Hair-raising ‘Nazi’ discovery at varsity
Cape Town - In a cupboard inside a Stellenbosch University (SU) museum a young researcher, Handri Walters, found a human skull, a box of glass eyes of different colours and a long silver case with hair samples, from straight and blond to curly and black.
Engraved on the box was the name Dr Eugen Fischer, a German scientist during the Nazi era, whose work focused on racial “purity” and what he saw as the problems of mixed-race marriages.
The hair and glass eyes were apparently used in many parts of the world in the early part of last century as a way of classifying people into races and advancing the idea of “racial hygiene” and eugenics, the science of using controlled breeding to increase “desirable” characteristics in human populations.
What were these objects doing in Stellenbosch University, and were students once taught to use these to classify people by race?
Did academics use them in research? And if so, what did this mean about the university’s role in developing ideas to support ideas about racial segregation and the development of apartheid?
A team of SU academics from the faculty of Arts and Social Sciences is about to find out. They have embarked on a research project that will focus on the role of academic thought in the past, and its influence on apartheid policies that divided people into race and outlawed racial mixing and intermarriage.
Eugene Cloete, vice-rector in charge of research and innovation, said the university was in the process of transformation but could not move forward without looking at its past, which included the university’s link with apartheid.
Initially the university was concerned about the origins of the human skull, but found that it had come from a legal anatomical facility and conformed with the Human Tissue Act.
The museum was part of the former Volkekunde department, which was closed in the 1990s.
Steven Robins, professor in the department of sociology and social anthropology, said the idea of eugenics was not a Nazi invention, but at one stage was shared by the left and the right.
The objects found in the museum had become a catalyst for thinking about “science writ large” and about the history of the abuse of science. “The past will sensitise us to start asking critical questions,” Robins said.