The memory of Herman Lundborg (1868-1943) is insolubly linked to the Swedish State Institute of Eugenics that he headed, and thus lives in infamy. Eugenics was the pseudoscientific belief that human populations deteriorated over time unless care was taken to weed out weak specimens and keep them from procreating. Somehow, these allegedly weak specimens tended to have foreign looks and/or a low income and education. But the social pseudo-Darwinism of the early 20th century explained that people were poor and uneducated because they were stupid, and they were stupid because they had bad genes. Bad blood. They needed to be culled from the flock, or more humanely, sterilised, not necessarily with their informed consent.
The other day I learned, by chance, that Herman Lundborg actually managed to solve a serious public health problem, thus performing a great and lasting service to the inhabitants of a small part of Sweden. This was the Lister peninsula in Blekinge province (incidentally
the childhood home of Red Orm, hero of F.G. Bengtsson’s immortal novel The Long Ships).
Unverricht-Lundborg disease is a rare genetic condition, also known as Baltic Epilepsy. It is a form of progressive myoclonic epilepsy that leads to early dementia. First described in Estonia by Heinrich Unverricht in the 1890s, it was found to be endemic in Lister as well (just across the Baltic Sea). Herman Lundborg’s award-winning 1901 MD thesis dealt with myoclonic epilepsy and demonstrated that Baltic Epilepsy is a recessive Mendelian trait, much like blue eyes. Recessive traits are only expressed if you get two copies of them at conception. The reason that people in Lister were so afflicted was that they commonly married their cousins to avoid splitting up land holdings. This was nothing unusual in rural Sweden, but it had tragic consequences for isolated gene pools that had acquired a recessive trait like that of Unverricht-Lundborg disease. Lundborg’s results were communicated to the people of Lister, they changed their marriage customs, and the disease disappeared in a generation.
Where Herman Lundborg went wrong was in his wider interpretation of what the Lister case meant. He believed that it demonstrated the kind of genetic deterioration that demanded a eugenic response. But in fact, such deterioration does not exist and the problem didn’t really lay with the Lister people’s genetic makeup. It lay with their social anthropology. From the point of view of “racial purity”, few populations could beat the Lister people since they were so unwilling to mix. If Lundborg had not looked at his scientific data through racist glasses, he would easily have understood that his work made a strong case for international intermarriage, not for any controlled breeding of Swedish peasant stock.
Welcome to Sweden, little Christina, whom my friends Martin & Nanna have just adopted from Lesotho.