Richard Berry’s disgrace

Among the jumble of papers in my desk drawer are some disturbing notes I made in the Wellcome Library a few years ago. I was in London researching how medical scientists took possession of the dead for dissection during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was proving to be a dark tale: I found accounts of body-snatching and of mutilated corpses being unceremoniously disposed of in crude coffins alongside rubbish and animal parts. As my research continued, I noticed that details that had initially shocked me no longer did – until, that is, the day I read about Richard Berry’s activities at the Stoke Park Colony for Mentally Defective Children, near Bristol.

What a strange concept such a place seems today. Stoke Park was one of a number of facilities established by Reverend Harold Burden, who had earlier served on a royal commission inquiring into the care of the ‘feeble minded’. It was the first facility certified under the Mental Deficiency Act 1913 and was soon regarded as the leading institution of its kind. By the time Berry arrived twenty years later Stoke Park had become more than a residential facility: it contained laboratories (called ‘the Clinic’) and a teaching museum, which Berry immediately set about enlarging. In a paper written during his time there, titled ‘The Problem of the Mental Defective’, Berry wrote of seeing ‘mental monstrosities’ on an almost daily basis. These ‘speechless, hopeless, helpless idiots’, whom Berry deemed the lowest grade of human, soon became his research material. Why, he asked, did society take such extraordinary pains to keep them alive, when ‘a kindly euthanasia’ would surely be preferable?

The book I had been reading in the Wellcome Library was A Cerebral Atlas Illustrating the Differences between the Brains of Mentally Defective and Normal Individuals with a Social, Mental and Neurological Record of 120 Defectives During Life, written by Berry in 1938. I needed to keep breaking away from the pages to reassure myself I wasn’t part of Berry’s world. Eventually I became too sad; I abandoned the Cerebral Atlas, closed my notebook and left. I’ve now returned to those notes because Berry is in the news again. Activists at the University of Melbourne recently succeeded in their efforts to have his name removed from a prominent building. The campaign drew on similar movements across the globe, in which students and scholars have called for the re-evaluation of how particular pasts are commemorated. In the US, Yale University has renamed a college previously dedicated to a defender of slavery; in South Africa, a student-led campaign saw the removal of a Cecil Rhodes statue from the University of Cape Town, leading to similar calls at Oxford University and other institutions.

Given Berry’s work as a comparative anatomist and eugenicist, it’s easy to see why he is being held in similarly poor esteem. As a talented anatomist, Berry inevitably acquired corpses for dissections and post-mortem examinations, but he also had other interests, including in collecting Aboriginal remains. Indeed, it was the 2003 discovery of a cache of skeletal material in a University of Melbourne storeroom that sparked calls for Berry’s legacy to be reassessed. The bones were thought to have been taken from some 400 corpses, including those of Aboriginal people. This was the kind of discovery no institution wants to make, and the university’s then vice chancellor Alan Gilbert reassured communities that the remains would be repatriated with dignity and respect. In addition, as a eugenicist, Berry collected and analysed the brains of people deemed to be ‘mentally defective’, arguing that such people should be isolated, sterilised and, for those judged to be beyond the pale, euthanised.


As it happens, dignity and respect were also on Berry’s mind when he became the university’s first professor of anatomy in 1906. Upon entering the dissecting room, Berry was unnerved to discover that its walls bore rusty remnants of student ‘meat fights’. This, together with a distinct lack of dissection specimens, illustrated to him that something was awry with the state of anatomy teaching in Melbourne. Berry informed his students that legislation required them to treat cadavers with respect, though the statute did no such thing. It merely set out the circumstances in which the school could lawfully acquire corpses, most of which were sourced from institutions for the poor or sick, such as the Melbourne (now Royal Melbourne) Hospital and the Immigrants Home at Royal Park. Such was also the case in other Australian states with medical schools to supply: bodies were provided by hospitals, ‘benevolent’ and lunatic asylums. After all, as one newspaper editor wrote in 1884, people in lunatic asylums were ‘of no interest or value to any person outside the institution’.

Berry was familiar with this way of procuring corpses. He had studied at the University of Edinburgh under Sir William Turner, one of the best-known anatomists of his day and a skilful collector of bodies from hospitals, poorhouses and lunatic asylums, often through former students who had gone on to work at these institutions. And Turner had taught his students in a way that extended their interest well beyond medicine. A physical anthropologist, he set about collecting anatomical specimens from around the world, hoping to illuminate the deep history of humankind. He even had a special room, designated ‘Turner’s Skullery’, in which his precious skulls were housed.

