Reviewed by John Gilmour in SBR 2017:1
Review Section: Non-fiction
Towards the end of the 19th and in the early 20th century, there was a maelstrom of new thinking about Darwinism, race, inherited characteristics and improving the health and welfare of Western societies – broadly described as eugenics. Much of this thinking was assertion rather than scientifically based, but a middle-aged Swedish doctor set out to change that and in the process make a name for himself.
Herman Lundborg has been a controversial figure in the history of 20th-century Sweden because of his role in the eugenics movement and as the founder of the Swedish State Institute for Racial Biology, but there is possibly more to him than has been revealed previously. Does this biography of Lundborg provide a fuller picture of the man and his work?
Maja Hagerman’s impressive research and skilful narrative not only reveal unexpected events in Lundborg’s life, but also confirm many other misgivings about his work and views. Since the title mentions ‘enigma’, the unexpected should perhaps be dealt with first. The hard-working son of a hard-working father, Lundborg studied medicine and was exposed to theories of identifying racial differences by cranial measurements.This led to a huge Swedish project to measure and analyse the physical characteristics of 45,000 army conscripts which impressed young Dr Lundborg. After qualifying and marrying a nurse, Thyra, Lundborg specialised in unrewarding psychiatric medicine but began associating mental illness and criminal behaviour with hereditary characteristics. In 1906, he made the first of many visits to Germany, beginning lifetime cooperation with eugenicists there. In 1908, now 40, he began his own research in Blekinge, connecting poor health or social behaviour with heredity. Thus,he included a real genetic condition, Myoclonic epilepsy, with alcoholism, immorality and so on, in fatally flawed findings with a scientific veneer. On these imperfect research methods was his ‘scientific’ reputation to be built.
By the age of 45 in 1913, back in Uppsala, he was given funds to research Lapps, as the Sami were then called, and so began the first of many long research trips to the north to collect genealogical data, measurements and photos of subjects, most of whom did not speak Swedish and were unaware of how they were to be used by the ambitious Lundborg. Hagerman shows that Lundborg used these trips to avoid family responsibilities, strike up dubious relationships with young local women ‘assistants’ and abuse his authority to take photos, sometimes nude shots. Lundborg’s humanity had long since disappeared.
He now had a vision of a state Institute which would oversee eugenic research. By 1922, he had convinced sufficient establishment figures in politics and public life to support this initiative and he became its first Director – but not without opposition. Difficult to work with and an absent boss, Lundborg continued to focus his research on Sami and Finns (but never, interestingly, on Slavs and Jews). Given his views on maintaining racial purity, Hagerman reveals the most astonishing hypocrisy; Lundborg fathered a child, Allan, with Maria Isaksson, a woman he regarded as being of mixed race whom he later installed in the Institute, married but never fully acknowledged following Thyra’s death.
Turning now to what could be expected of a person working in this field at this time, Hagerman does not disappoint the reader seeking confirmation of dubious science, distasteful connections and appalling views.
Despite the assiduous collection of data using innovative measurement instruments and advanced analysis machinery (both of which would be later adopted by the Nazis for their genocidal project) the publication of Lundborg’s results brought no breakthroughs in knowledge for health and society.While I write this, I have Lundborg’s 1926 book (which I found in my university library) in front of me. As Hagerman points out, its physical weight is 5kg. But its scientific weight is miniscule. It is a masterpiece of statistics that told the world nothing of value – but looks very impressive. It was one of the 438 copies that Lundborg apparently sent out worldwide, primarily to enhance his reputation.
His work did find its greatest admirers in 1920s’ Germany where the emerging right wing mutated into the Nazi party. A little group of German eugenicists were able to provide Lundborgian-type ‘scientific’ support to the anti-Semitic Hitlerians, thereby gaining increasing stature in 1930s’ Germany. Paradoxically, as their stars waxed, Lundborg’s waned and he retired, a somewhat bitter and disappointed man.
Nevertheless, he was able to provide a polemic speech for the 1935 Berlin Congress. Hagerman quotes, ‘With deepest admiration I have followed the German nation’s heroic struggle for its existence […] Germans under their leader (Hitler) have found courage, strength and unity.’ These few lines (with the additional comments that the ‘inferior’ or hereditarily-ill should be sterilised or detained) reveal Lundborg’s sympathies – the unacceptable views of a deeply unpleasant man.