Roundtable with 2020 Pfizer Prize Winner, Theodore Porter

Editor’s note: Cited as much for its style or “graceful writing” as for its significance and “expansive scholarship,” Ted Porter’s Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity (Princeton University Press, 2018) was named the recipient of the 2020 Pfizer Award, one of HSS’s oldest prizes, awarded annually since 1959 for an outstanding book in the history of science. A panel of distinguished interlocutors including Ken Alder, Soraya de Chadarevian, Nathaniel Comfort, Diane Paul, and Andrew Scull had plenty of questions for the author, to which he responded with the same style and grace he showed in the book. 

Theodore Porter holding his book Genetics in the Madhouse

Andrew: What prompted you, a historian of statistical thinking and eugenics, to stray or trespass into “my” world of the asylum? And, how did your background lead you to interrogate the work of asylum superintendents from a radically different perspective than those adopted by historians of psychiatry? 

You and other historians of psychiatry who take an interest in mental institutions have examined their reports as a matter of course, and have noticed of course that they are dense with data.  Although a few have tried to use these numbers to get at causes of insanity, most have recognized this as futile.  However, the capacity of numbers to structure a flow of information need not depend on their reliability, or even coherence.  Somehow I missed the role of numbers in nineteenth-century asylums when I was researching my dissertation on the history of statistics, forty years ago, probably because I failed then to recognize that their work had more in common with public health or even poor relief, than with individualized medicine.  It has long been evident that asylums were foci of eugenic concern.  When at last I began thinking about these institutions, it seemed almost self-evident that they would have kept extensive numerical records, even if only to satisfy the demands of their public paymasters.  Still, I was astonished to discover that records of this kind went back into the eighteenth century, and surprised, too—despite some highly pertinent scholarship in history of medicine—that traditions of medical recording played into this data work.  When sufficient evidence was staring me in the face, I got the idea at last.  At this point my long experience as a historian focusing on accounts and statistics kicked in. I still had plenty of surprises in store, but at least I had an idea of how these unimpressive numbers and tables might be made interesting. 

Soraya: Were you attracted to the extensive bureaucratic practices of public institutions like asylums or was your starting point the history of eugenics and the data-driven approach of eugenicists that you then found prefigured in the book keeping and research efforts of asylum directors? I know that initially you also looked at school and prison records—what made you abandon that part of the project?

I have to say both, for what appear to be alternatives are not easily separated.  The most basic premise of statistical reasoning is that large numbers, especially disordered ones, give rise to a spontaneous quantitative order.  I argued long ago that this supposition had its origin in bureaucratic compilations, for example of births, suicides, and crimes, which provided the basis for a new social science.  Adolphe Quetelet’s bedazzlement by the bell-shaped “law of error” so impressed Francis Galton that he enshrined it as the foundation for his new science of human heredity.  The ingenuity and determination he put into this pursuit was remarkable, and he managed for example to induce people to volunteer the family records he longed for by offering prizes and appealing to family pride and curiosity.  He and others snapped up diverse forms of data for the light they could shed on such issues, while the experience of mental hospitals and special schools inspired their superintendents to seek out appropriate tools of analysis.  I had been pursuing the reciprocal relations of heredity and statistics for decades when, finally, I came to realize how a focus on data could join the two in a more compelling way.  In retrospect it seems quite natural, even obvious, but it came to me as a revelation.

Ken: What would the author of Trust in Numbers say about Genetics in the Madhouse? Was psychiatry’s avalanche of numbers a sign of its practitioners’ insecurity about the status of their discipline or an attempt to cover their mistrust of their notoriously unreliable and secretive scientific subjects?

