The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, founded by C.C. Little in 1929.  Courtesy photo

The Jackson Laboratory said it will remove founder C.C. Little’s name from the lab’s conference center in Bar Harbor because of Little’s history of championing the long-condemned practice of eugenics.

The research institution said Little’s leadership role in the eugenics movement and ties to the tobacco industry “cast a long shadow on his achievements,” including founding the laboratory in 1929.

Jackson Laboratory President and CEO Dr. Edison Liu Photo courtesy of The Jackson Laboratory

Eugenics is a philosophy that suggests the human race can be improved by encouraging reproduction by people with “desirable” traits and discouraging reproduction by those with “undesirable” traits. The movement, popular a century ago, was adopted by Adolph Hitler and eventually was disavowed because of its racist underpinnings.

“We repudiate the social and political construct of eugenics, an idea and movement now thoroughly discredited on both scientific and moral grounds,” said Jackson Lab President and CEO Dr. Edison Liu in a letter to the staff last week announcing the decision to rename the Little Conference Center.

Jackson Lab is an international leader in disease research and the search for cures and treatment in the fields of cancer, immunology, neurobiology, neurobehavioral disorders and other illnesses.

Liu said lab officials have, for several years, ” been engaged in internal discussions reflecting on the complex legacy” of Little, who died in 1971.

The founder’s prominent role in promoting eugenics “erodes the core of our institutional values,” Liu said. Little also led a group devoted to restricting immigration based on eugenics-inspired racial and ethnic quotas, and publicly championed laws that banned interracial marriages, Liu said.

“With the heightened awareness that the presence of symbols of racial exceptionalism can no longer be tolerated, I, in consultation with many across the laboratory, have decided to remove Dr. Little’s name from the Little Conference Center,” Liu said in the letter.

Liu said he told the Little family of his decision prior to making a public announcement.

“There is understandably sadness and disappointment, but our decision is irrevocable,” he said.

A small working group has been appointed to consider new names for the conference center, Liu said.

Some staff members have opposed the decision, saying eugenics was a mainstream scientific concept in the early 20th century, and that renaming the conference center won’t change history.

But Liu said Jackson Lab – which was named after Roscoe Jackson, a founder of the former Hudson Motor Car Co., who provided early funding for the Bar Harbor lab – has “no intention of erasing C.C. Little from our history.”

Two of Little’s core ideas – using mice to test new treatments for illnesses and the idea that cancer has genetic underpinnings – “remain a foundation of our work to this day,” Liu said. “Yet we must also make a distinction between remembering our past and celebrating it unquestioningly.”

Liu said he also wants Jackson Lab to discuss geneticists’ responsibility in society and how genetics principles have been used to justify atrocities.

“Though ethnocentrism has always been a human trait, modern genetics was the key scientific justification for genocide at a global scale,” he said. “As geneticists and as a genetics institution, all of us at The Jackson Laboratory must become a key force against racism, and a vocal opponent to the use of genetics to oppress and to dominate.”

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