Melbourne University bows to pressure, removes racist professor's name from campus

University of Melbourne's renowned Professor Peter Hall. The School of Mathematics and Statistics building has been renamed in his honour. Photo: University of Melbourne

University of Melbourne's renowned Professor Peter Hall. The School of Mathematics and Statistics building has been renamed in his honour. Photo: University of Melbourne

He is one of the University of Melbourne's most controversial figures.

But now Professor Richard Berry, the former head of anatomy and influential surgeon, has had his name removed from campus.

The university has renamed the prominent Richard Berry building for maths and statistics at its main entrance. The move comes after a long anti-racism campaign by a group of staff and students.

Berry lobbied for "sterilisation, segregation and the lethal chamber" for Aboriginal people, as well as homosexuals, poor people and prostitutes.

Up until his retirement in the 1940s, he was Australia's leading voice in the now discredited pseudoscience of eugenics, which aimed to produce a superior human race by having suitable people breed, while at the same time sterilising those with "rotten heredity".

He collected 400 Aboriginal corpses, some stolen from traditional graves, for experiments. They were hidden for decades and only rediscovered in 2003.

He died in 1962 at the age of 95, and never recanted his ideas.

However, since first semester this year, the site has been known as the Peter Hall building, in honour of the world-renowned mathematician and statistician who worked there before his death last year.

The change was welcomed by those campaigning to have symbols of racism and colonialism removed from campus.

Indigenous representative at the student union, Tyson Holloway-Clarke, said the university had a deep and toxic history of racism that it had failed to accept responsibility for.

He welcomed the renaming as a long overdue step towards reconciliation.

"It's been slow progress but this is a demonstration that the university understands," he said. "Peter Hall is definitely worthy as a Uni Melb alumni and given his recent passing, it was timely to recognise a great scholar."

However, Holloway-Clarke and others still hope the university will erect a plaque to explain the history of the building and why it had been renamed, rather than hide the past.

Those campaigning also want at least four other buildings renamed, such as the Frank Tate Learning Centre. Tate drove a parliamentary bill in 1926 to forcibly sterilise up to 15 per cent of Victoria's population including Aboriginals, homosexuals, slum dwellers, prostitutes, epileptics, criminals, alcoholics, and those with small heads and low IQs. The bill passed, but was never enacted.

"What is going to happen is still up for discussion," Holloway-Clarke said. "It's not easy work."

University spokesman David Scott acknowledged a lack of diversity in the names of places on campus, but there were no other buildings being considered for renaming.

He did not respond to questions about whether the history of the Richard Berry building would be on show, such as on a plaque.

"Richard Berry's extraordinary contribution to the discipline of anatomy is honoured through the presence of his portrait in the University's Anatomy Museum."

The renaming campaign joins the likes of the successful #RhodesMustFall group at the University of Cape Town, which was successful in 2015 in having a statue of Cecil Rhodes removed from campus. The movement then spread to include other examples of institutional racism at this and other universities, including Oxford.

The group pointed to Rhodes' role in preparing South Africa for apartheid.

In 2001, student protests at the University of Hawaii resulted in the renaming of a hall that paid tribute to anthropologist Stanley Porteus (also a former Melbourne University academic with racist theories).

Professor Peter Hall produced more than 500 research papers and was regarded as a giant in his field.

His work included many outstanding contributions to statistics and probability theory, but he was renowned for the breadth of his contributions across a wide range of disciplines.

This story Melbourne University bows to pressure, removes racist professor's name from campus first appeared on The Age.