Melbourne University Building to be Renamed after Student Campaigning

Share to Pinterest Share to Google+ Share by email
Asia Pacific Regional Correspondent

The building at the entrance to Melbourne University, Australia, will no longer bear the name of its condemned former head of anatomy, and Dean of Medicine, Richard Berry. Berry actively lobbied for the "sterilisation, segregation and the lethal chamber" of sex workers, Indigenous peoples, and other marginalised people who he claimed to be of "rotten heredity." The renaming of the building is the result of long-standing campaign by a group of staff and students.

NSWP spoke to Fox, a current student at the University, “while I deeply appreciate the anti-oppression efforts of those involved in getting Berry’s name taken down, and I celebrate this, I also have no illusions about whether or not I’m really welcome as a sex worker on this campus. The fact that we continue to consistently refer to people who advocated for death chambers for sex workers (among others) as ‘controversial figures’ really says it all for me.”

Steph, a student and staff member at Melbourne University added, “it's obvious the University has little regard for the severe human rights violations committed on the Parkville campus. Campus activists have had to drag the University kicking and screaming to have Berry's name removed, and I really question whether the University is truly remorseful.” Echoing Fox’s concerns, Steph added, “to be honest it doesn't make you feel very welcome or valued.”

Between 1905 and 1929 while working at Melbourne University, Berry collected around 400 skulls, mostly of Aboriginal people, which he measured and used as the basis of his highly unethical research. His work focused on measuring the size of skulls, and developing formulas to draw correlations between brain size, criminal tendencies and intelligence. He used data produced from these skulls as a basis to make comparisons with other socially marginalised and stigmatised groups. According to Berry, he received large funding grants and accolades for his research, describing the opportunity to use his new mathematic formulas to calculate the size of living subjects as offering an “enchanting prospect of ascertaining if [a] brain was really too small for anything but the antisocial and asocial reactions of the nit-wits, morons, prostitutes, and evil-doers of both sexes and all nations.”

During the first half of the 20th century, Melbourne had a prominent and influential eugenics movement. Many academics and politicians were openly members of the Eugenics Society of Victoria, which operated until 1961. Richard Berry was one of the leaders and largest contributors of ‘research’ which was used to bolster extremist social engineering policies such as the stolen generation (forcible removal of Indigenous children by the state), forced sterilisations, and other human rights violations against various communities. Berry lead fellow members of the Eugenics Society of Victoria campaigning for the introduction of eugenics policies in Victoria. In 1939 a bill passed through the Victorian government but the policies were never implemented, initially because of the onset of war and later on due to awareness of the horrors of the holocaust.

The rhetoric supported by Berry and his colleagues drove sensationalised and moralising campaigns focused on ‘Little Lon’ - the inner city slum area and red light district in of Melbournein the first decades of the 20th century. In the face of vilification, the residents of Little Lon often banded together - fighting against the 1901 federal Immigration Restriction Act (White Australia Policy). After a royal commission expressed concerns regarding lack of hygiene in Little Lon, residents argued that the government needed to take responsibility for failing to provide adequate sewerage and other infrastructure in Little Lon.

The advocacy of Little Lon residents is unfortunately just as relevant 100 years later. Although students no longer find themselves navigating Melbourne University with reference to Richard Berry, there is still a long way to go until the University takes full responsibility and takes measures to redress the harmful impacts of works produced there. Calls for several other buildings on campus to be renamed, including the Frank Tate Learning Centre have yet to be addressed. At the time of writing, there’s still been no commitment by the university for a plaque to be erected explaining the history of the Richard Berry. Advocates have encouraged the university to take this step and ensure the history is acknowledged and learned from, rather than remaining hidden.