Decision on names and memorials at Karolinska Institutet

Please also watch the video published at the bottom of this blog post.

Following a thorough investigation and an intense debate I have now made a formal decision on names and memorials at Karolinska Institutet. My decision is based on a thorough overview of KI’s history by Uppsala University’s Petter Hellström, on the report and proposals issued by a specifically appointed committee and on a wide range of consultation responses and comments.

The decision in brief: Essentially, KI retains the names and memorials that currently exist on our campuses with some exemptions: names of people who expressed or legitimized racist views and expressly devalued different peoples in or outside Sweden.

In practice, this involves removing the name of the Retzius Hall on the Solna campus as soon as is practicable. KI will also recommend the property management company Akademiska Hus to change the name of the Retzius Laboratory on the same campus and recommend Solna City to change the name of Retzius väg.

KI also recommends Solna City to change “von Eulers väg” to “Ulf von Eulers väg” to make it clear that KI (and Solna City) repudiate the Nazi sympathies expressed by Hans von Euler, who had no ties to the university. His son, Ulf von Euler, on the other hand, was a long-standing professor at KI and became a Nobel laureate in 1970. There is currently no evidence that he expressed any political views that should detract from his stature and reputation (Source: Petter Hellström’s overview)

Anders and Gustaf Retzius

I will not repeat the reason for the criticism levelled at parts of Anders and Gustaf Retzius’s activities and values, for they have already been summarised well in the overview Petter Hellström wrote on behalf of KI (Namngivning av fysiska miljöer vid Karolinska Institutet: en historisk översikt och inventering, Petter Hellström Uppsala University 2021), in which he states that both tried to “empirically test the theory that the Nordic peoples, particularly Swedes, were biologically different – and superior – to others.”

At the same time, it is clear that Anders Retzius and his son Gustaf both contributed immensely to KI on other arenas. Both were internationally renowned and both left a lasting scientific legacy beyond physical anthropology. This is also clearly evident from Hellström’s paper and from several biographies, books and research papers on father and son Retzius. The historical account on the KI website is well worth a read.

An important debate

Yesterday’s decision is the endpoint of a long process that started with our Strategy 2030, adopted by the university board in 2019. In this strategy we emphasized the importance of having a continual debate and ethical and critical reflection on our history and core values. What could be a more engaging starting point for such a discussion than our own campus, with its multiple names and memorials? Thus the stage was set for the appointment of the above mentioned committee and for the soliciting of an external report of KI’s history. The process has taken its time, but I argue that this is exactly how it should be, as the debate has a value in itself. Fuelled by new knowledge and insight the current debate has made us reflect on our past and our present – and not least: on the values that should guide our future.

Striking a balance

Some humility is in place. Taking down names should not be done easily. Even with new knowledge at hand, should we take the moral high ground and pose as judges of the past? Names and memorials on campus are needed to continually remind ourselves of past endeavours and progress – but also of the dark chapters in our history. We need to be confirmed in our pride but also strengthened in our resistance to ideologies and ideas that detract from the most fundamental concept of all: that all humans are borne equal and should be seen and treated as such.

At the same time we must realize that being in evidence on campus – as a name attached to buildings, streets or busts – embodies an element of tribute, homage and celebration. From this follows the need to take down names that have flagrantly espoused or legitimized ideas that run counter to our core values. To strike the right balance is difficult. And that opinions differ is understandable. I am humble in this regard. The decision made will be criticised by some as an undue revision of history and by others as not going far enough.

Again I would like to refer to Petter Hellström:

Naming physical environments after people means taking both a stand and a risk. A dedication is a form of memorial, and memorials have always been a focus of political tugs of war. There are no guarantees that what today is seen in a positive light will be so in 100, 50 or even 10 years’ time. If KI continues on this path, it should therefore be prepared to face more criticism in the future.”

“Namngivning av fysiska miljöer vid Karolinska Institutet: en historisk översikt och inventering”, Petter Hellström Uppsala University 2021

I think this risk is worth taking. Personally I cherish the idea that when we move about on campus we should not only navigate in space but also in history – which for the most part is a proud history.

Further steps

We can do more. I have previously proposed that all our students be offered a lecture on our history. I also want us to carry through our plans for a permanent exhibition about KI, our history and what has created the university we see today, a place where we can all learn about, reflect on, talk about and critically assess KI’s over two-century long history – and think about what we do today that future generations might question or disavow. It is a natural process for every generation to interpret history from contemporary contexts and customs, culture and values. There is a previous presidential decision (ref. no 1-391/2019, 23 April 2019) on setting up such a medico-historical exhibition or a centre for science, history and culture on the KI campus, and we are now working on ways to finance such an initiative. This is in line with KI’s Strategy 2030, in which we write:

KI’s history shall be made more visible so that visitors to our campuses can acquaint themselves with our cultural heritage.”

KI’s Strategy 2030, p. 15

New committee

I have also decided that KI will set up a committee to develop principles for the naming of buildings, lecture halls and other spaces at KI in the future. Broad representation and competence is vital so the committee will comprise people with ethical, cultural and historical expertise along with representatives of KI’s own core activities. After due preparation, the proposal will be presented to the University Board (Konsistoriet) for a decision on policy and guidelines.

Decisions on the naming of buildings and halls on the KI campuses shall in future be made by the President on the recommendation of a special preparatory committee also comprising broad historical, cultural and ethical expertise. One of the first tasks of this committee will be to present a proposal for a new name for the hall today dedicated to Retzius. Until this time, this hall will go under its former name.

My decision implies that KI keeps the portraits and memorials currently found on the KI campuses with the exceptions mentioned above. Portraits that form part of a series, such as presidential portraits, shall be retained in their entirety. When it comes to the busts of Retzius currently in storage the plan is to display these in a re-contextualised form – hopefully in a medico-historical centre on campus.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has brought their opinions, ideas, engagement and input to this process. Special thanks are due to the committee that has worked under the direction of Gert Helgesson, and to Petter Hellström for his “outside view” on KI’s history. Note: Please also read the article about the decision, published on KI’s website.


Related posts