Caltech engages in big-time renaming involving eugenics

November 11, 2021 • 12:45 pm

The Caltech Weekly, the University’s magazine, describes all the renamings going on—renamings of buildings and professorships. Click on the screenshot below:

The reason for the changes? According to the report below, the three individuals whose names are effaced, were involved in the eugenics movement—specifically, the Human Betterment Foundation (HBF), which collected data on and advocated for compulsory sterilization of people whose reproduction was seen as undesirable. I quote from both the article above and the report below.

The Caltech Board of Trustees, in accord with recommendations from President Thomas F. Rosenbaum, the Committee on Naming and Recognition (CNR), and the Ruddock House Renaming Committee, has approved the following names to replace those on campus assets and honors that previously memorialized individuals affiliated with the eugenics movement:

The “eugenics movement” to which they refer is the HBF, which the report below characterizes this way:

In 1938, the Human Betterment Foundation published a pamphlet, “Human Sterilization Today,” advocating for the forced sterilization of “defectives,” saying that “modern sterilization is not a mutilation in any sense of the word,” that “eugenic sterilization in this form represents one of the greatest advances in modern civilization,” and that the foundation aims to “investigate the possibilities of race betterment by eugenic sterilization, and publish the results.” The Human Betterment Foundation distributed 140,000 copies throughout the United States (https://bit.ly/2CINLEZ).

Apparently the HBF did have some weight, as one paper argues that over 20,000 Californians in state-run homes and hospitals were involuntarily sterilized between 1909 and 1979: a full third of all Americans eugenically sterilized during this period.

Here are all the renamings. All of the replacement names of people were done to honor people who increased diversity, with the exception being geneticist E. B. Lewis, a Nobel Laureate:

  • Caltech Hall (formerly the Robert A. Millikan Memorial Library)

Basis for recommendation: This recommendation follows extensive consideration of Millikan’s participation in the eugenics movement as a late trustee of the Human Betterment Foundation (HBF); of Gosney as HBF founder and president; and of Chandler, Munro, Robinson, and Ruddock as either HBF founding trustees or members. The CNR also considered evidence of Millikan’s stances on gender, race, and ethnicity.

. . . Millikan’s stances on gender, race, and ethnicity Documents and scholarship considered by the CNR also paint a disquieting picture of Millikan’s views on gender, race, and ethnicity. During his tenure, Caltech did not hire a single woman to its faculty, nor did Millikan seem to believe the United States had produced a single woman physicist worth hiring in academia. He held negative stereotypes about Jews, although he did not for the most part allow his anti-Semitism to prevent him from hiring stellar Jewish male faculty during his tenure. He CNR REPORT 6 believed that Nordics (white Northern Europeans) were naturally and morally superior to other peoples, and that Southern California was “the westernmost outpost of Nordic civilization.” He privately wrote with contempt about people of color, referred to Blacks in Mississippi in disparaging language, and thought that granting Blacks the right to vote was “an unthinkable disaster in view of the sort of people they now are.” Millikan’s stances on gender, race, and ethnicity may have been more common in his time, and even the norm for his socioeconomic status. But it would fly in the face of historical truth to excuse sexism, racism, and xenophobia as inevitable and universal in Millikan’s time.

  • The Lee F. Browne Dining Hall (formerly the Harry Chandler Dining Hall)

Harry Chandler Chandler was the longtime publisher of the Los Angeles Times. From 1935 to 1941, under Chandler’s management, the Los Angeles Times published the HBF-sponsored column “Social Eugenics.” In early October 2020, the Los Angeles Times editorial board issued an apology describing the paper as “deeply rooted in white supremacy” for at least its first 80 years. Chandler was also an active developer of Los Angeles whose projects were often plagued by controversy. He eventually became the largest real estate owner in the United States. Chandler helped establish Caltech, the Hollywood Bowl, and Douglas Aircraft. He was a member of the Caltech Board from 1920 until 1944, and a member of the HBF. Chandler was one of the individuals instrumental in recruiting Millikan to Caltech, and he also helped organize The Associates of the California Institute of Technology.

