Population, Family, Individual: Towards a History of Human Genetic Knowledge in the Early Federal Republic of Germany

Welcome to our project website!

The project proposes an integrative history of human genetic knowledge and its use (production, circulation, reception) in the Federal Republic of Germany at the crossroads of the Nazi dictatorship and Western democracy. It focusses on actors, orders and the science of human genetics (formerly racial biology and eugenics) while also taking into account representations of human genetic knowledge. While investigating the use of the terms “population”, “family” and “individual” as central categories of human genetic research and counseling after 1945, we look for continuity and change in a period of institutional and research-based reorganization – the transformation from National Socialism to democracy, from race science to human genetics, from phenotypical screening to molecular research.

Here we inform you about the project, the research team and the cooperation partners. Furthermore, we keep you informed about upcoming lectures, planned events and publications.

Principal Investigator

Prof. Dr. Isabel Heinemann
© Isabel Heinemann

Prof. Dr. Isabel Heinemann holds the Chair of Contemporary History and has been researching the topics of population policies and reproductive decision-making in the Federal Republic and the USA for years. The research project is located in the linkage of these areas.

Her personal website

Project Reserach Assistant

Lukas Alex, M. Ed.
© Lukas Alex

Lukas Alex studied history and mathematics. For more than a year, he has been working on the history of human genetics from the perspective of medical, scientific and contemporary history, among other things in the context of his Master's thesis on Otmar von Verschuer's "Genetics Register" in Münster.

His personal website

  • News

    Lectures coming up

    • "'Modellversuch'? Diskussionen um die Gründung der Genetischen Beratungsstellen" auf dem Symposium "50 Jahre Genetische Beratungsstelle Marburg" in Marburg, 28.9.2022.
    • "Bevölkerung, Familie, Individuum: Wissensgeschichte der Humangenetik in der frühen Bundesrepublik", Projektvorstellung im Forschungskolloquium für Doktorandinnen und Doktoranden zum Themenkomplex der NS-"Euthanasie", Zwangssterilisation und Eugenik an der Gedenkstätte Hadamar, 6.-8.10.2022.

    Currently published blog articles

    • Human Genetics with(out) Eugenic Knowledge? Towards a History of Knowledge about Human Heredity in West Germany, in the blog "History of Knowledge" by the German Historical Institute in Washington, 9.9.2022. Link
    • Mutanten im Münsterland? Das „Genetik-Register“ des Instituts für Humangenetik Münster als regionale Quelle der Medizin- und Wissenschaftsgeschichte, im Blog "Westfalen/Lippe - historisch" der Historischen Kommission für Westfalen (LWL), 9.9.2022. Link
  • The Project

    The project proposes an integrative history of human genetic knowledge and its use (production, circulation, reception) in the Federal Republic of Germany at the crossroads of the Nazi dictatorship and Western democracy. It focusses on actors, orders and the science of human genetics (formerly racial biology and eugenics) while also taking into account representations of human genetic knowledge. While investigating the use of the terms “population”, “family” and “individual” as central categories of human genetic research and counseling after 1945, we look for continuity and change in a period of institutional and research-based reorganization – the transformation from National Socialism to democracy, from race science to human genetics, from phenotypical screening to molecular research.

    Our analysis focuses on five human geneticists and their respective research institutes in the FRG who all started their careers in the period of National Socialism: Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer (Münster), Hans Nachtsheim (Berlin), Fritz Lenz (Göttingen), Wolfgang Lehmann (Kiel), and Karl Saller (München). After shaping and implementing race science in the Third Reich, all of them succeeded to continue or relaunch their careers after the war. In the FRG, these scientists built their respective research institutes from scratch until the late 1950s/early 1960s and helped to establish human genetics in Germany after 1945. Despite these striking personal continuities, no historical study has ever investigated the methods and approaches to human genetics used by these veterans of race science in this crucial period of transformation. We thus ask: Which were the conditions that allowed the former core science of the Nazi regime to morph into the widely accepted and internationally connected field of human genetics? Which methods were used by the five main actors, which topics researched and which research questions dealt with, which international networks reactivated or built anew? How did these men define „human genetic knowledge“ as such (compared to race ideology)? How did they shape their discipline’s approach towards society and politics?

    Drawing on Philip Sarasin, we propose to analyze actors, orderings and representations of human genetic knowledge in a broad history-of-knowledge-approach. To access the broad scope of post-war human genetics, we integrate methodologies of contemporary history, science and technology studies, historical epistemology and history of science into our analysis. Our main sources consist of the papers and (international) correspondences of the five main protagonists and their research institutes, their research publications and public lectures.

  • Project-related publications

    Isabel Heinemann

    • Eugenische Eheberatung als transatlantische Verflechtungsgeschichte: Paul B. Popenoe, Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer und die moderne Familie, 1920 – 1970 (erscheint in VfZ 2022).

    Lukas Alex

    • Scheitern Problematisieren - Otmar von Verschuer und das Münsteraner "Genetik-Register", in: Sebastian Schuol und Michael Jungert: Scheitern in der Wissenschaft. Perspektiven der Wissenschaftsforschung, Paderborn 2022. Verlag Mentis/Brill
    • Den kranken Genen auf der Spur? Das Münsteraner „Genetik-Register“, das Atomministerium und die Frage nach Kontinuitäten in der humangenetischen Forschung, in: Daniela Hettstedt, Thomas Raithel und Niels Weise (Hrsg.): Im Spielfeld der Interessen. Das bundesdeutsche Atom- und Forschungsministerium zwischen Wissenschaft, Wirtschaft und Politik, 1955-1972, München 2022 [im Erscheinen].
  • Cooperations

    • Dr. Axel Bohring, Institut für Humangenetik, Universität Münster
    • Dr. Pascal Germann, Institut für Medizingeschichte, Universität Bern
    • Prof. Dr. Hans-Georg Hofer, Institut für Ethik, Geschichte und Theorie der Medizin, Universität Münster
    • Prof. Dr. Alexandra Minna Stern, Department of American Culture, University of Michigan
    • PD Dr. Alexander von Schwerin, Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Berlin
    • Dr. Dirk Thomaschke, Institut für Geschichte, Universität Oldenburg
    • PD Dr. Henning Tümmers, Institut für Ethik und Geschichte der Medizin, Universitätsklinikum Tübingen
  • Contact

    Prof. Dr. Isabel Heinemann

    Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität
    Fürstenberghaus
    Domplatz 20-22
    Zimmer 13b
    D-48143 Münster

    Tel.: +49 251 83-25458
    isabel.heinemann@uni-muenster.de