Published: 2021-07-28 15:58 | Updated: 2021-08-10 10:20

Karolinska Institutet takes its historical legacy seriously

COMMENTARY: Karolinska Institutet (KI) takes its historical legacy seriously and has therefore taken several initiatives and implemented several measures, to illuminate some of the dark episodes of our history. We take these to be pressing issues, as discussed in an article in Dagens Nyheter on 18 July (E-DN 17 July). KI's more than 200-year history contains aspects that, from today's point of view, would be considered unethical, unscientific, undemocratic and, in some cases, racist.

Occurrences in the past that, in the light of the present, might be regarded as dubious or reprehensible, need to be studied and acknowledged. KI’s Strategy 2030 emphasises our commitment to human rights, equality and fairness in relation to its present operations and our  history. Based on the Strategy, we have established an Ethics Council and a special working group to conduct an ethical review of KI's historic legacy. The working group is made up of people from different academic disciplines within KI, as well as independent external scholars. All personal names that have been used for roads, rooms, and buildings on KI's campuses will be reviewed in this process.

But we cannot address the problem by taking hasty actions to hide and erase our past. We cannot understand and reconcile our history by suppressing and forgetting the parts we are not proud of. We must therefore first conduct a careful, reflective, and open discussion , even if it means that the process takes time.

We are responsible for what we leave to future generations, to have an honest accounting of our legacy, even if it hurts. We have therefore removed the portrait busts of Anders and Gustaf Retzius from public display. Not to destroy them, but to put them into our historical collections, we can study and reflect critically on racial science at KI and other difficult parts of our history.

KI has been working since 2015 on 19th-century research on race and related anatomical collections, and to return human remains within the framework of international agreements and ethical standards. Five returns have been made to indigenous people in recent years (French Polynesia 2016, North America 2017 and 2018, New Zealand 2017, and Australia 2018). Further repatriation to the US has been decided but postponed due to the pandemic.

The aim is to contribute to a process of reconciliation for indigenous peoples who, through colonisation, have become oppressed minorities in their own countries. Questions regarding returns of human remains are complex, and we are in discussion with the authorities in several countries, including Finland, in order to ensure that returns take place in accordance with ethical standards and the law.

Karolinska Institutet takes its historical heritage seriously. We don’t want to silence critics or sweep our history under the rug. On the contrary, we support and foster critical debate surrounding KI’s anatomical collection and any abuses that have occurred in KI’s past. Our plan is to review the university's history and to make decisions in the autumn based on the working group's open report and proposals. If this work results in the removal of certain names, such decisions will be based on a proper review.