Interest in comparative anatomy was intense during Berry’s time in Melbourne and he soon set about creating his own collection of human remains. (At the time, a man could make his name and career on Aboriginal bodies.) Berry established an anthropological laboratory of his own, one he claimed was better equipped than any in Europe, and boasted widely about his collection of skeletal material.

One day in the dissecting room, Berry asked his students – especially those who lived in country areas – if they knew where to locate Aboriginal bones. Some did, and they willingly set about assisting Berry in his quest. That summer, William Crowther gathered together a group of men to search for remains on his family’s land at Oyster Cove where some of ‘the Tasmanians’ had lived and died. The men disinterred several skulls, many of which had tendrils and roots growing through them, and took them to the Royal Society’s Museum in Hobart, where they were measured. Berry’s assistant then returned to Melbourne with several specimens packed into his luggage.

Soft tissue was more difficult to acquire, not being a simple matter of robbing graves, but here too Berry was successful. In 1907, he took possession of the preserved bodies of two Aboriginal people from the Lower Murray region of South Australia: a twenty-five-year-old man who had died of pneumonia (indicating death in an institution) and a fifty-year-old woman whose death had been unexplained. Berry cut off and examined the heads, publishing his findings in a 1911 article titled ‘The Sectional Anatomy of the Head of the Australian Aboriginal: A Contribution to the Subject of Racial Anatomy’. Two years earlier the Argus newspaper had reported that the new professor was investing the ‘byways of ethnology and anthropology … with a glamour that is almost romantic’.

Berry was always a public intellectual, and in this aspect of his role (as well as in his scientific work) he increasingly focused on eugenics, a field in which medical men around the world played a central role. No anatomist, Berry commented soon after the end of the Great War, could fail to notice that the soldiers suffering from shell shock had small heads – so small as to be akin to those of ‘idiots’ and criminals. Berry had been interested in criminals for some time and had measured the heads of some 355 gaol inmates, communicating his results in public lectures. In 1912, the Argus, under the headline ‘Criminals and Brains: A Professor’s Deductions’, reported Berry’s finding – that intelligence and head size were correlated. Berry’s measurements showed him that the most intelligent criminals (deduced by the fact they had committed crimes like embezzlement and forgery) had the largest heads, while cattle thieves had the smallest. Berry also deployed his measuring tools on children, both at the Children’s Hospital and in schools (after the Department of Education had employed him to advise on ‘the problem of the small headed’). He further advocated that tests be undertaken in the wider population to detect who was mentally and morally defective, and suggested that businesses classify their employees.

The quest to divide people into recognisable types had a longer history. Physiognomists had sought to chart differences based on a range of facial indicators, while phrenologists believed that an individual’s character and mental abilities could be deduced from the size and shape of their skull. This classificatory project reminds me of Francis Galton’s composite photographs from the 1870s. Galton, often called the father of eugenics, photographed individual criminals, cut each portrait to match in size, then superimposed them on each other and took second shots, this time only allowing a fraction of the period normally needed to make a good photograph. The effect, he argued, was ‘to bring into evidence all the traits in which there is agreement, and to leave but a ghost of a trace of individual peculiarities’. Like Berry’s measurements, Galton’s portraits were of types rather than persons, though signs of individuality aren’t that easy to erase – the ghosts in Galton’s work appeared in the blurred edges of his composite photographs. Similarly, particular men stood out in each of Berry’s criminal sub-groups: some cattle thieves had large heads, while some embezzlers had small ones.


Berry abruptly left Melbourne in 1929. A difficult man, he had made powerful enemies who could thwart his desires, as became apparent when the university failed to offer him a customary five-year extension. For the rest of his career, Berry worked at Stoke Park as chairman of the Burden Mental Research Trust. There, he used the colony’s residents, laboratories and museum to research ‘the problems underlying the cause and inheritance of normal and abnormal mentality’.