  • The Judge Shirley Hufstedler Professorship (formerly the Robert A. Millikan Professorship)
  • The Edward B. Lewis Professorships of Biology (formerly the Albert Billings Ruddock Professorships of Biology)

Albert B. Ruddock Ruddock was a businessman and diplomat who served as a trustee for many prominent organizations in the region, including the Board of Occidental College, the LA County Museum, and the Southern California Symphony Association. Ruddock began his long affiliation with Caltech in 1926 as one of the 100 men who founded The Associates of the California Institute of Technology. He joined the Caltech Board of Trustees in 1938, ten years after joining the HBF Board. Ruddock remained a Caltech Trustee until 1970, having served as Chair of the Caltech Board of Trustees from 1954 to 1961. In 1969 Ruddock was elected Chairman Emeritus of the Caltech Board of Trustees, the first person to hold that position at the Institute.

  • Grant D. Venerable House (formerly Ruddock House)

They also explain an earlier renaming:

As part of the Institute’s commitment to remove from campus buildings, assets, and honors the names of individuals who participated in the eugenics movement, Caltech has renamed the former Linde + Robinson Laboratory as the Ronald and Maxine Linde Laboratory for Global Environmental Science. The name change is effective today, August 2, 2021. This is the first in a series of renamings that were authorized by the Caltech Board of Trustees in early 2021 to bring campus memorializations in line with Institute values. The legal process to change the names on the remaining buildings, assets, and honors is underway; additional updates will be provided when appropriate.

For more information on efforts to create a more inclusive Caltech, visit the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion site.

The principles for renaming are here, and you can click on the screenshot below to see the 77-page final report:

As I’ve said before, I have two criteria I use when deciding whether a name should be removed:

a. The name was to honor the person’s good deeds and not bad deeds
b. Overall, the person’s life was a net good for the world rather than a net bad.

How do we judge these? Well, clearly criterion a. is satisfied in all these cases, especially Millikan, who won a Nobel Prize for physics for work done at the University of Chicago (and yes, we have a Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professorship that’s currently occupied).

The problem comes with criterion b.  How do we weigh the life of a scientist, a publisher, and a businessman against the involuntary sterilization of 20,000 institutionalized people? One cannot argue that everyone was on board with sterilization back then, for there were many anti-eugenic scientists who opposed this, including my academic grandfather Theodosius Dobzhansky. Millikan’s failure to hire women is not quite as odious since there were few women physicists back then, though if Millikan expressed the view that women weren’t capable of being physicists, that goes into the negative column.

Since I consider sterilization of this sort an odious and injurious thing to do, even if the people sterilized wouldn’t have reproduced anyway, I weigh participation in the HBF, which did have a big influence on eugenics that was actually practiced, as a serious misstep. Overall, then, I think Caltech is justified in these renamings.

The only beef I have is the way the University characterizes these renamings:

By removing these names from campus assets and honors, the CNR does not propose that Caltech break its ties with Millikan or other problematic figures in its history. It urges that Caltech must not erase any of its history. It holds, instead, that Caltech should delve more deeply into its history, using it to launch initiatives constructed to inform and educate its community and public.

But of course they are erasing Caltech’s history, as well as the contributions of people like Millikan. (David Starr Jordan, another member of the HBF committee, was the founding president of Stanford and an ichthyologist who made seminal contributions to speciation. The cover of my book with Allen Orr, Speciation, depicts paintings illustrating one of Jordan’s monographs. But that will be Stanford’s problem, not Caltech’s.)  If they don’t want to erase the good research that scientists like Millikan and Jordan did, they need to put up a permanent explanation somewhere and mention the good as well as the bad.

And we have to remember that this is going on in Britain as well as the U.S. The difference is that in Britain there never was any eugenics practiced on people. Nor, I think, did British scientists who favored eugenics have much of an influence elsewhere. There may have been people who favored the practice (like geneticist Ronald Fisher, whose eugenic sentiments were based not on race, but class), but they were not on committees that actually injured human beings. It’s one thing to talk the talk, another to walk the walk: espousing a view that could be harmful is not the same as actually causing harm. This is why I’m not in favor of renaming prizes and professorships named after Fisher.

Of course this is a discussion, so I invite you to give your views in the comments below.

40 thoughts on “Caltech engages in big-time renaming involving eugenics

  1. It’s a curious twist the the Woke want you to remember and accept blame for what your anonymous ancestors might have done. But they want you to forget about those named ancestors who also did something worthwhile.

  2. “But of course they are erasing Caltech’s history, as well as the contributions of people like Millikan.” – Indeed, and I don’t see how this kind of performative action truly benefits a single person in the real world.

