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Imperial College London’s Cancel Campaign Against Its Own Founders

The connection with the Beit family and its financial generosity has continued almost unbroken since the founding of the College.

· 17 min read
Imperial College London’s Cancel Campaign Against Its Own Founders
Construction of Imperial College of Science and Technology

Imperial College London was founded in 1907. It is one of the top 20 universities in the world, and among the leading technical universities in Europe. Two individuals were central to its foundation.

The first is 19th-century English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who became known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” due to his singularly strenuous advocacy of Charles Darwin’s ideas. In South Kensington, he collected the pieces from which Imperial was later assembled: the Royal School of Mines, The Royal College of Science, and the City and Guilds of London Institute. Although he died before the creation of Imperial College, Huxley is described by his biographer Cyril Bibby as its “chief builder.”

The second main founder is Alfred Beit, a German Jew who made his fortune from diamond and gold mining in South Africa. Beit, who moved to London in 1889, was one of the first to see the desirability of creating a new science university in London to compete with developments in Germany. Together with his business associate Sir Julius Wernher, they provided the financial backing necessary to secure the construction of Imperial College. Beit died in 1906, a year before the opening, but the family connection was sustained through his brother Otto, who inherited part of Alfred’s fortune. In 1931, the Rector of Imperial College, Sir Henry Tizard, wrote in the journal Nature: “Practically the whole of the endowment of the College since its incorporation has been provided by Sir Julius Wernher, Mr Alfred Beit and Sir Otto Beit.”

Up to October 26th, 2021, when the Imperial History Group published a report aimed at examining “the history of the College through its links to the British Empire, and to report on the current understanding and reception of the College’s legacy and heritage in the context of its present-day mission,” Huxley had been revered by the College. (For example, it held a celebratory conference in 1995 on the centenary of his death.) The generosity of Alfred Beit, and the continuing generosity of the Beit family up to the present time, has been gratefully acknowledged at regular intervals, notably in 2007 by the Rector Sir Richard Sykes, when the College celebrated its own centenary. And yet, despite no new pertinent facts emerging, the History Group suddenly has proposed, among other things, that Imperial College disown its two main founders. Specifically, the report authors recommended that “the bust of Huxley should be moved from the building for preservation … and the building should be renamed,” and that “Beit Quad and Hall are renamed subject to consultation with students. The consultation should clarify the history and then gather and understand any strong objections. This is not intended to be a majority vote which is not always representative and inclusive.”

The final decision will be made by the President’s Board next month. The stakes are more than symbolic: A university that repudiates its founders raises the question of whether its fundamental purpose has changed.

The History Group was created in June 2020, with a membership comprising 12 Imperial staff members, mostly STEM academics, together with six “advisors” recruited from senior College management. Imperial, being a technical university, does not employ academic historians. But some expertise was provided by two external historians who attended half the meetings in an advisory capacity.

The release of the History Group report in October was announced with some fanfare by the College’s President, Alice Gast (President being the new title for Rector), and Provost Ian Walmsley. The Provost declared, “we welcome their report and recommendations, which will help guide our ambitions,” and assured that “it is very much not a cancel culture approach.” But notwithstanding the stated mandate, the report had little to say specifically on the British Empire. Rather, the emphasis was on examining the College’s history from the perspective of promoting inclusion. It’s a surprisingly slim document, and appears to have been put together in haste, as it contained a large number of spelling mistakes, as well as errors of grammar and syntax. One section, on Sir Basil Zaharoff, appears to have been simply lifted from a Wikipedia entry, and a new version of the report had to be published with the copied material removed.

Some positive recommendations are contained within the report. Certain women and people of colour are identified as having been undeservedly neglected, and it is urged that they be recognised by the endowment of scholarships in their names. These include Margaret Fishenden (a pioneer in thermodynamics), Constance Tipper (who made a critical discovery in regard to the brittle fracture of World War-II-era cargo-ship hulls), and Philip Allsopp (who was the first black president of the City and Guilds College Union). However, the standout recommendations in the report may be described as negative: Huxley is charged with “scientific racism,” and espousing “a racial hierarchy of intelligence,” while Beit is denounced for “the treatment of workers during the expansion of the Kimberley mines [in South Africa].” Yet it is difficult to find the reason for the sudden change in the College’s attitude toward its founders. Notably, a comprehensive history of Imperial written by Hannah Gay for the centenary in 2007 was free of any such controversy.