Stoke Park housed more than 1,500 people, most of whom had been confined as children on the grounds that they were ‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’ unable to care for themselves, or ‘feeble minded’ and ‘moral defectives’ – people with higher capacities but who still required supervision and care. These were legal categories, but Berry consistently argued that discerning the differences between these groups was a medical rather than legal problem, for the boundaries dividing them weren’t rigid. The ‘high-grade’ imbecile might merge into the ‘low-grade’ feeble minded, and distinctions between ‘the certified high-grade defective’ and the ‘subnormal non-certified’ member of the general public could be difficult to detect. Indeed, Berry estimated that a quarter of the British population suffered some kind of mental deficiency. And those who lived at large in the community posed a real threat to society, he argued, as when left to their own devices they would inevitably have sex and produce ‘unfit’ children.

In 1938, Berry published his Cerebral Atlas, a large and expensive book containing photographs of brains extracted during post-mortem examinations either in Stoke Park (from 120 people, ranging in age from 1.9 to 36.3 years) or by doctors operating in general Bristol hospitals (from seventy-seven patients, ranging in age from two days to forty-five years). Berry claimed that in every case the person’s family or guardian had given consent. Yet at the time post-mortems were unregulated and commonly performed without permission. Such procedures would only become the subject of statute under the Human Tissue Act 1961, after which they could only lawfully be performed if the person or a relative had not objected. But that Act was silent on the matter of taking specimens, a practice that continued on a large scale. This was only revealed decades later after a series of public inquiries exposed that post-mortems were being carried out without consent and materials were frequently being removed and retained. Even where families had permitted specimens be taken, some didn’t understand what this might actually entail. Thinking they had consented to small amounts of tissue being removed for microscopic examination, they later learned that organs, heads and even entire bodies had been kept.

The brief patient notes in the Cerebral Atlas suggest that consent was unlikely. Of the Stoke Park residents, Berry states: ‘in view of their widely scattered homes and the fact that many of them were certified a good many years ago any personal investigation of their family histories has been impossible’. Instead, case histories were built on information supplied by ‘official visitors and certifying doctors’ as well as observations made on site.

Based on such information, Berry and his colleagues assessed those in their care. A telling example comes from the page on which I abandoned the Cerebral Atlas. It features a picture of a young man sitting on a covered chair, naked except for a sheet draped over his genitals, his body so thin that he resembles a famine victim. The photograph’s caption reads ‘Male idiot, aged 19.10 years with bilateral partial absence of cerebral cortex’. Next to the photograph are snippets of the youth’s history. At age four he had been admitted to a county mental hospital from where he was transferred five years later to Stoke Park. There the boy was found to be ‘a bad epileptic, wet and dirty, excitable, restless, destructive, spiteful, and quite unable to do anything for himself’. Berry states that his examination of the brain after the young man’s death fully confirmed the clinical notes made about him during his life. This was ‘a perfectly impossible idiot’ whose condition the photograph adequately conveyed, perhaps justifying, Berry wrote, ‘the views of those who hold that a kindly and early euthanasia is the better treatment for these by no means isolated or rare cases’. The only surprising thing to Berry had been that the young man had lasted so long before expiring from bronchopneumonia with portal vein thrombosis.

The Cerebral Atlas provides evidence for what Berry believed: that people like this were useless to themselves and to society. The assessments go on, page after page after page, as Berry made these brains and case histories tell a story of types, rather than of persons. The book thus supported Berry’s strongly held view that such people had been justifiably isolated from a society in which, regretfully to him, they could not be euthanised.


The campaign for Berry’s name to be removed from that building at the University of Melbourne highlighted his eugenic beliefs. Yet even after reading the sickening Cerebral Atlas I’m in two minds about this strategy. Berry wasn’t alone in his passions, though he took them further than many, and as a historian I think we need to understand rather than erase our past. Berry’s collections, writing and advocacy were part of the intellectual milieu of his time, the crude use he made of bones and brains indicative of contemporary ideas that were tightly intertwined with social apprehensions. Besides, once we begin all of the suggested rubbings-out, where will we stop? Many figures in the past won’t bear our close examination. There are plans to replace Berry’s name with a plaque, and the trick will be to ensure that the information on it reflects the complicated history of his various endeavours. If that’s done well Richard Berry will serve to remind passers-by how arrogant assumptions about others make it possible and socially desirable to classify them, which is always the first move towards expelling some from among us.



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Helen MacDondald

Helen MacDondald is an award-winning writer and historian. Her latest book is Possessing the Dead: The Artful Science of Anatomy.

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