Nature editorial refires debate on scientific monuments

Op-ed on statues of eugenicists and researchers who denied rights to non-white people branded ‘disastrous’

September 11, 2017
Statue being worked on

Historians like to say that everything has a history. Yet the natural sciences remain somewhat removed from academic debates over what to do with monuments tied to dark chapters in American history.

That’s changing, though.

In a twist to discussions about campus memorials linked to slavery and racism, the natural sciences are facing new questions about monuments tied to eugenics and to individuals who denied basic rights to those non-white people on whom they did research.

In one example, scientists and other academics lit up social media in a response to an editorial in Nature called “Removing Statues of Historical Figures Risks Whitewashing History”. Some critics objected to the term “whitewashing” itself, saying that leaving memorials to eugenicists and other problematic figures unchallenged is the real whitewashing.

Others objected to the editorial’s examples, including the controversial statue of J. Marion Sims in New York City’s Central Park. Erected in 1894 to honour Sims, who is known as the father of modern gynaecology, the statue was recently defaced. The word “racist” was painted on it, along with red marks, presumably in reference to Sims’s practice of experimenting on enslaved women without anaesthesia.

Sims was “far from the only doctor experimenting on slaves in 1849, despite the fact that the abolitionist movement was well underway in the United States,” reads Nature’s editorial. “And his achievements saved the lives of black and white women alike. But some historians argue that his experiments could have been considered unethical even for his time.”

The editorial also discusses Thomas Parran Jr, the US surgeon general who oversaw the Tuskegee study that involved withholding vital information and treatment from black men with syphilis. He was involved in similar research in Guatemala. Parran Hall, at the University of Pittsburgh, where he later worked, nevertheless houses the Graduate School of Public Health.

In cases where painful reminders of history are allowed to stand, the piece says, they could be “supplemented” by notes akin to those in biomedical literature. The American Medical Association, for instance, recommends that if “unethically acquired data are essential to science, any use or citation of these data should describe the unethical behaviour and pay respect to the victims of the experimentation,” according to Nature.

Institutions and cities, meanwhile, could do something similar, in the form of historical markers, Nature argues. Such a marker stands for Carrie Buck, “a young woman who was the first person to be sterilised under a 1924 eugenics programme in the US, which was designed to eliminate ‘genetically inferior’ people with mental and physical disabilities. It stands in Charlottesville, just a few blocks – but a million miles away – from the disputed statue of General [Robert E.] Lee.”

The Atlantic called the editorial “disastrous,” saying that Nature’s editors “seem to think that removing Sims’s statue would constitute an erasure of history, a claim that has also been advanced on behalf of Confederate monuments, by President Trump among others.”

But such arguments “badly misunderstand the role of statues in civic life,” reads the Atlantic piece. “The writing of history and the building of monuments are distinct acts, motivated by distinct values. A society’s monuments do not now, and never have, purported to be an accurate recording of its history, but rather an elevating of particular individuals as representative of its highest ideals and triumphs…There is no reason that [science’s] ethic of self-correction shouldn’t apply to choices the scientific community makes about who it honours.”

As for the medical sciences in particular, there is a “useful precedent” in cases involving the inhuman treatment of medical subjects, the piece says – the “longstanding taboo on using results from Josef Mengele’s experiments on Jews in Nazi death camps. And nowhere on this earth is Mengele honoured with a public statue.”

Nature responded to the criticism with a note of apology from Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief. Calling the editorial “offensive and poorly worded,” he said the journal had changed the title to “Science Must Acknowledge Its Past Mistakes and Crimes” because the previous version suggested support for “statues of scientists who have done grave injustice to minorities and other people”.

Other elements of the piece were changed to reflect Nature’s position that memorials that are allowed to stand “should be accompanied by context that makes the injustice clear and acknowledges the victims”, Campbell said.

At the University of Michigan, five faculty members of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts have asked President Mark Schlissel to strike the name C. C. Little from a campus building dedicated to him in 1968. A past president of the university, Little was a geneticist who also served as president of the American Eugenics Society.

“Little was an active eugenicist and eugenics promoter, and later in his life a spokesperson for the tobacco industry who tried to cast doubt on the claims that smoking caused cancer,” reads the faculty request. “Little helped contribute to and popularise a now discredited approach to population management – eugenics – that sanctioned identification and sterilisation of ‘unfit’ individuals as well as the identification of superior and inferior races (although Little himself rejected the notion of a racial hierarchy).”

Faculty members, led by John Carson, an associate professor of history, are collecting signatures and endorsements via an online petition. They note that their request aligns with previously articulated university guidelines on rethinking campus history and traditions.

“This is among the first powerful test cases of whether this process will allow us to productively debate the merits of renaming requests, and whether it will prove to be a mechanism for institutional change,” reads the petition.

A spokesperson for Michigan said that the request is currently being weighed by the President’s Advisory Committee on University History.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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