Other universities have recently cancelled prominent figures who are central to their institutional history. These include David Hume at Edinburgh University, Robert Millikan at Caltech, and Woodrow Wilson at Princeton, with each of these cases focusing somewhat narrowly on particular actions or writings of the individuals concerned. A very different approach was taken by Yale in considering whether to rename Calhoun College, whose vice-presidential namesake, John C. Calhoun, was an adamant defender of slavery. In 2016, Yale President Peter Salovey set up a committee, chaired by law professor John Witt, to examine the issue of renaming in a general way, without reference to a particular individual or controversy, and to recommend principles that could be applied to any case that might arise. There is a distinct advantage to this approach, in that it is likely to channel a more objective view. After approving the report, the President then appointed a new committee to apply the recommended principles to the case of Calhoun.

The Witt committee considered the problem of renaming from multiple angles. Its members researched cases of renaming at other universities and in other countries, and they examined carefully the different principles that affect the decision process. These include the fact that the purpose of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge; that erasing a university’s history is antithetical to the spirit of the institution; that history’s memorialisation of the past serves to express values that may change over time; that change is indispensable in a university; and that the genuine inclusion of all groups is necessary to ensure that a university maintain its stature as a centre for research and teaching in years to come.

Committee members also called for input from undergraduates, staff, faculty, and alumni. The views expressed covered a wide range, but a theme emerged: “Running through many comments we received was widespread agreement that the University can and should aim to be diverse and inclusive in a way that emphasizes its traditions of excellence and does not efface the institution’s history.”

The result of this process was a set of proposed principles to follow, not only at Yale but at other institutions as well, in considering questions of renaming, with an accompanying narrative elaborating those principles. Interested readers should read the report in full to appreciate its message. But a general recommendation that emerged is that historical figures should be judged according to the times in which they lived, and that modern observers should focus on a person’s principal legacies, because no one is perfect.

Grace Murray Hopper, in a photo from the Computer History Museum. 

The idea was to create a decision framework that itself would stand the test of time, and would not simply be brushed aside in the future. The report warned that “hubris in undoing past decisions encourages future generations to disrespect the choices of the current generation.” But the recommendations certainly do allow renaming under the right circumstances. And indeed this is what happened to Calhoun College, which is now named after Grace Murray Hopper, a Yale-trained mathematician and computer scientist who, as a US Navy officer, applied her skills to the defeat of fascism during World War II.

The Imperial History Group was fully aware of the Yale report. Unfortunately, its members chose to follow a very different set of principles.

Huxley’s origins were humble, and his school education limited to just two years. Almost everything he learned was self-taught. Despite this, he became an extremely successful research scientist, educator, administrator, and public figure who passionately advocated for several progressive causes.

Two themes were particularly dominant in his life. First, he fought against dogmatism and unquestioned authority, and he always challenged assertions unsupported by evidence. Second, he fought for the right of all people to receive the same treatment, and to have the same opportunities to reach their potential, whether they be working class, women, slaves in the United States, or freed slaves in Jamaica. Today, we would describe this as promoting inclusion.

Huxley, photographed in 1890.

In his search for truth, he was a pioneer of the scientific method in the biological sciences. And he believed in applying reason backed by evidence to all problems, bravely following this approach wherever it took him, uninfluenced by prevailing wisdom. This naturally resulted in controversies, and sometimes to error. Although pugnacious, he was not proud; and when shown contrary evidence, he could be quick to admit his mistake and modify his position. There is a famous story of his visit to paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh at Yale, for instance, when Marsh used fossil evidence to persuade him to change his mind on the evolution of horses. Another anecdote, related in Bibby’s 1959 biography, features a student named Patrick Geddes (who would go on to fame in his own right) examining the radula of a whelk under a microscope and observing that the mechanism did not match Huxley’s published description. On inspecting the specimen, Huxley conceded his error and had a correction published in a zoological journal under Geddes’s name.