By my reckoning, the kind of standardized calculation emphasized in Trust in Numbers was decidedly uncommon until the 1930s, my preferred date for the eruption of a self-denying ethic of impersonal objectivity.   Even in manufacturing, as your work shows, the push for standardization was slow and equivocal until late in the nineteenth century, and I am unconvinced by the evidence for the emergence of mechanical objectivity in the 1840s, linked to photography.  The question of objectivity with regard to asylum numbers is a complicated one.  Like almost all orthodox physicians, asylum doctors insisted on individualized treatment, which protected them to a degree from responsibility for statistics of outcomes.  An epidemic in the institution, however, put it in a bad light, and even a single suicide would be seen as an unpardonable lapse, to be expiated by mountains of paperwork.  It was easy, however, to put faith in statistics when cures were plentiful, as they were in America during the 1830s and 1840s, their golden age.  In a few states the cure rates briefly ascended to a perfect 100%.  But these wondrous numbers, it emerged, were the outcome rather than the basis of asylum optimism.  So long as the doctors refused to accept failure, they could put off the registration of failure, recording instead almost nothing but successes.  This may, early on, have been done in good faith.  When the inevitable downward trend began, they certainly were disappointed, but they did not greatly abuse their power to resuscitate cure rates by pronouncing abundant cures. To be sure, their integrity was encouraged by the limits of their power: admission and discharge of asylum patients was ultimately not a medical decision, but a legal one.  The statistical reports printed annually by state institutions were part bureaucratic routine, part public appeal, and not, in most cases, a cunning scheme to cast off responsibility for medical failure.  Amazingly enough, some of these doctors became quite skilled at tracking down and analyzing statistics of health and heredity.  These skills, however, were applied principally to eugenic interventions rather than to medical ones.

Diane: Near the start of your book, you write: “The eugenics movement, which has so often been characterized as an (illegitimate) offspring of Darwinian biology, is better understood as a reaction to the failure of asylum care to check the hyper-Malthusian increase of the institutionalized insane.” I don’t think that many (or perhaps any) historians have invoked Darwinism as a monocausal explanation but rather as one of several factors that converged in the late 19th century to heighten concerns about the “differential birth rate.” It seems to me that you convincingly argue for another and overlooked factor. But why would we have to choose?

Few things in history are monocausal.  My book, despite the offending sentence, depends on a wide literature demonstrating the diverse meanings of eugenics.  Often, scientific explanations can scarcely be separated from cultural and ideological ones.  Still, it has long been customary to introduce eugenics as Galton’s brainchild.  I look no further than Theodore Porter, The Rise of Statistical Thinking, p. 129: “Galton was the founder of eugenics, the evolutionary doctrine….”  Many of the best authors on the subject, including Daniel Kevles and yourself, began your books on eugenics and science with a chapter on Galton.  I have seen the important role of asylums in this history ascribed to their exceptional receptivity to eugenic ideas. I don’t suppose that anyone treats eugenics as springing from the head of Galton like Athena from Zeus.  My story goes well beyond identifying pre-Galtonian precursors, and beyond alarms about an increasingly ignorant and degenerate population. It identifies a medical and cultural movement, internationally recognized, cultivating its own tools and methods. This perspective opens up new understandings of the best-known eugenic movements in Britain, the U.S., German lands, and Scandinavia.  It takes in the scientific aspect, including medicine and statistics, as well as popular manifestations.  Certainly the eugenics movement was multidimensional, and proudly so.  But I hold to my claim that the statistical registration and investigation of mental illness and “feeblemindedness” amounts to more than another contributing factor.  These institutions were crucial sites of eugenic investigation and intervention, and they shift the point of origin of eugenics backwards in time by several decades.  

Soraya: Genetics in the Madhouse is about data practices rather than about statistics as much of your earlier work. Can you tell us something about your shift in focus from statistics to data?

It would be easy to say that I am responding to our contemporary obsession with data, and there is an element of truth.  But the focus here on data, with its resonances of great data banks, is only part of its background.  Although I framed my first book in terms of “statistical thinking,” I recognized a bureaucratic dimension to the story, merging natural sciences with social and human sciences.  A few years later, inspired mainly by French historians and sociologists of statistics, I realized that in taking for granted the basic processes of registration and tallying, I was missing a basic dimension of statistics. Already at what we might call the primordial level of data registration, as census takers engage with their respondents, there is complexity and even indeterminacy, which must therefore have implications for quantitative knowledge. I used this insight in Trust in Numbers to illustrate the complexity of numbers and even data (as I might say now).  Statistics has become the tool most favored by scientists for extracting conclusions from data. By 2005, as I looked to move on from the intense intellectuality involved in researching the multifarious career of Karl Pearson, I was coming to recognize that the very bigness of big data—when data it is big—means it can have a lot to reveal about all kinds of activities, enterprises, and institutions. A project on rating candidates for life insurance helped me appreciate the complex maneuvers involved in something as basic as taking as blood pressure.  “And how about human genetics?” I asked myself, when Staffan Müller-Wille invited me to write a framing essay for a Max Planck Institute volume on cultural history of heredity (Heredity Explored).  I never did write that framing essay, which I found too daunting, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to check out where Pearson was getting his human data.  That project unfolded into this book, which might just as well have been called The Data of Heredity, a continuation of prior work rather than a departure.

