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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Percentiles in Archives

Updated: May 6

This Friday (11 May) I’m taking part in a Workshop on Eugenics and the Academy at the University of Oxford. The Keynote lecture is given by my friend and former colleague Subhadra Das - you can attend that for free online. She begins the precis of her lecture with a devestating anecdote. I have no doubt that Subhadras’ talk will be erudite, uncomfortable, and necessary. Thinking about being part of a panel with Indy Bhullar – a former colleague from LSE – and the work we did there on welfare and eugenics  has led to me writing up my own reflection on how the the records of eugenics at UCL were skipped or saved.

A day after my daughter's birth I was given the red book in which the details of my daughter’s birth had already been pasted, with spaces to record the various tests and vaccines yet to come. The book (pictured) is a regular presence in the lives of parent and child until the child starts school. I’d taken charge of my son's red book when he first moved in with us, by which time much of it had been filled in by his foster mum. My daughter’s red book was a blank slate. That made me more aware of the kind of information being entered into it. Two days after she was born, I watched the midwife weigh her and fill in the chart at the back of the red book. In the early months of a baby’s life, the main function of the red book is to plot the baby’s development on percentile charts that show a mean average weight, length and head circumference. The chart is then shaded to show the curves of average growth rate that follows and are visual representations of growth reference data for clinical use. They were first used in child health in the late nineteenth century and are still used as a clinical visual tool (Cole, 2012).

Parents are supposed to attend regular baby clinics where new measurements are taken and a dot added to the ‘curve chart’ in the red book. The regular measurements and comparison against the average - the growth standard - make it very easy to tell if the baby isn’t developing adequately. Whatever percentile the baby starts on, their course is plotted out, a standard for them to meet. Flicking through the blank charts supplied for my daughter, I realised that I’d seen lots of them before five years previously.


One day at work in 2011, I’d been asked to help clear out the archives and paperwork from the former Galton Eugenics Laboratory at UCL. This had long ago merged with the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment (GEE) in Biosciences. The building in which this material was housed had been marked for demolition due to HS2 rail project, but while other items had already been removed, there was at the time no curator directly responsible for what was known as the ‘Galton Collection’. The Special Collections Manager wanted someone from museums with knowledge of Galton and eugenics to help them assess what otherwise would end up in a skip. I arrived to find things a bit chaotic. The Special Collections Manager had already tried to salvage anything that seemed to be of historic importance. Most of this was paper-based material and so suitable for the university’s archives rather than its museums and collections. (These have now been catalogued and you can read more here). On one side of the room were heaped hundreds of charts of percentiles recording baby weights at University College Hospital during the interwar period. They were for disposal.


Inevitably, anthropometrics - the measuring of people - played a part in establishing a growth standard for infants. The fledgling infant welfare movement established the optimal conditions - nutrition and types of foods - needed for infant growth and development. I was curious as to why the Eugenics Laboratory held such records at all. It seems that the laboratory staff may have used their close relationship with University College Hospital to work with the baby clinic run by Dr. E. A. Barton between the wars (Penrose, 1949). Yet, UCL’s first Galton Professor of Eugenics Karl Pearson had, until his retirement in 1933, campaigned against welfare measures that aimed to help ‘unhealthy’ mothers (Lewis, 1980).


Not all eugenicists agreed. In the 1910s and 20s Dr Florence Willey (later Lady Barrett) and Dr Mary Scharlieb promoted the idea of ‘race motherhood’ and advocated for baby clinics. Regular measuring and monitoring of babies, and recording percentiles, was all part of an early twentieth century effort to establish, ‘scientifically’, what counted as a normal and healthy child, the aim being both to reduce rates of infant mortality and to build up the ‘national stock’. As those (now trashed) percentiles showed, the health and welfare movements in Britain are inextricably linked to eugenic ideas and applied statistics.


In 1949, Pearson’s second successor in the post, Lionel S. Penrose discussed issues of maternal and infant welfare in an address to the Eugenics Society. Penrose warned the society not to focus on ideas of the ‘best stock’, saying that it was unscientific and based on prejudice. He also casually observed that as the number of older mothers had decreased due to family planning there were less children born with certain disabilities due to ‘natural’ eugenics. This was probably a reference to children born with Downs Syndrome, which is more likely to occur in babies born to older mothers. Penrose was sensitive around the racism but not the ableism that fuelled the eugenics movement. He campaigned for a change in his title from soon after his appointment in 1949. Finally, in 1963 Penrose’s official title shifted from Galton Professor of Eugenics to Professor of Heredity. Campaigns to change to change names, whether of buildings or titles, have long taken place . . .


T. J. Cole (2012), ‘The development of growth references and growth charts’, Annals of Human Biology, 39/5: 383 - 394.

Lionel S. Penrose (1949), ‘The Galton Laboratory. Its work and aims’, Eugenics Review, 41/1, 17-27, 19.

Jane Lewis (1980), The Politics of Motherhood. Child and Maternal Welfare in England, 1900 – 1939, 66.


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