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News / Northwest

University of Puget Sound to remove name of eugenics professor from museum

By Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks, The Seattle Times
Published: May 19, 2023, 8:14am

SEATTLE — The University of Puget Sound will remove the name of a former professor and eugenicist from the college’s museum of natural history.

On May 12, the university’s board of trustees unanimously approved President Isiaah Crawford’s recommendation to remove James R. Slater’s name from the museum’s physical space, and its website and social media accounts.

The name change comes after a student researcher and a number of professors requested Crawford’s office remove Slater’s name from the museum. A university committee formed in 2022 to review the request recommended removing Slater’s name last month.

The museum will revert to its original name when it was founded in 1930, Puget Sound Museum of Natural History, according to university spokesperson Lindsay Nyquist.

“Our commitment to diversity does not align with the entire concept of eugenics,” Nyquist said. “We’re very aware of our commitment to support our student body and all members of the Puget Sound and beyond and make sure they feel validated and accepted by this university.”

Slater, who established the museum with a collection of reptiles and amphibians, served as director until 1951. In 1979, alumni requested the museum be renamed to honor Slater. Today, the museum houses over 100,000 bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian, plant, insect and geological specimens, according to the university.

In 2019, Grace Eberhardt, then a biology graduate student at the university, began looking into the school’s former eugenics program after a friend told her about Slater’s teachings. Eberhardt found that Slater, a biology professor at the university from 1919 until his retirement in 1951, was a member of the American Eugenics Society and taught a course on eugenics for three decades.

The class, focused on “a study of the problems of mental physiology, laws of heredity, sex, and racial progress,” according to a 1921 course description, was required for all majors and minors in biology by the late 1930s.

“As a biology student of color, the fact … that this wasn’t widely known by students, it was really concerning for me because of the legacy of eugenics,” said Eberhardt, who is Latina. She ultimately wrote a paper and created a website publishing her findings, and along with several professors raised concerns over Slater’s work in a letter to Crawford’s office in 2019.

Eugenics — the research and pursuit of controlled breeding to decrease assumed “inferior” qualities and to increase assumed “superior” traits in human populations — was a widely accepted scientific study in the late 19th and early 20th century.

In practice, policies and beliefs stemming from eugenics perpetuate ableist, racist, xenophobic and classist attitudes common at the time.

“[Eugenics] marginalized many people, including people of color and disabled people,” Eberhardt said. “It’s really important we can reckon with this history.”

The father of modern marriage counseling was a eugenicist whose work was rooted in a desire for more white, middle-class families. Many early scholars of eugenics believed hereditary traits made certain people more prone to crime and violence. The ideology in part inspired the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, and led to the establishment of forced-sterilization laws in 32 states by the 1930s.

These laws resulted in the forced sterilization of , including at least 685 men and women at Washington state institutions, according to University of Washington disability studies associate professor Joanne Woiak. These forced sterilizations often targeted people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, people in poverty, and Black, Latino and Indigenous people.

Eugenics as a movement and an academic pursuit lost credibility in the 1940s as it was embraced by Nazi Germany and used as justification for widespread forced sterilization and mass genocide.

Most eugenics-related laws and research in the United States ended after World War II, though fringe groups have continued to propagate the ideology. Washington’s forced-sterilization law was deemed unconstitutional in 1942.

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The course at the University of Puget Sound was offered until 1954, three years after Slater retired. The University of Washington stopped offering eugenics classes in 1949, and Washington State University stopped in 1950.

Signs bearing Slater’s name at the museum inside Thompson Hall will be updated this summer, the university said, and a new museum logo is being developed.