Measuring the Nation: Eugenics, Biometrics, and the Proposed British National Anthropometric Survey of 1904

The inaugural CRISP online seminar, on MS Teams
Wednesday, May 17, 2023 - 14:00

We are delighted to announce our first online research seminar, to be delivered by Dr Michelle Spektor. Michelle is a Lecturer on the Science, Technology and Society Program at TUFTS University, USA. The seminar takes place on May 17th at 1400 UK time on MS Teams.

To join the seminar, all you need to do is click on the 'join the seminar' link below. The link will become live 15 minutes before the start of the seminar on May 17th.  


In 1903, the United Kingdom’s War Office announced that up to 60 percent of men who presented for military enlistment were physically unfit for service. Amid growing fears about national decline, the government convened an Inter-departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration to investigate the issue. After consulting anthropologists from the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), the Committee’s 1904 Report recommended a National Anthropometric Survey – a large-scale collection and investigation of biometric measurements of British citizens’ bodies – to determine the occurrence of physical deterioration in the population.

Relying on extensive archival research, the presentation shows how the Survey emerged as a solution for these goals and why it was never implemented. It examines how its design was shaped by (1) the Inter-departmental Committee, who hoped to measure the population’s health and develop social reforms, and (2) BAAS anthropologists who wished to advance their eugenic research on racial classification in the UK and promote anti-immigration policies. In the process, these groups imbued the Survey’s methods with varying, and at times conflicting, understandings of national belonging.

Drawing on STS and related scholarship, the paper presents the Survey as an important precursor of contemporary national biometric identification systems that demonstrates how systems that encompass entire citizenries still contain politics of inclusion and exclusion. The Survey was not simply a tool to collect citizen data. It also intervened in politics of industrialization, class, urbanization, immigration, race, and empire – dynamics that resonate in biometric systems today.

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