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Eugenics: the “well-born” science
Joanne Woiak, jwoiak@uw.edu
Scientific knowledge: genetic determinism
Concern about which heritable traits are spreading
thru the human population.
Cause of social ills is bad heredity.
“Eugenics” coined in 1883 by Francis Galton.
“I object to pretensions of natural equality.”
Social policies: “rationally” improve biological
quality by reproductive selection
Fewer offspring from “unfit” people; more from the “fit.”
Who is an asset; who is a burden?
Eugenics movement
30+ countries had their own versions.
Improvement of health & fitness of population.
Led by middle-class experts (scientists, doctors),
using best knowledge of heredity.
Government intervention for the public good.
Deny rights (reproduction, autonomy) to certain people.
Policies for improving the “race”
Positive eugenics
Encourage or educate “fitter” people to
have more offspring. (“voluntary”
Negative eugenics
Persuade, pressure, or compel “unfit”
people to have no offspring, so they can’t
pass on their “defective” genes. E.g.
compulsory segregation & sterilization.
Sources: Image Archive on the
American Eugenics Movement
Hosted by the Human Genome Project’s Cold
Spring Harbor Laboratory.
Which was originally the Eugenics Record
Office, the center of human genetics research
and advocacy for eugenics policy, 1910-1939.
The science of eugenics:
family studies and Mendel’s laws
Eugenics Record Office pedigree (1915) showing
transmission of feeblemindedness over several
generations. Such evidence supported state-mandated,
coerced sterilization of at least 62,000 Americans in over
30 states, beginning in 1907.
Flash cards to identify genetic
“defects,” 1922
Scientific authority: Darwin, Descent of
Man (1871), natural and reproductive
“With savages, the weak in body & mind are soon
eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a
vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other
hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination;
we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the
sick…. Thus the weak members of societies propagate
their kind….
“No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic
animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to
the race of man. It is surprising how want of care leads
to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in
the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as
to allow his worst animals to breed.”
Evolutionary theory: constructing
race and disability
Enlightenment equal rights of “man” countered with
scientific evidence of racial hierarchies.
Observations of an Ethnic Classification of
Idiocy (1866 J. Langdon Down)
1854 Types of Mankind
Equivalent to people of non-white races.
Evolutionary “throwbacks” to a “lower” stage.
“What Is It?”
Performer at the “freaks” museum 1860
Evolutionary “missing link.”
Who were considered the innately weak &
unfit, and blamed for society’s problems?
Poor people (“socially inadequate”)
On welfare, in prison, alcoholics, prostitutes…
Disabled people
Institutions for people with mental disabilities.
Investigators claimed high fertility
of “degenerate” pedigrees.
The Jukes: A Study in Crime, Pauperism
Disease, and Heredity (1877)
The Kallikaks (1912)
Explanation of the
symbols used on
pedigree charts
created by field
1911 Eugenics
Record Office
pamphlet, The Study
of Human Heredity
Inventing the Feeble Mind (history by
James Trent)
“In 1973, with the stroke of a pen, the
American Association of Mental Deficiency
changed the criterion for ‘mental retardation’
from one to two standard deviations below
the IQ norm.”
That is, people with IQ of 70-85 were
instantly “cured” of intellectual disability.
What “public good” did eugenics
serve? Why was it popular?
Relieve the financial burden of disability
paid by taxpayers.
Improve public/racial health.
Tainted whiteness.
“The concept of feeblemindedness linked
off-white ethnicity, poverty, and gendered
conceptions of lack of moral character.”
Intertwined disability, sex, class, race…
The economic burden of the
“feebleminded” and other “defectives”
“It is a reproach to our intelligence that we as a people should
have to support about half a million insane, feebleminded,
epileptic, blind and deaf; 80,000 prisoners and 100,000
paupers at a cost of over 100 million dollars per year.”
-Charles Davenport, founder of the Eugenics Record Office, 1910
Measuring up to society’s middle-class ideal:
Fitter Family contests as positive eugenics
Special talents,
Church, politics
Clubs, activities
Better Babies at the Puyallup Fair,
History of institutionalization
19th century civil commitment laws and
universal education = exclusion.
By 1900, goal of treatment of “lunatics” and
training of “idiots” gave way to emphasis on
permanent confinement and care.
