The master potter and the rejected pots: Eugenic legislation in Victoria, 1918–1939∗ Academic Article uri icon

abstract

  • In the period since Carol Bacchi introduced eugenics into Australian historiography in 1980, much has been written that has increased our understanding of the role eugenics played in the development of Australian society in the first half of this century. It is now generally recognised that eugenics developed after the first world war from a relatively simplistic scientific justification of racist and class-biased social Darwinism into a movement concerned with using environmental reforms to help a wide range of Australians reach their full potential. In the interwar years the reform eugenicists (as they have been named) were active in a wide range of environmental movements including health reforms, slum clearance and educational improvements. The corollary of reform eugenics was based on the belief that heredity was an impassable obstacle for some: mental deficients were not considered to be racially 'fit' or 'efficient' enough to benefit from the reforms. Whilst this side of reform eugenics is well known in other countries (sterilisation programmes in Germany, the United States and Scandinavia being examples), it is yet to receive much attention so far in the discussion about Australia in the interwar years. This article argues that the attempt of a group of influential reform eugenicists in Victoria in the interwar years to institute legislation aimed at denying a significant proportion of the population the most basic rights of citizenship (including the right to reproduce) redresses the imbalance in our understanding of reform eugenics in the interwar years.

publication date

  • October 1999