Huxley is best known for his advocacy of Darwin’s theory of evolution. While Darwin stayed away from the fray in his home outside London, Down House, it was Huxley who fought for evolution in public lectures and debates, most notably when he reportedly bested Sam Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, during a discussion of the issue at the Oxford University Museum in 1860 (although it should be said that no authoritative account of that famed confrontation survived). Huxley is also famous for his demonstration that birds evolved from dinosaurs, surmised from his analysis of an Archaeopteryx fossil. One might think that being the “chief builder” of Imperial College, along with all of these other achievements (and many more), would be enough to earn a permanent memorial at the College—especially given Huxley’s above-described status as one of the Victorian era’s greatest pioneers of inclusion (even if this isn’t the word he would have used) in regard to race, class, and gender.

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Concerning race, Huxley was an active slavery abolitionist. Despite the fact that two sons of his favourite sister Lizzie were fighting for the pro-slavery Confederate side in the US Civil War, he declared in an 1864 address to the Ladies London Emancipation Society that “the North is justified in any expenditure of blood or of money, which shall eradicate a system hopelessly inconsistent with the moral elevation, the political freedom, or the economical progress of the American people.” He continued with a stinging attack on James Hunt’s pro-slavery paper, On the Negro’s Place in Nature, which argued “for classifying the Negro as a distinct species from the European”.

In 1865, Huxley joined the Jamaica Committee, which had been set up with the aim of prosecuting Edward Eyre, Governor of Jamaica, for his brutal suppression of the Morant Bay rebellion by freed slaves. The Committee was greatly in the minority when compared to Eyre’s supporters. Thus did Huxley find himself opposing his childhood hero, historian Thomas Carlyle, and his great friend Charles Kingsley. For joining the Jamaica Committee, Hunt (a notorious racist, even by the standards of his day) accused Huxley of “negromania.”

Concerning class, Huxley is renowned for his series of lectures for working men, which were so popular that one vicar went in disguise in order to get in, but his appointment to the London School Board led to his greatest role in giving members of the working class an equal chance in life. The Boards had been created to implement the 1870 Elementary Education Act (formally known as An Act to provide for public Elementary Education in England and Wales), a key step in introducing universal education. At that time, about half of children received no schooling at all. The London School Board widely influenced other such Boards across the country, and Huxley’s chairing of the Scheme of Education Committee was central to its success. In fact, Huxley was influential in nearly every aspect of the Board’s work, so overworking himself in 1871 that his doctor ordered rest, and he had to resign. Huxley later said, “I am glad to think that, after all these years, I can look back upon that period of my life as perhaps the part of it least wasted.”

A Punch cartoon from 1870, commenting on the Elementary Education Act.

Huxley was also influential in promoting education for women. He helped Elizabeth Garrett, the first woman to qualify as a doctor in England, in the initial steps of her career. He was also a supporter of Emily Davies, founder of Girton College, the first women’s college at Cambridge University; and he petitioned the university to open its degrees to women—though it took them another seven decades to do so. (Both Garrett and Davies sat with Huxley among the inaugural cohort of the London School Board.) In his 1865 essay Emancipation—Black and White, he wrote, “whatever argument justifies a given education for boys, justifies its application to girls as well.” Of course, this strikes us as obvious. But it was a radical idea for its time.

A classroom at Girton College, photographed in 1919. 

Ironically, it is the introduction to this essay that would incriminate Huxley in the eyes of the Imperial History Group, the key lines being: “It may be quite true that some negroes are better than some white men; but no rational man, cognisant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man.” It need scarcely be said that such words are untrue, and intolerable today. They also appear surprising at first sight, considering that Huxley was thought of as highly progressive. But in fact, such a view was seen as normal in 1865. Similar views were held by, among others, Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, and Thaddeus Stevens—all, like Huxley, radicals and abolitionists. Sherrie Lyons, another biographer of Huxley, has stated, “In Europe and the United States one would be extremely hard pressed to find anyone in the sciences, not to mention the society at large in the nineteenth century, that did not have a hierarchical view of the races.”

