Lionel Penrose

Lionel Penrose was a member of the MEDICAL RESEARCH COUNCIL (NUCLEAR RADIATION COMMITTEE) at the time of the atomic weapons test in Australia. At that time he is listed by the British Parliament as being “Professor L. S. Penrose, M.D., F.R.S., Galton Professor of Eugenics, University College, London.” See post

The contents of Ernest Rock Carling’s repugnant speech to the Atoms for Peace Conference in Geneva in 1955 includes the following statements: Quote:
Speaking at an atomic conference at Geneva, Sir Ernest Rock Carling, a Home Office pathologist, declared: “It is also to be hoped that, in a limited proportion of cases, these mutations (from nuclear radiation from atomic bomb test fallout) will have a favourable effect and produce a child of genius. At the risk of shocking this distinguished company, I affirm that the mutation that will give us an Aristotle, a Leonardo da Vinci, a Newton, a Pasteur, or an Einstein will largely compensate for the ninety nine others, which will have much less fortunate effects.” (cited by Pauwels and Bergier, “The Morning of the Magicians”, 1960)

As Lionel Penrose and Ernest Rock Carling served together on the MEDICAL RESEARCH COUNCIL (NUCLEAR RADIATION COMMITTEE).

Rock Carling’s speech is framed within the concepts of Eugenics, with a focus on mental retardation inflicted by bomb fallout being offset by the creation of individuals of genius by way of the same fallout (only to be seen as a social benefit if the unfortunate are not allowed to breed, in the manner of British Eugenics).

Penrose occupied the position of Galton Professor of Eugenics, University College, London. Penrose also had a very great interest in the conditions of mental retardation and mental illness. He studied the genetics of such conditions.

Ernest Rock Carling got his ideas from somewhere, and the prime suspect is the highly organised association of Eugenics which was a potent force throughout Britain and the Anglophile world at that time. However, the work of Penrose stands very much in opposition to the words of Ernest Rock Carling, and it is in fact that case that Penrose would have found the contents of Rock Carling’s 1955 Geneva utterly offensive.

This is made plain by a brief reading of the life of Lionel Penrose, as follows:

Genetics journal
December 1, 1998 vol. 150 no. 4 1333-1340

Lionel Sharples Penrose, 1898-1972: A Personal Memoir in Celebration of the Centenary of His Birth by Renata Laxova

“After the war, Penrose was appointed to the Galton Chair of Eugenics and to the directorship of the Galton Laboratory at University College, London. The professional pedigree of the chair was auspicious. Established by Francis Galton in 1911, it was first occupied by Karl Pearson until 1933, when he was succeeded by R. A. Fisher, who held it until 1943. At that time J. B. S. Haldane, who had been head of the Department of Biometry since 1935, became the head of a united department of Biometry and Eugenics, with Penrose in the Galton Chair from 1945 until his retirement in 1965 at age 67. In 1957, when Haldane moved to India, Penrose became the head of a department called Eugenics, Biometry, and Genetics. He hated the word Eugenics and the philosophies with which it had become synonymous. He said it was “irksome” to be the head of a department of Eugenics and to edit a journal with Eugenics in its title without ever studying or writing a word about eugenics! But it was not until 1954 that he succeeded in officially changing the title of the journal he edited from Annals of Eugenics to Annals of Human Genetics, and it was only in 1963 that his chair finally became the Galton Professorship of Human Genetics. “

“During the Galton Laboratory years, Penrose’s overriding interest was the study of patients with mental retardation. He “adopted” one of the large residential institutions for the mentally retarded, Harperbury Hospital, which was located northwest of London in what was then quite seriously called London’s “lunatic fringe,” now the “green belt.” Such institutions were situated in all four directions from the center of London, hence the horrifying term. Harperbury had 1600-1800 residents, two-thirds of whom were male, and it was always Penrose’s dream to be located in their midst so that he could study and evaluate them in individual detail. “

“Issues of social and ethical importance were never far from Penrose’s thoughts. Using sound mathematical reasoning, he rarely missed an opportunity for debate with his enthusiastic, eugenically minded peers about their erroneous conceptions of the proliferation of the poor, the mentally ill, and the retarded (e.g., Penrose 1963b). He also studied crowd behavior and mass hysteria, mostly in connection with the Russian Revolution of 1917 or pre- and “peri”-war Nazi Germany. He summarized his ideas in a monograph entitled, characteristically, On the Objective Study of Crowd Behavior (Penrose 1952). Later, he published a leaflet, Hazards of Nuclear Tests, urging Britain, which he described as a “country aspiring to greatness,” to seize the moment and benefit humankind by abandoning its military demonstration of atomic power. In the 1930s he and Margaret had been instrumental in cofounding the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, in which both were active for the rest of their lives.”

