KI under pressure to address dark side of its history

The Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm, Sweden, one of the world’s leading medical research universities, is facing increasing public pressure to distance itself from race scientists from its past.

These include Anders Retzius (1796-1860 – professor of anatomy and supervisor at KI) and Gustaf Retzius (1842-1919 – professor of histology at KI in 1877 and in anatomy in 1889).

Students and staff have complained that the fact that a new laboratory and auditorium constructed at the Solna campus of KI in the 1990s were named after Anders Retzius and his son Gustaf Retzius amounts to an endorsement of racism, because both were well-known anatomists who collected skulls from around the world in the interest of racial ‘science’.

Rector of KI Professor Ole Petter Ottersen last autumn established a working group mandated to work out recommendations with regard to medical history and ethical aspects on historical memorials and collections (in Swedish).

These are expected to propose that lecture halls and roads will be renamed, but the students are not satisfied. “Why does the president not just get a chisel and remove the signs? The race biologists have to go,” Natte Hillerberg, a doctoral candidate in psychiatry, said.

New allegations

On 13 July the Swedish newspaper Dagens ETC published an article signed by STRÄVA (KI students for a world and academy based on justice), the ‘Committee for the return of Finnish remains’, Karolinska Decolonizing Global Health and Doctors Against Racism, titled “The skull collection at the Karolinska Institute must be brought back to the people”.

The article highlighted the forced sterilisation of Swedish minorities between 1934 and 1975, where one element of the decision to sterilise was based on “race hygiene”, for which KI researchers provided “scientific evidence”.

The article also referred to the scandal involving the Italian surgeon Paolo Macchiarini who operated, transplanting artificial tracheas, on three non-white persons who later died due to the operations.

“Two researchers had a decisive influence on the development of race hygiene – the idea that human inheritable characteristics can be improved by selective breeding. Two scientists that had this influence for the growth of race biology were father and son Anders and Gustaf Retzius, both working at KI,” the article said.

Anders Retzius invented the “skull index” – a term to describe and classify human skulls as being “long-skulled” or “short-skulled”. The indigenous people from Lapland – an area spanning parts of Norway, Finland, Sweden and the Kola Peninsula in Russia – were characterised as short-skulled and Germanic people as long-skulled. Due to the size of the brain being larger on the long-skulled, the latter were deemed to have greater intelligence.

Anders Retzius established a collection of skulls at KI with skulls gathered from all over the world, mainly from indigenous people. This collection is still held at KI.

His son Gustaf, who is often described as “one of the central race biological scientists”, continued where his father had ended. He measured the skulls on thousands of people and increased the skull collection at KI through plundering graves and buying up collections. He found that Sweden had the “most pure Germanic race branch”.

The signatories of the article said that father and son Retzius had a decisive influence on the growth of race-biological and later race-hygiene ‘science’ and in the continuation of this were contributing to the Nazi genocide some decades later.

In spite of this, their names, statues and portraits are found at several important places at KI, they said. The Retzius Laboratory was established in 2001 and named after Anders Retzius, whose name has also been given to the street where the laboratory is situated. When the largest lecture halls were renamed early in 2000, one of these was named after Gustaf Retzius.

Demands for repatriation

In 2018 the ‘Committee for the return of Finnish remains’ demanded that the remains of 82 skulls stolen from Finnish churchyards and held in the KI collection should be returned to Finland. A letter of demand was signed by 34 organisations, several of these with direct links to the graveyards plundered.

In its response, KI said there were no existing regulations with regard to the repatriation of remains in this case and the matter would be further examined before delivery could take place – which was delayed due to the pandemic.

The signatories of the article concluded: “We are not satisfied with the way KI is handling its anatomical collection.”

They said the remains belong to the people they were taken from. “And that they have been used in something as horrible as race-biological foundation is even more serious.”

They have set a deadline of the start of the autumn term 2021 for KI to ensure that it:

• Builds up and publishes a digital archive of the remains deposited at the institute.

• Removes the regulation that only indigenous people have the right to have remains returned.

• Accepts the demand for the return of 82 Finnish skulls as demanded in 2018 by the ‘Committee for the return of Finnish remains’.

KI taking heritage ‘seriously’

KI President Ole Petter Ottersen, Eva Åhrén from the Unit for Medical History and Heritage and professor in medical ethics Gert Helgesson, chair of the working group established in the fall of 2020 and member of the ethics council at KI, wrote a joint reply to the Dagens ETC article, saying the points made were timely and justified, and indicating that KI has taken several steps to “cast light over the dark chapters in our history”.

“The more than 200 years of history at KI have aspects that within today’s perspective are unethical, unscientific and characterised by a hierarchical and in some cases racist view of humans – views that are totally unacceptable today.

“We are responsible for what we leave over to future generations, and it has to be an honest heritage, even if it hurts. We have removed the portrait busts of Anders and Gustaf Retzius – not to destroy them but to make use of them in contexts where we can reflect critically around race research and other dark sides of our history.”

They said KI has also since 2015 been working to cast light over 19th century race research and the anatomical collections to make possible the return of remnants of people within the international framework and ethical regulations.

Five such returns to indigenous people have been made in recent years to French Polynesia (2016), North America (2017 and 2018), New Zealand (2017) and Australia (2018). Further repatriation to the United States has been decided upon but was delayed due to the pandemic.

“The objective is to contribute to a reconciliation process for indigenous people that, through colonialisation and repression, have been repressed minorities in their home countries. Questions on repatriation are complicated and we are in discussion with the authorities in several countries, among these Finland, to be able to guarantee ethical processes following international rule of law,” they said.

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen told University World News: “I find it important that all universities have a thought-through settlement with a past that is characterised by other ethical norms compared to those we have today. That is the reason why I took the initiative to look through all name-giving and all memorial statues at the campus.”

He said it is also clear that such a process understandably releases strong emotions. “But the process has to be driven forward not by emotions but by evidence and a debate where all nuances are presented and where all – not least the students – are heard.”

He said a process started with KI’s Strategy 2030, where the value foundation of the institution is the core element, via an established ethics council and establishment of a working group strengthened by independent experts, and as president he will make decisions based on the recommendations of the working group.

He said he was prepared to live with the process taking more time than some people would like in order to ensure it was done in a legally correct, well-thought-through way, based on evidence and a correct understanding of the history, to ensure a decision was taken that could “stand the test for generations to come”.

Rushing to take names off buildings and memorial sites under pressure without further reflection “would not have been a genuine settlement with the past”, he argued.

Strong engagement on social media

The issue has provoked a strong response on social media, with 84 comments on the case as University World News went to press, some with references to research.

Robert Stenkvist, a politician for the Sweden Democrats in the Swedish parliament, wrote on Facebook: “I am against re-naming of precisely everything. The Soviet Union rewrote its history every year, following the different ‘political winds’, and we all laughed.

“Set up new information signs if that feels better. I do not object, but we cannot erase our complex history. And we shall not even try. Do we combat racism by renaming lecturing rooms and corridors? I do not think anyone is that naïve.”

Thomas Söderqvist, former professor in the history of medicine at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, is a member of the working group mandated to make recommendations to the KI president. He said: “We are examining the questions very thoroughly based on historical expert knowledge. There is no reason whatsoever to leave this question to a group of loudly speaking activists.”

Jonas Persson, associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology or NTNU, said: “To give names from persons always will be problematic since those coming after us always might find something to be provoked by.

“If a system is created where it is accepted to remove persons’ names later, the step towards falsification of history is close at hand.”