slavs” whom they considered racially inferior, and, of course, the Nazis
murdered six million Jews, again purely on racial grounds. Eugenics and
racism were inextricably intermingled, not least in the United States,
where the compulsory sterilization of the eugenically “inferior” was also
widely practised.

Fisher was less unsympathetic to Nazi eugenics than most of his British
colleagues were. In the mid-1930s he campaigned for the legalization of
compulsory eugenic sterilization especially of the “mentally defective”. He
was a British representative at the International Federation of Eugenic
Organizations until the war, where he met regularly with German colleagues
involved in the compulsory sterilization programme. In Britain, the
mainstream of the Eugenics Society wanted to keep the Germans at arm’s
length and did not support compulsory sterilization, not least because it
knew that a law to this effect would never get through the House of

However, the line between compulsory and voluntary sterilization was a fine
one, and in practice all too easily crossed by medical officials. The
extent to which the 17 per cent of the British population estimated by
Fisher to be “defectives” were capable of objecting to their own
“voluntary” sterilization when advised to do so by medical authorities must
be extremely doubtful. The opposition of the Catholic Church was a given,
but objections also came from the Labour Party, based on the fact that
those identified as “defectives” were concentrated in working-class areas,
so the definition of “defective” was as much social as anything else.
Fisher left the Eugenics Society in 1934 because he felt it was paying too
little attention to scientists and giving too much weight to political

Before and after the war, Fisher corresponded with Otmar Baron von
Verschuer, an eminent German “racial hygienist” and PhD supervisor of the
notorious Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele. In a report to the German
Research Council in 1944, Verschuer acknowledged Mengele’s assistance in
supplying his institute, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology,
Human Heredity, and Eugenics, with some “scientific materials” from
Auschwitz: “My assistant, Dr. Mengele (M.D., Ph.D.) has joined me in this
branch of research. He is presently employed as Hauptsturmführer and camp
physician in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Anthropological
investigations on the most diverse racial groups of this concentration camp
are being carried out with permission of the SS Reichsführer [Himmler]; the
blood samples are being sent to my laboratory for analysis.” These included
blood from twins infected by Mengele with typhus, and in some cases samples
obtained from twins by murdering them.

Fisher remained on friendly terms with Verschuer after the war, as the
American historian Bradley Hart noted in his Cambridge PhD thesis (2011),
and tried to arrange a post-war visit to Britain for him, complaining to
Verschuer in 1948 that “It does not seem to be at all easy to arrange a
visit to this country. There has evidently been a good deal of denigration,
which I do not believe has any substantial basis”.

The “denigration” to which he referred was publicity given to Verschuer’s
close collaboration with Mengele, of which Fisher cannot have been
ignorant. However, Verschuer destroyed sufficient incriminating evidence to
ensure that the International War Crimes Tribunal’s attempts to bring him
to trial for crimes against humanity came to nothing. He reinvented himself
as a “geneticist” and resumed his career in post-war West Germany with some

In 1950, Fisher was consulted by a UNESCO commission set up as a result of
the Nazis’ crimes. Its consensus statement concluded that there was no
scientific basis for the idea of racial difference in intelligence and
character. But Fisher had a “fundamental objection to the statement”, it
was reported. “He believes that human groups differ profoundly ‘in their
innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development’.” In his
correspondence with Reginald Ruggles Gates, a Canadian-born eugenicist who
believed that human races were actually separate species, Fisher stated
that he was “sorry there is propaganda in favour of miscegenation in North

Fisher’s views were far from uncontroversial in his own day. It took 15
years for the idea of a commemorative stained-glass window at Gonville and
Caius to be accepted, and the proposal made no mention of the fact that he
was a eugenicist and did not contextualise the window with any reference to
his views on sterilization and race.

At the beginning of this year, however, the issue of the commemorative
window was raised by the Gonville and Caius Student Union BME officer. A
petition for the window’s removal received more than 1,400 signatures, many
of them present and former College members. It objected in particular to
Fisher’s “endorsements of colonialism, white supremacy and eugenics” in a
1930 publication where “he wrote that civilizations fail because people of
‘low genetic value’ (read black and brown people) have more children than
people with ‘high genetic value’” (read white Europeans) and said that this
was already happening in Great Britain.

The College’s Senior Tutor, Dr Andrew Spencer, accepted the petition and
asked pointedly what kind of message the window was sending to the black,
minority ethnic and indeed working-class students, staff and fellows of all
races. At Caius, students dine in Hall every evening and most lunchtimes,
under “a window that memorialises the achievements of a man who regarded
races as differing profoundly ‘in their innate capacity for intellectual
and emotional development.’ “This”, Spencer said, “is the opposite
sentiment of the kind of fellowship that we seek to promote at Caius by
living and dining together.” Widening participation is a key aim nowadays
of Cambridge Colleges, and the window in such a prominent location did not
exactly encourage this.

On 24 June the College Council decided that the window should be removed,
subject to Listed Building consent, and it has now been taken down. Dr
Spencer had suggested it be put in a dedicated space as part of a small
exhibition about Fisher, so it would not be forgotten. The episode has
raised key questions about how to deal with racism, both scientific and
everyday, that is now the focus of a wide debate in the College community.
This has opened up a classic rift between the scientists on the one hand,
and the humanities and social science dons on the other. Which is more
important – a scientist’s undoubted eminence, influence and distinction in
his special, technical field, or the fact that he espoused broader views
that now arouse strong objections in a community of scholars and students?
The debate is far from over. The College has set up a working group to
consider wider issues of diversity and representation, which will include
the vexed question of the Fisher window. And it is organizing a public
conference that will address these issues as well.

Other academic institutions are engaged in similar discussions. University
College London has re-labelled buildings named after two other, perhaps
even more prominent eugenicists of the late 19th and early 20th century,
Francis Galton and Karl Pearson. The point is not to denigrate their
achievements in areas where recognition is due – Pearson established a
range of statistical methods that, like Fisher’s, are still in use today.
The point is, any memorial to racists and eugenicists “creates an
unwelcoming environment for many in our community”, as Michael Arthur,
Provost of UCL has rightly said. The right way to understand them and their
ideas is through a properly contextualized display in a museum, not through
an uncommented memorial that conceals more than it reveals.

Memorials in the end are less about the past than about the present and the
future. The questions institutions need to ask of themselves are, what
contribution do the memorials they display make to building a future that
is democratic and inclusive and encourage all their members to respect one
another’s identity? And what should they do with those that don’t?

Richard J Evans is regius professor emeritus of history at Cambridge
University, and the author of *The Third Reich in History and Memory*