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Caltech Alum and UCLA Professor Calls for Removal of Robert A. Millikan’s Name, Bust From Caltech Campus Over Eugenics Support

Published on Tuesday, July 7, 2020 | 3:32 pm
At left, UCLA professor and Caltech alumnus Michael Chwe. At right, Robert A. Millikan in the 1920’s. Photo courtesy and Mondadori Publishers

A UCLA professor and Caltech alumnus is gathering signatures on a petition demanding the removal of Robert A. Millikan’s name from Caltech buildings, as well as the removal of his statue on campus, over his open support of eugenics and racism.

Millikan was a renowned physicist at Caltech who was its first professor to win a Nobel Prize. A contemporary of Albert Einstein, Millikan helped elevate Caltech into one of the leading research institutions in the United States.

The petition circulated by Michael Chwe had garnered more than 800 signatures as of Tuesday from Caltech students, alumni, postdoctoral fellows, staff and other community members, he said in the document, which can be viewed online.

“As members and friends of the Caltech community, we believe that Caltech cannot honor individuals who actively supported and encouraged crimes against humanity,” Chwe wrote. “Therefore, we call for Caltech to rename all buildings, spaces, and programs named after Robert A. Millikan, including the Robert A. Millikan Memorial Building, Millikan Library, Millikan Pond, and the Athenaeum’s Millikan Suite. We call for the removal of the bust of Millikan on the Caltech campus.”

Chwe received his bachelor degree in economics from Caltech in 1985, the Los Angeles Times reported. He currently serves as a political science professor at UCLA.

While Millikan was the primary target of the campaign, other’s with dark pasts have links to the institution, as well, Chwe said.

“Millikan, together with individuals including E.S. Gosney, A.B. Ruddock, Harry Chandler, and William B. Munro, led an organization that widely advocated for forced sterilization of people with disabilities and actively supported and encouraged, and even took pride in, Nazi Germany’s 1933 forced sterilization law,” according to Chwe.

Perhaps Caltech’s most visible tribute to Millikan is the Robert A. Millikan Building. Image by KISSCaltech, CC BY 3.0

He said he was also calling for the Gosney Research Fund, Ruddock House, Harry Chandler Dining Hall, and the William Bennett Munro Memorial Seminar to be renamed.

“Millikan, Ruddock, Chandler, and Munro were members of the Board of Trustees of the Human Betterment Foundation in Pasadena, whose president was E.S. Gosney,” Chwe said.

“In 1938, the Human Betterment Foundation published a pamphlet, “Human Sterilization Today,” advocating for the forced sterilization of “defectives,” saying that “modern sterilization is not a mutilation in any sense of the word,” that “eugenic sterilization in this form represents one of the greatest advances in modern civilization,” and that the foundation aims to “investigate the possibilities of race betterment by eugenic sterilization, and publish the results,” Chwe said.

City Councilman John Kennedy said he has also been looking into the connections between eugenics and Gosney.

Last month, he asked to be granted access to the archives of the Human Betterment Foundation and of Ezra Gosney in the Special Collections Library at Caltech.

Gosney was an American philanthropist and eugenicist. In 1928, he founded the Human Betterment Foundation, the purpose of which was “race betterment” through eugenic sterilization, specifically, the compulsory sterilization of those with mental illness or developmental disability and minorities.

Gosney came to Southern California in the early 1900s and donated $12,500 to help start Pasadena Polytechnic School in 1907. By the 1920s he had built up a considerable fortune, owned one of the largest lemon groves in the state, and served as the director of numerous banks, trusts companies, and corporations.

“Gosney’s work was based upon California’s compulsory sterilization laws and published in 1929 to promote compulsory sterilization laws in other states and countries,” Kennedy said. “It is my understanding that Gosney’s book was specifically referenced by officials in Nazi Germany in the creation of their own sterilization legislation in 1933 as having provided proof that sterilization programs could be safe and effective.”

The archive is closed due to the Coronavirus. College President Thomas Rosenbaum told Kennedy in a letter that someone would be in contact with him once the virus has subsided.

Kennedy said, “It is unconscionable and un-American to place anyone in a position of reverence who was in anyway involved in the force sterlilzation of African American servicemen and African American women along with other groups of Americans. The extent of the role of respected members of the Human Betterment Foundation, housed at Pasadena’s California Institute of Technology, in developing the Nuremberg Laws and providing the intellectual underpinning for the extermination of my Jewish Family must be revealed and shared.”

Chwe said numerous other institutions have already begun purging the names of eugenicists from their campuses.

Chwe said USC’s fifth president, R.B. Von KleinSmid, was also a member of the Human Betterment Foundation. His name and bust were removed from university buildings last month.

The Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, where Millikan was a founder and longtime member and co-founder, removed Millikan’s name from a room at the facility in 2019, Chwe said.

Polytechnic School removed Gosney’s name from a hall in 2013, Chwe said.

Former President Woodrow Wilson’s name was recently stripped from the campus of Princeton University over his racist statements and actions, he added.

Caltech announced Monday that the university was launching a new campaign designed to foster diversity and inclusiveness on campus.

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