Nathaniel: One of your book’s most important contributions, to me, is its deft deflation of the triumphalist grand narrative of Mendelian genetics, which runs in a direct line from Mendel’s peas to DNA. That deflation is actually in step with contemporary genetic science, which again works mainly on complex traits using vast databases—this time, biobanks of DNA sequence. Hence there’s an opportunity to rewrite the grand narrative of genetics. What do you suppose a new grand narrative that runs, not from Mendel to the double helix, but from Galton to the genome would look like?

I don’t envision that either of us intends to read Mendel out of this story, yet certainly I share your misgivings about the narrowest version of this story, Mendel to DNA.  The most inclusive alternative is the one advanced by Hans-Jörg Rheinberger and his department at the Max Planck Institute for History of Science, “the cultural history of heredity.”  The seeming simplicity and self-sufficiency of the gene, implying an unproblematic match between snippets of DNA and traits of living things, has often misled geneticists and other humans, though the former, I presume, have long been aware of complexity in these relationships.  My research adds a dimension of protest against triumphalist, gene-centered histories, which have had a role in producing and reproducing a gene-centered science. I was not, in fact, thinking of the new genomics when I set about this research for my book, but perhaps it is true, as your question seems to imply, that my history is suited to a genomics that is comfortable with complexity.

Diane: A major theme of the book is that eugenic thinking predated Darwin and Galton; or as you phrase it, “By 1859, eugenics, in a broad sense, was old hat” (p. 146). Thus, the book might be seen as a contribution to the “long history of eugenics,” in which Galton is viewed more as intervening in than initiating a debate over the relative importance of nature and nurture in explaining both individual and group differences and in drawing inferences for human breeding. In that case, what, if anything did Galton contribute that was importantly new to the discussion?

These stories are partly distinct, but interwoven.  Certainly I was pleased when, early in the research for this book, I turned up in the Galton papers a file of responses by asylum doctors to his request for anecdotes involving insane heredity.  It shows that he was well aware of the storehouses of hereditary information in mental hospitals, and it led me to suggestive (if inconclusive) evidence that his inspiration for the investigation of genius running in families may well have come from the work of a Victorian asylum keeper, Henry Maudsley.  Darwin and his son George relied heavily on data of mental illness and related infirmities to investigate the hazards of cousin marriage. I relied in part on your work for this. By 1880, the familiar story of inherited insanity was broadening to take in “feeble-mindedness.” In England and Scotland, issues pertaining to mental weakness of schoolchildren were growing more and more prominent. In Britain, and to some degree also in the United States, worries about inherited feeblemindedness and crime attracted scientific attention to a degree that insanity never had. In Germany, with its rising system of research-oriented psychiatric clinics, mental illness maintained its primacy.  Galton, a strikingly original man, came to the study of heredity with wider scientific ambitions than any of the alienists I have discussed, and we certainly cannot reduce his work to compiling the records of mental defects. Nevertheless, eugenics after Galton sustained these longstanding obsessions.   

Andrew: Why do you think it took as long as it has for someone from either the history of science or the history of psychiatry to link together the history of statistics, the history of genetics, and the history of mental illness?

It is famously tricky to pretend to explain what didn’t happen.  Still, our histories tend to fall in line with present understandings, and biometric, phenotypic approaches to heredity have long been overshadowed by Mendelian ones.  Mendel, after 1900, was a big hit with geneticists, and scientists typically write the first drafts of the histories of their fields. A history of genetics focused on tallies of patients in mental hospitals was still not the kind of heritage that geneticists wanted for themselves and their students.  Biologists are heavily invested in the Mendel story, and I feel some confidence in predicting that the textbook histories will not soon squeeze out their images of Mendel’s peas to make room for tables of patient data from asylum records.  The textbook author’s preference for experimental science was in good accord with the laboratory turn in history of science and STS, which took off in the 1980s.  Although histories focused on quantification and statistics also were becoming visible at roughly the same time, they never achieved a comparable prominence.  Finally, we should think of psychiatry, which, as Andrew has documented, was mainly Freudian from the 1940s to the 1980s.  Psychoanalysis came with its own sense of history, one that did not preserve a fond or lively memory of statistical methods. The pharmaceutical turn in recent decades has restored statistics to a key role in psychiatry, though few, I think, would view statistics as comparable in interest to hormones and patient cases.  I proceed on the principle that when a profession invests its hopes in tools it finds boring, something that matters must lie there beneath the surface. 

