Published: 16-02-2015 15:19 | Updated: 17-02-2015 09:38

KI debates controversial name

When new buildings were erected on KI’s Solna campus in the early 1990s, a laboratory, a street and an auditorium were named after Anders Retzius and his son Gustaf Retzius. A debate is now raging over whether these names should be kept or changed.

Both father and son were famous anatomists in the 19th century scientific community and are two of the leading figures in the university’s history. As part of their anatomical research, they collected crania from around the world in the interests of racial science. Many of these countries have now asked to have the skulls returned and KI has been criticised for not handling the matter promptly enough.

Last spring, a doctoral student at the Department of Neuroscience raised the issue of Retzius’s problematic links to eugenics in a letter to the vice-chancellor, and suggested that the name be removed from the various places around KI that honour it.

Olof Ljungström at the medical history and cultural heritage unit prepared the background material for the university’s reply.

We can’t acquit 19th century anatomists of racial science, we can’t whitewash them and simply erase it from the history books.

Olof Ljungström_webb“History needs to be written differently to how it was before,” he says. “The proposer asks, in a way, the right questions. Enough information is available on Retzius for him to start asking questions. If Retzius’s name disappears, people won’t be able to ask such questions any more in this way.”

The issue is not a new one, and Olof Ljungström thinks that it will probably return even if the name is removed.

“We can’t acquit 19th century anatomists of racial science, we can’t whitewash them and simply erase it from the history books. On the other hand, if we only base our decision on what to do in this situation on what’s problematic, it won’t be the perfect way out either. A working synthesis must include both aspects.”

No decision on the name has yet been taken.

“We’re planning an open seminar on the question, after which we’ll be considering the naming issue,” says University Director Per Bengtsson. “We must take into account the associations a name has, even if this is by no means the complete picture of who Retzius was.”

A decision was taken last autumn on several activities for discussing the history of eugenics and racial science at Karolinska Institutet, including an internal seminar at the neuroscience department this spring.

“We’re also planning an international symposium, possibly in 2016, on human museum specimens and how they relate to racial science,” says Eva Åhrén at the medical history and cultural heritage unit.

Text: Karin Söderlund Leifler

Photo: Gunnar Ask