Scientists unite to stop Imperial College from canceling biologist Thomas Huxley
Their intervention comes as Imperial College considers recommendations from an independent history group, which it set up following the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, to examine the university’s colonial ties.
The history group advised removing the bust of Huxley as it “could now be called racist” and renaming the Huxley building on campus.
Their report, published in October, explained that while Huxley was an abolitionist, he also wrote an essay that “espoused a racial hierarchy of intelligence, a belief system of ‘scientific racism’ that fueled the dangerous and false ideology of ‘eugenics”.
He went on to say that this “falls far short of modern Imperial values” and as such his bust will be removed from display and the Huxley Building renamed.
“An ardent abolitionist”
In a letter to the Telegraph, a group of 39 leading scientists – including 17 from Imperial College – implore Imperial College not to turn their backs on them.
“Huxley was an ardent abolitionist who fought the virulent scientific pro-slavery racism of his day and publicly hailed the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865,” they say.
“From childhood poverty Huxley rose on merit to become President of the Royal Society and Privy Councillor. ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’, he fought for the theory of evolution and was first demonstrated our evolutionary descent from an ape-like ancestor.
The letter acknowledges that early in his career he believed in a hierarchy of races, but added that “as he grew older he became skeptical of racial stereotypes.”
He goes on to note that Huxley “reformed the schools of London, was headmaster of a workers’ college, wrote volumes of journalism, lectured for working people, and opened his courses to women”.
The letter says: ‘He was instrumental in founding the Royal College of Science, later Imperial College, the very institution which now seeks to disown him.
“Many employees were outraged”
“Huxley’s early belief in a hierarchy of races is not ours. But, for his scientific achievements, his belief that all men and women should be judged on their merits, their civic spirit and the reforming zeal he brought to British science and education, we are indebted to him . For these reasons, we believe his name should remain on the walls of Imperial.
Professor Armand Leroi, an expert in evolutionary developmental biology at Imperial College, said the recommendations produced by the history group are “frankly shocking”.
“Many of the staff were quite outraged, especially the biologists,” he said. “Huxley was such a champion of egalitarianism, of access to science, of working class education. These are all things he worked tirelessly for in his life.
“By the standards of the time, he was an extraordinarily enlightened man – he fought against the racist scientists of his time who were allied with the ideologues of slavery in the United States. You have to see it in context and the atmosphere of his time.
Prof Leroi said it is ‘perfectly fair’ for an institution to look at its own history, but added that the removal of Huxley’s name and bust is a ‘gut reaction’.
An Imperial College spokesperson said its governing body – known as the President’s Council – will have an update next month on its proposed course of action.