    1. It’s a warning to all those would-be great people who might consider dabbling in eugenics on the side. Ok, sure, that’s probably the empty set but it’s the principle that matters. 😉

      1. I hate to say it, but the set is less empty than you could be suggesting. Certain people with specific conditions (don’t call them disabilities!) consider the attempt to find a ‘cure’ to be tantamount to genocide and eugenics. There is now a movement to claim that cochlear implants and scientists who are looking to cure/prevent deafness are wiping out Deaf culture. With a big D. How long do you think it will be before those scientists’ names are erased?

        1. “Certain people with specific conditions (don’t call them disabilities!) consider the attempt to find a ‘cure’ to be tantamount to genocide and eugenics.”

          Yes, I’m very aware of this. I used to go to the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference, a huge trade show where this gets discussed all the time. I guess it was an early hotbed of Wokeism where reality takes a back seat to honesty. Some of them have convinced themselves that the best way to fight bias against people with disabilities is to declare them as features, not bugs.

        2. There’s also the attempt by parts of the autism community to halt a major research project in the U.K., led by the eminent autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen, which seeks to identify genomic variants associated with autism.

          1. Good call, thanks! I forgot to include that one! I have a few friends with autistic family members who are surprised that there is a movement against finding a cure. A SyFy series I enjoyed had an autistic character, who, due to a time travel glitch, was neurotypical in the new timeline. Of course, today, Hollywood probably wouldn’t even case a neurotypical actor to play an autistic character.

          2. Simon Baron-Cohen was knighted in the 2021 New Year Honours for services to autistic people. I guess we’ll have to leave it to his cousin Sacha to satirise the attempt to cancel him.

            1. We’ll see how long it lasts. Rush Limbaugh was awarded the highest civilian award in the US last year, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I have no doubt that people would cancel that if and when possible. (Personal note: I am not a fan of Rush. I still wonder why we have governments giving people awards in the first place, and why we pretend it is not political.)

              1. Although I haven’t reviewed all the rewards given, I think the politicizing of them is recent. To be more precise, I can’t think of any award that comes close to the one Rush Limbaugh got.

        3. I think you are out of date on Cochlear Implants. The topic is not straightforward, & I do not wish to go into long details but that was the feeling early on, however it depends on many things like the form of deafness. People who are culturally Deaf, often come from generations where members of a family had some form of deafness. For a lot of them it can be seen as a way Deaf culture & language might disappear. That would leave some for whom CIs are not an option more isolated. These days people are more accepting of them realizing it does not mean you have to cease to be part of the Deaf community.

          For those deaf who do not sign, for whatever reason, & who are not from that cultural background, it can open doors & make them feel part of society.

          It all connects with the Deaf Liberation movement that was related to other liberation movements of the 70s.

          1. It is straightforward. There are people who can’t hear and we can make it so they can hear. Being able to hear confers many benefits on a person compared to not being able to hear. Denying your child the possibility of hearing just because you can’t hear is tantamount to child abuse.

            If I may introduce an analogy: it’s as if my mother who is short sighted had banned me from wearing spectacles aged 13 when I started suffering from myopia because of “blind culture”.

  3. So I went and delved a bit into the report. For example, take this from the summary (quoted in the post):

    During his tenure, Caltech did not hire a single woman to its faculty, nor did Millikan seem to believe the United States had produced a single woman physicist worth hiring in academia.

    Pretty damning about his attitude to women and women physicists?

    Well, this comes from a letter that he wrote which reads:

    “Women have done altogether outstanding work and are now in the front rank of scientists in the fields of biology and somewhat in the fields of chemistry and even astronomy, but we have developed in this country as yet no outstanding women physicists. In Europe Fraülein Meitner of Berlin and Madam Curie of Paris are in the front rank of the world’s recognized physicists. I should, therefore, expect to go farther in influence and get more for my expenditure if in introducing young blood into a department of physics I picked one or two of the most outstanding younger men, rather than if I filled one of my openings with a woman. I might change this opinion if I knew of other women who had the accomplishments and attained to the eminence of Fraülein Meitner.”

    Which strikes me as not nearly so damning.