My initial horror at seeing an academic Chair of Eugenics associated, in the same British Nucelar Radiation Committee occupied by Ernest Rock Carling did overcome me at first. One can imagine Rock Carling coniving with the occupant of such a Chair to concoct the 1955 speech.

However, this is a grave and ignorant error. The Eugenics movement was indeed very entrenched in the ruling class of Britain at the time, and for many years after. Anglophile countries are still not entirely over it. In the Australia the enforced administration of Depo-Provera by authorities against females deemed unsuitable for breeding was wide spread and the practice continued until recently.

“Depo-Provera is a branded progestogen-only contraceptive, depot medroxyprogesterone acetate (DMPA) long acting reversible hormonal contraceptive birth control drug that is injected every 3 months. It is an aqueous suspension for depot injection of the pregnane 17α-hydroxyprogesterone-derivative progestin medroxyprogesterone acetate.”

There are dangerous side effects to the substance. It’s use in institutions without consent by authorities became controversial in Australia some years ago.

Ernest Rock Carlings comments of 1955 make horrific sense logic on the setting of Eugenics which had as a central tenant the fostering of the breeding of those deemed to be the genetic “elite” and the discouraging of the breeding of the less than perfect.

In the light of the information that records the nature of Lionel Penrose, as a person who challenged the English Eugenics movement – as he did – being ready for a more than vigorous argument with Rock Carling on that man’s return from Geneva in 1955.

Exactly what is recorded in the archives of the British Nuclear Radiation Committee of Penrose’s contributions to the proceedings is not known by myself. I would like very much to find out.

The idea of a British radiation committee being permitted to include a dissenting member such as Penrose is utterly alien to me as an Australian. Here, the Atomic Weapons Test Safety Committee deliberately excluded such people by order of the British.

There is a warning in the story of Lionel Penrose.

In the modern world still, what passes casually as “genetics” may still feed into and encourage those who pursue the ideology known as Eugenics. At one point in history one did most deliberately feed the other. And within cloisters this may still be the case. Even in Australia.

“The widespread, popular and eugenic belief that such measures as enforced sterilization could effectively constrain the supposed greater fecundity of mental defectives and problem families to prevent an overall decline in national intelligence, is an instance of what Hogben found extremely contentious. In any case, he claimed, as already mentioned, that the influence of bad heredity could not be correctly assessed where enormous disparities in social conditions still persisted. The medical policy of eugenic selection by enforced sterilization was first implemented in 1907, in Indiana, ‘to prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists’, and by 1913 such sterilization had been legalized in 12 US States. Between 1907 and the 1970s more than 60 000 people had been sterilized under laws, upheld by the US Supreme Court in 1927, which had been drafted by doctors and were still valid in 19 States in 1985. These US laws were used as models for legislation in Denmark and Switzerland (1928), Germany (1933), Norway and Sweden (1934), and Finland (1935), and were neither social democrat nor Nazi in origin. It was the medical geneticist, Lionel Penrose, emphasizing Mendelian genetics, who particularly argued that inherited characters are genes and not characters, so that the scope of practical eugenics was extremely limited.” Lancelot Hogben, FRS (1895-1975) By Milo Keynes

In Australia, institutionalised Aboriginal females were a common target of enforced administration Depo Provea. The Australian Aboriginal Nation held the groups and individuals most affected by Britain’s nuclear testing regime. This nuclear testing resulted in the final dispossession of the Aboriginal Nation from the land.

Only at the start of the 21st century was the process of putting this situation right partially completed. However, the individuals medically affected by the nuclear tests continue to have to fight for justice.

The Australian and British governments continue to contest just claims and continue to deny any role in this matter as it applies to the children of nuclear victims, including the children of nuclear test participants.

Meanwhile nuclear lobbyists continue present the idea that nuclear pollution is beneficial it’s impact upon the human genome. Such lobbyists merely echo the words of Sir Ernest Rock Carling. The myth of the superior mutant, that most unlikely event, rests in fact upon the real and tragic costs borne by parents and children by way of nuclear insult to the integrity of the chromosome.