Ken: Why have historians of the twentieth century sciences of human heredity/eugenics ignored its continuities with the nineteenth century?  In other words, why has the discovery/rupture narrative of Mendelian sorting proved so compelling? Are Whiggish accounts really that seductive or is that historians prefer to focus on elite science—e.g., genetics in the laboratory and theory in the journals—as opposed to such messy practices as psychiatry in the madhouse and reams of data in the file-cabinets?

As we all know, when Mendelism seized the day about 1900, Darwinism, i.e. evolution by natural selection, was decidedly out of favor.  Early geneticists such as William Bateson wanted an explanation of evolution that was more biological in the sense of arising from a dynamic intrinsic to the organism.  John Herschel had mocked Darwin’s “law of higgledy-piggeldy” because it depended on adventitious interactions with the external environment rather than development guided by its own forces.  When Karl Pearson’s ally W. F. R. Weldon died, leaving the Darwinian biometric project in the hands of an applied mathematician with no formal biological training, the absurdity of this approach seemed clear.  The gene-centered story, to be sure, did not by itself remove this objection, as is apparent from Ernst Mayr’s mocking phrase, also targeted at statistics, “beanbag genetics.”  (Mayr dismissed Pearson in the first volume of The Growth of Biological Thought without so much as a footnote.)  Historians of biology have often taken their lead from writings of famous biologists, which means leaving phenotypic inheritance in the shadows. I emphasize, nevertheless, that these statistical works on hereditary transmission of insanity did not simply disappear.  For example, the nineteenth-century German word for hereditary factor, Anlage (or Erbanlage), persisted for decades as German for gene. 

Soraya: The history of the failure of the asylum as a reformist institution is written into the history of genetics and eugenics as you tell it. However, eugenics itself was embraced by progressives as well as by reactionaries. Can you comment on these relationships?

I suppose by now we all recognize that eugenics, in its heyday, was embraced almost across the political spectrum in Europe and America.  My argument situates asylum professionals as broadly consonant with the eugenics movement, eugenics avant la letter.  The information technologies of the asylum movement, including statistics, were aligned with a spirit of cautious reform in an age of anxiety.   By the time the most prosperous European states became committed to public provision of asylum care, this experiment was not going well, and by 1880 it seemed a failure.  But the train had left the station, and there was no turning back.  Progressivism, as it was called in America, was linked—not only in America—to more forceful interventions in treatment of the mad.  Andrew calls attention to the violence of interventions, such as pulling all the teeth and cutting away intestines or inducing malarial fevers, which defined an epoch in the history of the asylums.  These come into my story as well.  It is often not easy to decide who should count as “Progressive,” but most of the characters from this period in my book supported vigorous state interventions, some for reasons that qualify as social, some to keep the riffraff from swallowing up tax money and undermining national greatness.  In the eugenic age, mental hospitals were seen by many as the greatest waste of all. 

Diane: I know from an August email exchange with several scholars that you were, remarkably, not consulted during the inquiry that was initiated at UCL in 2018 and resulted in the erasure of Galton’s name from a lecture hall and Pearson’s both from a lecture hall and the Pearson building.  In light of developments and reflections since then, what do you now think you would, or should have advised had anyone asked your opinion?