    The report also says: “he warned Few that his physics department’s reputation would suffer if it hired a woman simply because she was a woman rather than “solely because of their merit as physicists.” “

  4. Perhaps the ‘net bad’ could be erased by sharing the name of a building (or whatever) with someone who advanced ideas that ‘cleaned up’ the said ‘net bad’. i.e. anti-eugenics say that advanced our moral understanding of the practice and killed it off. That would be THAT persons ‘net good’ and stop there.
    Unless you’re not human or a squeaky clean one you share and don’t get to get exclusivity naming rights.
    You could further mix it (naming rights) around gender, ethnicity, etc., if it fits the bill. This to me would advance understanding, reason and tolerance by two ideologies confronting one another (in this case) on buildings, that remain standing and functional.

    1. laingholm wrote “Unless you’re not human or a squeaky clean one you share and don’t get to get exclusivity naming rights.”

      ‘Unless you’re not human’ is exactly right. Consider all of the buildings that have been named after corporations. I fully expect to see that type of sponsorship/naming to become much more widespread. Stadiums, parks, academic buildings: it’s happening everywhere. As an added bonus, universities could get a recurring fee for renting out naming rights every few years. I have seen a shocking amount of non-education-related profiteering in the educational sector.

  5. Would you happen to have some sources on those claims ? I don’t really doubt it’s true, but somehow, I want to see something, an article, a real outcry, about Deaf Culture…

  6. Here’s an interesting idea from the US Supreme Court:

    “The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.”

    It’s immediately followed by: “Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

    Also: “At present her conservators may, on Valerie’s behalf, elect that she not bear or rear children. As means of avoiding the severe psychological harm which assertedly would result from pregnancy, they may choose abortion should she become pregnant; they may arrange for any child Valerie might bear to be removed from her custody; and they may impose on her other methods of contraception, including isolation from members of the opposite sex.” Are those worse than sterilization?

    Also: “Despite a barrage of recommendations from people with disabilities, their allies and international bodies to criminalise forced sterilisation, this practice is still legal and sanctioned in Australia.” 2017

    1. The “three generations of imbeciles are enough” quote comes from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., majority opinion in the case Buck v. Bell. Stephen Jay Gould wrote a famous essay concerning that case,“Carrie Buck’s Daughter.

      Keep in mind that a federal constitution that permits states to prohibit women from obtaining abortions would also allow states to force women to have unwanted abortions, or otherwise to control individuals’ reproductive options.

  7. I think anyone serious about anti-racism needs to fund an aggressive breeding program to intentionally produce children with Tay-Sachs and Cystic Fibrosis in order to show that we oppose eugenics in any form.

  8. In post #3, Coel reports that Robert Millikan opposed the idea of a Physics Department hiring “a woman simply because she was a woman rather than “solely because of their merit as physicists.” “ This heresy alone is enough to explain the cancellation of his name on a library. Interestingly, Millikan’s Wikipedia
    entry contains a whole page about the removal of his name from various things. As to what this exercise
    accomplishes, that should be obvious: it provides something to do for members of committees like
    Cal Tech’s august Committee on Naming and Recognition.

    A disturbing thought comes to mind. What if someone discovers a currently heretical view expressed by past scientists who are memorialized in the names of physical units rather than buildings? Will it become necessary to rename, say, volts, amperes, ohms, coulombs, or degrees Celsius or Kelvin?

    1. Jon, it’s closer than you think. My understanding is that there is already a push to rename Newton’s Laws of Motion. Can the Newton (unit) be far behind?

      1. Edit. I’m doing some digging. I’ve found the claim in a few sources so far, none of which are traditionally reputable. Please take it with a grain of salt.

    2. If they are found to be problematical, then yes. And chances are, they were all problematical.
      The appetite shows no sign of abating, since the erasures are really done to burnish the looks of the people doing the erasing.
      There are similar efforts underway to “de-colonize” terminology physics and astronomy. I think “dark matter”, and terms with “master” in them, are all under fire.

    3. Although James Prescott Joule will doubtless at some point be celebrated as an LGBTQIAP+ hero for the fact that he spent his honeymoon with a male friend allegedly trying to conduct an experiment to measure the temperature difference between the top and bottom of a waterfall (that’s the kind of excuse they all had to use then, I dare say…)

  9. If these facilities were named because money was given to the various institutions it is only right that the said institutions return the money, at todays rate, to the families of the individuals who gave it.

  10. Nature has taken up the story.

    https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-03052-x?utm_source=Nature+Briefing&utm_campaign=47a00a703b-briefing-dy-20211111&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c9dfd39373-47a00a703b-45673238

    From their story:

    ‘After a few hours leafing through documents in the basement of a research building [in 2017, first-year graduate mathematics student and member of the Socialists of Caltech], Jane Panangaden was shaking with rage. . . .”It was really upsetting,’ she remembers. She told everyone she knew, anyone who would listen, that Caltech’s past was linked to [Human Betterment Foundation.] “I could talk about nothing else for days and days afterward,” she says. . . .

