Echos Through Time – the debate about honorific names at Karolinska Institutet and the connection to research ethics today

Last week I was asked to write a short comment for the public outreach science publication Forskning & Framsteg about the ongoing debate concerning the names given to buildings and streets on the campus of the medical university Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm (you can read the full text in Swedish here). This debate can be understood as a Swedish reaction to the broader international protest movement that aims to change the names figuring on university campuses – especially in the United States – that are associated to slave owners and racists.

After protests by students and staff against the names, a thorough report on the history of the naming practices at Karolinska was written by Petter Hellström. He clarifies that the practice to name buildings, lecture halls, labs and even streets after prominent researchers really only became established in the 1990s as the University started to model itself on an Anglosaxon campus model. The individuals thus honoured were mostly medical scientists. Some of them can be linked to race science, racial hygiene ideology, and even Nazi politics.

Among those honoured we find Anders Retzius (1796-1860) and Gustav Retzius (1842-1919), a father and son both leading figures at Karolinska, and both heavily implicated in the emerging anthropological race science of their time. Anders Retzius was professor in anatomy at Karolinska and is famous for his cephalic index that allowed him to separate out dolichocephalic and bracycephalic forms, and thus define different human “races.” In addition to describing and organising differences he observed in the anatomy, he also added a value system in which the viewed the Nordic races, and in particular the Swedish, as superior, often using a condescending and problematic vocabulary to describe others. His research was in this way both leading and fundamental in establishing a racial typology at the time.

For the purposes of this project it is key to understand that this research craved human crania and was a driving factor in the collection (through excavations of graves, theft, and the taking of anatomical specimen in hospital institutions dominated by poor and otherwise marginalised patients) and trade with colleagues such as Morton in Philadelphia, in human skulls. Gustav Retzius, professor in histology and anatomy followed in his fathers footsteps and while he did not drive the research front forward as significantly in the field of racial anthropology, he was a very active collector and also participated in the trade in specimens.

It is surprising, to say the least, that even in the 1990s and 2000s, these names were not viewed as problematic enough to be considered out of the question. We must assume that the reason for this was not that any of the committees making decisions on the names sympathised with these ideologies. But what this seems to indicate is that, at the time, the people making decisions were not concerned about racism – probably because they had never experienced it themselves, and likely because they thought about it as something of a distant past – of history, with no actual implications today. This is problematic for many reasons, and I want to underscore a few central aspects that are of particular importance.

The lack of engagement with the topic at the time indicates a lack of diversity at the decision making levels of the institution. The fact that these names were not viewed as problematic a mere 20 years ago is a good illustration of the fact that Sweden has not truly tackled racism in society and in the academy, not in the past, and not in the present. As the academy and research become increasingly international and diverse arenas, this attitude is no longer sustainable.

Medical and medical anthropological research has demonstrated that not only is racism real in societies, but it also affects heath, well being and health outcomes for those affected by it. It is therefore not sustainable that a leading medical research and teaching institution like Karolinska does not firmly take a stand against race science, even if it was carried out in the past.

The collections made by researchers like the Retziuses still haunt archaeology and biological anthropolgy, and have undermined our credibility with other stakeholders generations down the road.

From the perspective of the project Ethical Entanglements, it is also crucial to understand that also research and science outside of the immediate purview of Karolinska has suffered from this legacy. The collections made by researchers like the Retziuses still haunt archaeology and biological anthropology, and have undermined our credibility with other stakeholders generations down the road. Their collections, and the specimens they have traded, are still sitting on shelves in our museums, museums that now are given the difficult task of ethically caring for them. The fact that researchers like these are still honoured makes it difficult to argue that the disciplines have truly changed.

The past has consequences and ethical implications also in the present. The debate about the names at Karolinska will continue, but for now they have made a decision to remove the most problematic ones – like references to Anders and Gustaf Retzius. This is a good step toward a more inclusive and diverse academy and it will also likely help in building trust outside of it.

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