The issue dividing society at the time was not whether there were differences between races, but whether such differences justified unequal treatment. In this essay, Huxley applied this (false, but then uncontroversial) view of a hierarchy of races in developing his argument, which was that all humans, including black people and women, should be granted equal opportunities. He finished the essay with the line, “The duty of man is to see that not a grain is piled upon that load beyond what Nature imposes; that injustice is not added to inequality”.

To its credit, the Imperial History Group invited Adrian Desmond, author of Huxley: From Devil’s Disciple to Evolution’s High Priest, to comment on Huxley’s 1865 essay. Desmond began by warning against judging the past by the present. He went on to state that the term scientific racism cannot be applied to Huxley, and summarised: “From my perspective, if Huxley was guilty of something today that is popularly labelled ‘racism’ (defined in his case as undervaluing black people, the more so at the start of his career) it was of a less pernicious sort than that held by many of those around him. And he lost some of what we would now term racial prejudice as he advanced in years, despite many of his confrères stiffening their racial resolve.” This is as we would expect, since Huxley would change his views as the evidence changed.

The History Group rejected Desmond’s analysis, and has condemned Huxley for scientific racism. It has also judged that Huxley’s views fell “far short of Imperial’s modern values,” meaning that it has elected to judge Huxley by the standards of today rather than the standards of his time. Since Huxley’s views on this subject were entirely mainstream in 1865—and became, as Desmond wrote, more progressive than average with the passage of time—this amounts to condemning nearly every member of every 19th-century Western society.

Alfred Beit arrived at the Kimberley diamond mine in 1875, when he was 22. The first diamond at Kimberley had been discovered in 1869, and thousands of miners from all over the world were soon arriving at this remote area of scrubland, which quickly would have the aspect of a rather lawless wild west town.

Kimberley was located on the edge of British controlled Griqualand West. A few months before Beit arrived, the authorities abandoned their colour-blind principles, capitulating to an armed rebellion of miners (known as the Black Flag revolt) and conceding to demands for racial segregation, as was practised in the neighbouring Boer states. The miners’ grievances centred on the accusation that black labourers hired to dig a claim secreted diamonds they found, often by swallowing, later selling them. (This practise was known as IDB, for illegal diamond buying, and accounted for a substantial fraction of the total production of the mines, estimated at one third. A range of measures, later including undignified body searches, never fully eliminated the phenomenon.)

Portrait of Alfred Beit (1853-1906).

As digging progressed and the soil changed from the softer yellow clay to the harder blue clay, the need to consolidate concessions, import sophisticated equipment, and organize the labour force in a much more structured way became evident. Beit progressed from diamond dealer to property speculator to financier with Porgès and Co., buying up claims and raising capital through share dealing. Between 1882 and 1885, the mines went into a period of depression, following the bursting of a speculative bubble. Beit’s biographer, Henning Albrecht, wrote, “In this situation, Beit’s true talents were revealed. With great foresight, energy and an extraordinary organisational ability, Beit, who day after day took on an enormous workload, succeeded in saving several companies from insolvency and in putting them on a new sound financial basis.”

Beit’s success in business was based on his ability to think deeply about problems and respond quickly to changing circumstances. But his success also was enhanced by his honesty and generosity toward those he interacted with. There are many attestations to Beit’s good character, and another biographer, Seymour Fort, summed him up as “that rather rare product, a self-made but really unselfish millionaire.”

British Library photo of workers near the Kimberley mine, in 1873. 

In 1884, Beit became Porgès’s main representative in Kimberley, although he was still salaried and not yet a partner. Subsequently, through a succession of share deals, he joined with Cecil Rhodes and Barney Barnato to achieve a monopoly on diamond mining at Kimberley for the de Beers corporation, of which they all became Life Governors. The next year, Beit moved to London.

Beit is condemned by the Imperial History Group for “the treatment of workers during the expansion of the Kimberley mines,” with no further explanation or analysis provided. Concerning working conditions, a key event at Kimberley was the introduction of closed compounds for the black labourers, beginning in 1885. By this stage, almost the entire labour force was black. As the mining process became industrialised and went (literally) underground, labour tasks became highly structured, with the closed compounds being modelled on military barracks. As well as enhancing efficiency, this also provided more effective control of IDB.