Boston School for Idiotic Children: “brutes in
human shape, but without the light of human
1886 Washington “custodial school for
feebleminded and defective children.” By 1915,
has 1500 residents.
“Evil” and “expensive”
“The brighter class of the
feebleminded, with their
weak will-power and
deficient judgment, are
easily influenced for evil,
and are prone to become
vagrants, drunkards, and
thieves…. It is better and
cheaper for the
community to assume the
permanent care of this
class before they have
carried out a long career
of expensive crime.”
Immorality worst in the feebleminded
woman: “She has not sense enough to
protect herself from the perils to which
women are subjected. Often bright and
attractive, if at large they either marry and
bring forth in geometrical ratio a new
generation of defectives and dependants, or
become irresponsible sources of corruption
and debauchery in the communities where
they live.”
Legislating citizenship and disability
based on dependency
1881-1918 “Ugly Laws”
"It is prohibited for any person, who is diseased, maimed,
mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly
or disgusting object, to expose himself to public view."
1882 federal Immigration Act excluded people with
“lunatics, idiots, or unable to take care of himself”
1891 changed to “likely to become a public charge”
1907 “mentally or physically defective…”, “imbeciles, etc”
1917 “constitutional psychopathic inferiority,” list of physical
Anxieties about immigrants that fed
the restriction movement by 1920
Labor competition and economic crisis.
Political/social unrest.
Lack of cultural assimilation.
Growing nationalism, loyalty concerns.
Burden of custodial care (40% from recent
immigrant families).
Higher birthrate than “native stock” (“race
IQ testing: who is “feebleminded”?
1905 IQ invented by Alfred Binet.
1910s US psychologists corrupt this goal.
“abnormal” children can be educated.
Intelligence is hereditary, unchangeable.
Measure & label & institutionalize.
“Menace” to society.
Moron – imbecile – idiot.
By 1900, 328 institutions, with 200,000 people labeled
mentally ill or mentally deficient.
WWI mental testing of recruits
Attention. Watch me. I am going to do here [tapping
blackboard] what you [pointing to several papers that lie
before people in the group, pick one up, hold it next to
the blackboard, return the paper, point to self &
blackboard in succession, then to person & paper]. Ask no
questions. Wait till I say “Go ahead!”
This is test 6 here. Look. A lot of pictures. Now watch
[points to blackboard drawing of hand and missing finger,
hesitates]. Fix it, fix it [draws in finger]. That’s right. All
right. Go ahead. Hurry up! [Walks around the room and
locates individuals who are doing nothing, points to their
pages and says “fix it, fix them,” trying to get them
working.] [After 3 minutes are up] Stop! But don’t turn
over the page.
1918 IQ tests
US Army
For recruits who were
non-English speaking
or illiterate.
Complete the picture.
40% found to be FM.
Actual Test Questions, Army Alpha
SAMPLE People hear with their
1. Pinochle is played with
2. Habeus corpus is a term used in
3. Bud Fisher is a famous
4. Velvet Joe appears in ads for
tooth powder\soap\dry goods\tobacco
5. The number of a Kaffir’s legs is . . . 2\4\6\8
1913 Ellis Island mental testing
Eugenicists as “moron detectors”
80% immigrants scored feebleminded
Negative eugenics: 1924 Immigration Restriction
Act, led by WA Congressman Albert Johnson,
with expert testimony by eugenicists
Albert Johnson:
“The US is undertaking to
regulate and control the
great problem of the
commingling of races. Our
hope is in a homogeneous
nation. At one time we
welcomed all and all helped
to build the nation. But now
asylum ends. This nation
must be as completely
unified as any nation in
Europe or Asia. Selfpreservation demands it.”
Carl Brigham, A Study of
American Intelligence (1923)
Public health interests vs.
rights of the individual
Popularizing hereditarian science:
for the sake of “health”
Hereditary defective groups invading
the body politic
“Infectious germs”:
symbols for Jews,
communists, gays.
“With his poison, the
Jew destroys the
sluggish blood of weaker
peoples; so that a
diagnosis arises, of swift
degeneration. With us,
however, the case is
different: The blood is
pure; we are healthy!”