    ‘[The renaming of the Millikan Library and other buildings is] a meaningful move for Panangaden, who identifies as multiracial and disabled. “I find it important to rename the buildings just because I don’t want to have that constant reminder that the people who built this institution didn’t want me to be there, and didn’t even want me to exist.”

    ‘But she says it would be a hollow effort without further steps to address the institution’s diversity gaps. Many US universities that focus on science and engineering acknowledge that Black, Hispanic, Native American and Native Hawaiian students are under-represented. At Caltech, the figures have been especially stark: only 1.2% of the graduate-student body in 2020–21 identified as Black.

    ‘Others agree that investigating the past is just part of the process. “If we’re going to acknowledge this history and atone for it, we’re then going to have to tilt to something that involves repair,” says Kirt von Daacke, a historian at the University of Virginia who heads the [Universities Studying Slavery] project. “That’s where the real hard work begins.”’

    Indeed. It’s not just about erasures. It’s probing for exploitable weakness.

  11. I read what I could find about the HBF and California sterilization program. HBF was dissolved in 1945 and the sterilization program went all the way till 1979. It was not clear from the resources I studied how much influence HBF actually had on these deplorable state policies and their implementation — it seems that HBF was mainly responsible for distributing the pamphlets.

    I think it is a bit harsh to hang these 20,000 compulsory sterilizations (committed between 1909 and 1979) on Millikan, who passed away in 1953. I remain convinced that what Caltech did is wrong. They should have created an exhibit at a Caltech history museum talking about this issue; instead they are obliterating the contributions of Millikan to the institution.

  12. You gotta dance with the one that brung you: Whatever Millikan’s views, he was a great scientist. More important in this context, he is indisputably the most important single most important figure in the history of Caltech institution-building. He made Caltech into the international scientific powerhouse that it is–just as the racist Woodrow Wilson unquestionably transformed Princeton from a Southern finishing school into one of the world’s great research universities. Those who press for the Caltech renaming want to erase Millikan while they enjoy and benefit from all the benefits and advantages that Millikan bestowed on Caltech.

  13. Thanks. Amazing read… The conclusion being, for such people, that we should wait for people to be 18 before doing *anything* regarding their life. No life-saving surgeries, or even the most menial ones. Gonna have a limp if we don’t have your fully considered consent ? Deal with it, there must be a Limp Community you can thrive into later…

  14. Eugenics by forced sterilisation is obviously horrible. But I have a question, because I’m curious but work nowhere near this field: Are there any actually ethical proposals for how human civilisation may counteract or direct genetic drift in a population (over the course of millennia)? This may be particularly important for things like settlements on other planets, but should also matter here on Earth in the long term.

    1. The principal objection is that we don’t know what we are doing well enough to be able to do it ethically or effectively, and therefore ought not to want to do it at all. Gould’s essay, “Carrie Buck’s Daughter”, referenced by Ken Kukec in his reply at #6 illustrates this vividly. The context was forced sterilization but as with so much of SJG’s writing, larger truths as well.

      It is one thing to abort, at mother’s request, fetuses with well-defined and detectable chromosomal or genetic abnormalities that have highly predictable outcomes. And another to explore newly developing gene therapy techniques to correct single-gene disorders like sickle disease or some forms of deafness, provided the mother agrees that the condition we call a disease is similarly regarded as undesirable in her world view. But it’s a whole other story to “improve” the fitness of the genome by tinkering with a gene here and a regulator there and hoping you like the result. It’s much easier to break things than it is to improve them. And the things you break turn into people.

    2. I put eugenics in the “It sounded like a good idea at the time” category. The “at the time” being the early 20th century, when utilitarianism [greatest good for the greatest number] was still a dominant philosophy. Like all decisions, it requires a balancing act: which interest is more important, the common good, or the individual. Sometimes it is clear to most that the common good should prevail; the wartime draft, for example. So the idea that some people [the mentally impaired or criminals] should give up the right to bear children for the good of society, seemed to make sense. Of course, now we know the proponents of eugenics horribly misunderstood genetics, and that racists would pervert its application, but back in 1920 or 1930 they did not know this.

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