Labourers would spend fixed periods of three or six months in the compound. The living conditions (if not the restrictions) were a considerable improvement on conditions in the early years of Kimberley. For example, the de Beers compound provided sleeping quarters, a refectory, sanitary latrines and washing facilities, a number of stores (including bakery, butchers, grocery), a dispensary, a hospital, and a church. Nevertheless, mortality rates in the compounds were too high, with the principal cause identified as pneumonia, ascribed to overcrowding; and further improvements were introduced in 1903.

The closed compounds were certainly unpopular when introduced, but after an initial strike was faced down, there was no shortage of labour, with workers coming from as far away as Zambia. Of course, workers were there voluntarily. Wages were much higher than elsewhere in South Africa: Anthony Trollope, who visited the mines in 1878, was surprised that the miners were paid more than English farm labourers.

From today’s perspective, the conditions in the closed compounds appear demeaning, while the segregation of black and white introduced in 1875 (nothing to do with Beit) could be seen as a seed of apartheid. However, the latter issue is separate from the question of whether Beit’s actions at Kimberley may be considered immoral. In fact, the Kimberley mine compounds were viewed at the time, by some at least, as a good model. “The de Beers Company have set an example of just and reasonable treatment of their Native employees,” wrote the editors of a missionary publication in 1906. The History Group should, as a minimum, have presented a detailed analysis, explaining Beit’s responsibilities and including a comparison against conditions in coal mines and mills in Britain around that same time. (As a single example, children as young as five were then employed in coal mines in England until the Mines Act of 1842 set the minimum age at 10, and this did not rise to 14 until 1911.)

Beit was generous to charitable causes in Africa during his lifetime, as well as to many individuals who suffered at Kimberley in the depression years of the early 1880s. In his will, he bequeathed a large fraction of his fortune to universities in South Africa, Germany, and the UK. His single largest donation created the Beit Trust to support projects in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi. The trust continues to provide resources for schools, hospitals, wildlife conservation, and postgraduate scholarships for study in South Africa and the UK.

Beit didn’t seem to have been primarily motivated by a desire to establish a legacy. His biographer Henning Albrecht recounts that when Beit made a very considerable donation to the foundation of the University of Hamburg, for instance, he requested that it remain anonymous. Other universities that benefited from Beit’s largesse include Oxford, Wits, Cape Town, and Rhodes in South Africa—but Imperial was the most fortunate. The scale of this generosity is detailed in an appendix to the History Group report, which also notes the Beits (and Sir Julius Wernher) “were in tune with the values and intentions of Imperial, beginning with the Royal School of Mines.” This is relevant in addressing one of the criteria from the Yale report in considering renaming: “Did the University, at the time of a naming, honor a namesake for reasons that are fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University?”

The connection with the Beit family and its financial generosity has continued almost unbroken since the founding of the College. Otto Beit sat on the Governing Body; Otto’s son Sir Alfred Beit was a Trustee of the Beit Scientific Research Fellowships; and more recently, Otto’s grandson Sir Alan Munro was on the Governing Body from 1995–2005, was Chair of the Imperial College Trust for 15 years, and now chairs the selection board of the Beit Scientific Research Fellowships, to which the Beit Trust made a large additional financial grant in recent years.

All of which is to say: Imperial College was quite happy to receive donations from the Beit family for over 100 years, before now suddenly being poised to repudiate it, even though no new facts have emerged. If such repudiation should occur, a moral imperative of reimbursement arguably applies. By way of comparison, one notes that the History Group report was published in the same year that Imperial College accepted a donation of £2.4m pounds from Max Mosley, and one is led to inquire whether his history measures up to “Imperial’s modern values”.

Reassessing Huxley and Beit by the light of the Yale report recommendations would be a valuable exercise, and would likely lead to different conclusions than those put forward by the History Group at Imperial College. Regardless of what is decided next month by President Gast, it is Yale’s approach, not Imperial’s, that should usefully be adopted as a sector standard in regard to future questions of renaming at other universities.

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