Sarah Hayes

Problematising People, The First World Population Conference 1927

In the late summer of 1927, over a hundred prominent delegates met in Geneva to discuss the problems of population. This was the first conference that looked to address population from a scientific point of view. It took an interdisciplinary approach to the perceived social, economic and political problems of the time that were thought to be caused by questions of population. The event was also convened with the intention to establish the International Union for the Scientific Investigation of Population Problems (IUSIPP) that still exists today.

I’m writing an doctoral thesis, in interdisciplinary international studies, looking at the 1927 World Population Conference in order to understand the ideas, actors, and motivations of those involved and how national and international policy developed around the question of population. By using what Sarah Hutton has proposed as a historical conversation model approach, I will allow a multiple of voices and ideas that were present at the event to exist together, enabling a contextualisation of the discourse, as well as understanding what was being said by whom, what was known and how this knowledge was gained.

What is most remarkable about this conference were the delegates to it. Luminaries from more than forty countries, from all over Europe and from as far afield as Australia and Thailand to United States and Japan, convened in Geneva over the course of five days. Margaret Sanger, the birth control activist, organised the event and she gathered a group that was not only geographically diverse but united by no single ideology, including multiple genders, disciplines, and religions. Although from today’s vantage point, it would seem that some delegates would have been at extreme odds with each other in 1927 this was not the case: for instance Erwin Bauer, co-author of Human Heredity, and the renowned Jewish geneticist Richard Goldschimit, who would later flee Nazi Germany for the United States, worked together at the time. These ideological contradictions make the event an interesting study.

Other delegates to the conference included the economists John Maynard Keynes, Corrado Gini and Wesley Clair Mitchell; the statistician Ronald Fischer; American Eugenicist Charles Davenport; Czech physician and eugenicist Jan Belehradek, future director of the London School of Economics Alexander Carr-Saunders as well as the future director of UNESCO, Julian Huxley. Prominent women who were present included the philanthropist, Katharine Dexter McCormick who would almost single-handedly fund the research and development of the contraceptive pill decades later and Hertha Riese, then director of the Frankfurter Sozial- und Sexualberatungsstelle des Bundes für Mutterschutz who sucessfully ensured the inclusion of free contraception on the Frankfurt Health Insurance (Krankenkasse), the first in Germany. There were more public health officials, Julius Tandler from Austria, the Italian Rocco Santoliquido, as well as British physicians who would later be instrumental in the founding of the British National Health Service. Undelying the scientific aim of the conference, it was the biologist Raymond Pearl who would lead the first session with a paper on the Biology of Population Growth.

This interdiciplinarity at the conference blended a cacophony of voices and ideas concerned with population issues as they were in the 1920s, a crucial decade for policy manifestations of these issues globally. Indeed the conference specifically spoke about population as a problem that should urgently be addressed, both seen as under and over populated. Edward Murray East, the bespectacled American plant geneticist, ardent Malthusian and enthusiastic eugenicist gave a speech on Food and Population at the conference, calling population the “single greatest problem facing mankind”.[1] These problems were understood to include war and living space, race, migration, poverty and its alleviation and food supply. My doctoral work concentrates on these conference discourses.

[1] World Population Conference, and Margaret Sanger. Proceedings of the World Population Conference, Held at the Salle Centrale, Geneva, August 29th to September 3rd, 1927. London: E. Arnold, 1927. p.86