I was shocked by the superficiality of the report on Pearson, which amounted to little more than a collection of harsh or offensive remarks, quoted without context.  Pearson and his children left behind a vast collection of letters and papers, with little or nothing weeded out for the sake of his reputation.  Within Pearson’s Nachlass, there is much that appears incriminating to our eyes, and it is much the same with Galton, though he was less combative. Pearson did not hold back from giving his opinion, unalloyed, on scientific matters he cared about. Much of this seemed offensive in his own time, and not only in retrospect. But he was smart and independent as well as fiercely outspoken, and on some issues he took up, most notably on the roles appropriate to women, he went against conventional medical and scientific wisdom by defending their capacities. Also, we, as historians, might want to concede that the most basic claims of eugenics were plausible in their time.  Pearson, for all his vitriol, seems to have recognized the delicacy and uncertainty of eugenic anticipations as a basis of policy interventions.  Galton and Pearson may yet bear responsibility for eugenic cruelty, even if they never supported eugenic sterilization, and the UK never adopted it. Pearson, in a famous episode, presumed to measure the social worth of poor Jews as a basis for advising against letting them immigrate.  Still, unnaming should not be done lightly.  Many of us make our way around campuses whose buildings bear names that for us are no more than names.  In that case, removing a name serves only to deepen the obscurity surrounding these people.  Also, political actions like these could excite interests we find repellent to propose their own name revisions. The possibility of opposition is not a good reason to abandon our principles, but such actions should be based on serious, intelligent research, reflection, and discussion.  As a general matter of principle, I would prefer the installation of short informative plaques over removal of names.  That would also have been my inclination for the case at hand. 

Nathaniel: According to an article in The Guardian (19 June, 2020) UCL has pledged to create programs to study the history and legacy of eugenics and the university’s history of eugenics. If you were teaching there about Pearson and Galton, what are three main takeaways you would want to leave students with?

A thoughtful course on the role of University College in the history of eugenics seems to me an excellent response to these debates.  If it were put in my hands, I would emphasize first that eugenics was not in any simple way the brainchild of just a few scientists.  It arose in alliance with all the institutions I discuss in the first parts of my book. Next, scientists like Galton, Pearson, R. A. Fisher, and J. B. S, Haldane had important roles in shaping the eugenics movement in Britain and beyond.  All of them addressed popular audiences as well as their own colleagues.  Third, eugenics depended heavily on cooperation and promotion by doctors, teachers, psychologists, and on institutions for managing the poor, sick, and disadvantaged.  To the extent they succeeded, it was not the work of a few individuals, but a wide-ranging and loosely-organized endeavor.  Eugenics existed in various forms and was associated with a range of political positions, some of which may not appear manifestly distasteful. 

Andrew: In the closing sections of your book, you investigate the murderous Nazi policies toward the mentally ill, and the intellectual connections between Ernst Rüdin and the Rockefeller Foundation, and also between Rüdin and English psychiatrists exploring the connections between genetics and mental illness.  Could you comment further on those connections, and elaborate further on your concluding remarks about “genetic astrology” as practiced by contemporary biological psychiatrists?

The story mainly wraps up with the Nazis, who can scarcely be omitted from a historical book on asylums and eugenics, even if much has already been written.  Was the misbehavior of scientists somehow a consequence of scientific failings?  We have seen some inclination to link Nazi eugenic practices to deviations from Mendelism.  Indeed, Ernst Rüdin’s group in Munich developed empirical tools, relying on phenotypes rather than genes, in part to guide eugenic interventions.  But he remained deeply committed to Mendelian explanation despite its almost complete failure as a basis for prediction.  He was constantly on the lookout for a clean instance of Mendelian inheritance of a mental condition.  It would be fallacious to suppose that either biometricians or Mendelians were distinctively corrupted by Nazi associations, or indeed that Nazi geneticists were scientifically incompetent.  Rüdin went back and forth on Mendelian factors for mental defects.  Until international politics made it impossible, he and his colleagues kept up relations with British and American psychiatric geneticists.  He was funded for many years by the Rockefeller Foundation, and admired by prominent human geneticists in England who had no truck with Nazi politics.  After the war, when genetic psychiatry mostly fell out of favor, its remaining advocates looked to Rüdin’s work for support, refusing to believe that it could have participated in the psychiatric atrocities of the Third Reich.  Indeed, he managed to close the circle, from respected scientist to advocate and participant in racial purity campaigns to postwar psychiatrist with his reputation mostly intact, in the United States as well as in Germany.   The triumph of data-driven, pharmaceutically-based psychiatry again undercut the pursuit of health through self-understanding.  Established science has not wanted to dabble with human meaning, and gene talk ranks among the most effective ways of disarming it. 

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