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Zentrum Geschichte des Wissens

Universität Zürich

Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich

Zentrum Geschichte des Wissens

Universität Zürich

Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich

PASCAL GERMANN

»Nature's laboratories«. Racial Hygiene, Racial Research and Human Genetics in Switzerland, 1920-1970

The research project investigates the entanglement between racial hygiene and genetics in the 20th century taking Switzerland as an example. During the time period between 1920 and 1970 there was a boom of hereditary research on a population level in Switzerland. These research projects ranged from racial anthropological investigation to medical family research to projects with a population genetics focus. Human geneticists and racial scientists emphasized the advantageous conditions for population research in Switzerland. For instance, they pointed out the convenient requirements for mass surveys due to the compulsary military service or they referred to the excellent body of old genealogical source material. Moreover, human geneticists stressed that the alps featured a lot of small isolated populations, which were conceived as »nature´s laboratories of human genetics«. Finally, there were convenient ways of funding ambitious and expensive projects since in 1921 the affluent »Julius Klaus foundation for genetics, social anthropology and racial hygiene« was founded. According to the foundation’s regulations which remained unchanged until 1971 the eugenic trust supported all efforts which contributed to an »improvement of the white race«. In the first half of the 20th century the foundation was the most important sponsor for genetic research in Switzerland. Especially, research on a population level was supported.

The project focuses on three different fields of population research. All of them were represented by large scale projects in Switzerland in the examined time period. The first approach was based on body measurements and followed the tradition of 19th century racial anthropology. Population research that drew on genealogical data and followed medical genetics research interests comprised a second focus. These population studies were mainly conducted in alpine isolates. A third field, finally, is blood group research. Lying in between racial research and population genetics blood group studies were booming in Switzerland after World War II.

These areas of research – anthropometry, genealogy, blood group research – can be regarded as three styles of research involving different data, methods, techniques, concepts and representations in order to produce hereditary knowledge on populations. In these data-driven surveys genetic, eugenic, anthropological and medical horizons of research were overlapped and intertwined in a wide variety of ways. The goal of this research project is to bring to the fore and examine such entanglements. It explores the epistemic, social and political conditions which allowed for the interconnections between heredity research and racial hygiene. In contrast, it is aimed at srcutinizing the developments due to which racial hygiene increasingly became less important and finally disappeared in science.

On the one hand the project examines the changing institutional, discursive and political conditions which facilitated, fostered, guided or hampered the production, circulation and application of heredity and population knowledge. On the other hand the project focuses on the knowledge generating practices themselves retracing the treaded paths from data mining to published facts. Following this approach, I assume that racial and eugenic categories and classifications won their persuasive power not only in social and political contexts but also in material techniques, practices and representations of scientific research.