There is a nuclear elite. However, it is enabled by laws, not genetics. Such laws are unjust. Such laws allow the careless polluters to escape justice.

Further information on the work of Lionel Penrose.



L. S. Penrose Papers


Papers of Lionel Sharples Penrose, 1806-1974, comprising personal papers relating to Penrose and his family, 1806-1974; papers relating to the professional training, medical, scientific and voluntary work of Penrose, 1918-1972; and letters, mainly to Penrose, 1915-1973.


Work-Related Material


Papers relating to the professional training, medical, scientific and voluntary work of Lionel Sharples Penrose.

Consists of: papers relating to the study of mental disease and crime; papers relating to work for peace, war as a disease and the pathology of crowd behaviour; papers relating to problems in mathematical statistics, including statistics of elections; statistics in psychiatry and biology; reviews and obituaries by Penrose; administrative papers and correspondence relating to institutions where Penrose worked; notes, typescripts, letters and other papers about automatic mechanical self-replication; papers relating to John Burdon Sanderson Haldane; notes and other papers for lectures, broadcasts and talks; papers on psychoanalysis; papers relating to Penrose’s work at Cardiff City Mental Hospital, including letters from patients and case notes; papers relating to Penrose’s work at the Royal Eastern Counties’ Institution, Colchester, including reports, papers in connection with Mental defect (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1933), reviews of The influence of heredity on disease (London: H K Lewis & Co, 1934), the Colchester Survey: a clinical and genetic study of 1280 cases of mental defect; papers for work on Down’s syndrome; papers relating to pyloric stenosis; papers on sex incidence in mental disease and genetic sex-linkage; papers relating to genetic problems in obstetrics; papers on tests to classify and discriminate between normal and psychotic subjects; notes on shock therapy; papers about familial psychosis; data on Huntington’s chorea; papers relating to biochemical genetics; papers on genetics and paediatrics; work on the measurement of “fitness”; papers on heterosis and genetic equilibrium; lecture notes and other papers on eugenics; papers relating to the Royal Commission on the law relating to mental illness and mental deficiency; papers and letters on the genetical effects of radiation; papers relating to age, mutation and mental defect; lecture notes on consciousness, time and evolution; typescript papers relating to genetics and medicine, and genetics and psychotic reactions; typescripts for the CIBA foundation symposia, 1957-1965; letters and papers about central nervous system malformations; working papers, notes and letters for a lecture, talk and article on the “porcupine” man; papers relating to dermatoglyphics, the study of the lines forming skin patterns especially on the palms of hands and soles of feet; papers relating to the link between chromosomal anomalies and dermatoglyphic patterns; papers about a new treatment for leukaemia; papers on genetics and human infertility; papers about prosthetics for the mentally handicapped; notebooks on intrafamilial correlations; notes about the limits to growth; notes on amniocentesis and typescript on “Clinical research in subnormality”, 1972; list of Penrose’s scientific publications for the period 1925-1971; analysis of words in a 16th century manuscript and other notes on a variety of subjects which include gene combinations, chess problems, head measurements, mathematics without variables, Chinese and Japanese characters, and patterns; and some reprints of papers written by others.



Genetical Effects of Radiation


Consists of:

Offprints, including Penrose’s Hazards of Nuclear Tests.
Press cuttings on the International Conference on the peaceful uses of Atomic Energy.
Material relating to lectures on the effect of radiation damage in man.
Papers, minutes of meetings and reports connected with Penrose’s work on the Genetical Society’s Committee on the Genetical Effects of Radiation, and the Medical Research Council’s Committee on the Medical Aspects of Nuclear Radiation.
Reports, notes and minutes in connection with committees investigating the long-term effects of radiation damage in man.
Correspondence relating to committees, broadcasts and reports on the long-term genetic effects of radiation and atomic bomb explosions on human populations.



Papers of the Medical Research Council Committee on the Medical Aspects of Nuclear Radiation


Contains memoranda, agendas, minutes, offprints, and draft reports circulated to members of the Medical Research Council Committee on the Medical Aspects of Nuclear Radiation. The Committee was sub-divided into two further sections; the Panel on Individual Effects, and the Panel on Genetic Effects, who met separately to discuss circulated papers.

See Record View

Title List of Invitees to Committee on the Medical Aspects of Nuclear Radiation
Date1 1955

UCL Special Collections
University College London Archives.

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