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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

A Eugenicist Up North: Ethel M. Elderton

In 1914 Galton Fellow of the University of London, Ethel Mary Elderton published a Report on the English Birthrate. Part 1. England North of the Humber. The calculations on the declining birthrate from 1876 to 1906

Map of English districts north of the Humber in 1914
Diagram from Elderton (1914) English Birthrate

were carried out in 1911, the same year of the national census. The point of the survey was to look at the declining birthrate and consider the use of contraception following the work of radical social campaigners Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh in this area in the 1870s. By ‘area’ I mean both Besant and Bradlaugh’s publication of The Fruits of Philosophy on sex and contraception and their lectures in some of the industrial towns featured in English Birthrate (more on this at some point).

After training as a teacher, Elderton became Francis Galton’s assistant in 1905 following a recommendation by Alice Lee, her former teacher at Bedford College.* She was officially a Galton Research Fellow at the Galton Eugenics Laboratory, then Galton Fellow and assistant professor in the Galton Laboratory. Elderton had no degree but evidently was a formidable computer – someone who could work out the applied statistics needed for the tables of figures and correlations that Galton and his statistician disciple Karl Pearson required for their eugenic programmes at University College London. Pearson is quoted by Rosaleen Love as impressing ‘everyone with her enthusiasm for the eugenicist cause and the dreary computing work it entailed.’

There is a potted history of her life on the History of Maths website at St Andrews university, which downplays her enthusiasm, and that of her similarly mathematical brother William Palin, for eugenics.

Caricature of Karl Pearson in the quadrangle at the front of University College London, repr. in E. S. Pearson (1938).

Pearson’s son, Egon Pearson, barely mentions Elderton, other than as an assistant to Pearson at various points, but comments on her brother William Palin Elderton’s Primer of Statistics (in fact co-written with Ethel) in his memoir of his father in 1938. Yet, her name appears in a series of public lectures given shortly before the publication of English Birthrate in which she gives Lecture II ‘On some further points in connection with the fall in the Birth-rate. By ETHEL M. ELDERTON, Galton Research Fellow’ and Alice Lee delivers Lecture III ‘Infant mortality in a manufacturing town’. She also gifted an Anthropology Laboratory to the Galton Institute in 1924.** It is clear from English Birthrate that Elderton was an enthusiastic eugenicist. She advocated who should be having children and who should not as well as the babies who should live and who should be allowed to die for the ‘race’ interests of the nation.

Today we have access to the 1911 census figures and The Registrar-General Statistical Review of England and Wales for 1911 and subsequent years.**** The point of this series of blogs is not on the statistics, the computing or even the findings of English Birthrate on the falling births, use of contraception and late term abortion - all of which have been referred to elsewhere. Elderton apologises for the late publication of the Report but says this is because she wanted to include ‘local opinions as to the fall in the birthrate in different districts held by those who were in close contact with local conditions, and whose judgements were based on considerable medical, economic or charitable experience’, which took ‘four or five years to collect’. These opinions of people on others in the northern towns, cities and rural areas in which they live are a fascinating insight into how one section of society observes and dissects another. Fascinating but brutal.

This blog series A Eugenicist Up North aims to travel to these places through the collections and reports of people from the time with relevant contextual information thrown in for good measure. We can see what English Birthrate sees and look again. Ethel Mary Elderton (1878 – 1954) is the eugenicist, though her account is based on the words and opinions of many others.

Next: Up North.

The Wellcome Collection has digitised its copy of the Report on the English Birthrate : Pt. I. England, north of the Humber.

*Love, R. (1979). 'Alice in Eugenics-Land': Feminism and Eugenics in the scientific careers of Alice Lee and Ethel Elderton. Annals of Science, 36(2), 145-158.

** Pearson, E. S. (1938). An Appreciation of some Aspects of his Life and Work. Biometrika, 29 (3/4), 161–248.

*** Magnello, M. E. (2009). Karl Pearson and the Establishment of Mathematical Statistics. International Statistical Review / Revue Internationale de Statistique, 77(1), 3–29.

****Available from beginning until the 1970s on the rather impenetrable LSE Digital Library catalogue but worth a trawl:


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