Anti-miscegenation laws (banned
from marrying whites)
Dates of repeal of US interracial marriage laws
by state
Grey: No anti-miscegenation laws passed
Green: Before 1887
Yellow : 1948 to 1967
Red: 12 June 1967 (Loving v. Virginia)
Deaf eugenics:
Alexander Graham Bell
1872 founds deaf school
in Boston.
Invents devices to aid
Studies heredity in deaf
1883: marriage
restrictions to “avoid
creating a deaf-mute
variety of the human
Becomes leader of
eugenics movement.
Negative eugenics: 30 states had
forced sterilization laws by 1930s
Is forced sterilization constitutional?
1. Cruel and unusual punishment (8th
2. Equal Protection (14th Amendment)
3. Due Process (14th)
1927 Buck v. Bell, US Supreme Court
Upheld the Virginia statue for forced
“Three generations of imbeciles are
“For the protection and health of the
“The principal that sustains compulsory
vaccination is broad enough to cover
cutting the Fallopian tubes.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes decision 1927
“There can be no doubt that so far as procedure is
concerned the rights of the patient are most carefully
considered. We have seen more than once that the
public welfare may call upon the best citizens for
their lives. It would be strange if it could not call
upon those who already sap the strength of the state
for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by
those concerned, in order to prevent our being
swamped with incompetence. It is better if instead of
waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or
to let them starve for their imbecility, society can
prevent those who are manifestly unfit from
continuing their kind.”
The real story of “three generations of
Carrie Buck and her mother
Washington enacted sterilization laws
in 1909 and 1921
Official total of 685 victims
 184 Male
 501 Female
403 “Insane” (M 147, F 256)
276 “Feebleminded” (M 33, F 243)
6 “Others” (M 4, F 2)
1909 WA criminal statute: the second
forced sterilization law in the nation
Whenever any person shall be adjudged guilty of
carnal abuse of a female person under the age of ten
years, or of rape, or shall be adjudged to be an
habitual criminal, the court may, in addition to such
other punishment or confinement as may be
imposed, direct an operation to be performed upon
such person, for the prevention of procreation.
Still on the books: RCW 9.92.100
1921 WA statute: targeted a broader
range of “hereditary defectives”
“Superintendents of all state mental hospitals and
custodial schools must report all feebleminded, insane,
epileptic, habitual criminals, moral degenerates and
sexual perverts, who are persons potential to producing
offspring, who because of inheritance of inferior or antisocial traits, would probably become a social menace or
wards of the state.”
Eugenic and therapeutic rationales: ”The purpose of said
orders of the Institutional Board of Health shall be for
the betterment of the physical, mental, neural, or
psychic condition of the inmate, or to protect society
from the menace of procreation by said inmate, and not
in any manner as a punitive measure.”
Why me? “For the benefit of society
or for the benefit of the patient”
Regulating behaviors: “deviant” sexuality.
Sterilization as a condition for parole.
Institutional Board of Health minutes:
“transcripts” of patient interviews
Asked about traits/habits of their relatives.
Asked about the cause of breakdown.
“What is your attitude toward sterilization?”
 Some women consented to the operation
for birth control.
Most extreme: eugenics in
Nazi Germany, 1933-45
Forced sterilization law for “hereditary
defectives.” (400,000+ people)
Murder (“euthanasia”)
“Lives not worth living”
Economic logic: “useless eaters”
200,000+ adults and children with disabilities.
Final Solution killed 6 million Jewish people and
others: gas chambers from the T-4 program.
Links between German and American
eugenics movements
Nazi regime seeking “racial purity” (1933)
borrowed the idea of forced sterilization law from
the American eugenicists and used Laughlin’s
model (1922).
Hitler: “I have studied with great interest the
laws of several Am. states concerning the
prevention of reproduction by people whose
progeny would be of no value or be injurious to
the racial stock…. The possibility of excess and
error is no proof of the incorrectness of these
July 14, 1933 “Law for the Prevention of
Genetically Diseased Offspring”
Doctors required to register births
Cases go to Genetic Health Court
“Hitlerschnitt” for hereditary FM, mental illness,
epilepsy, alcoholism, blind, deaf (1%).
Laughlin awarded an honorary degree by the Nazis.
Widespread positive coverage of Nazi program in US
media, focusing on elimination of disability (not on
racism & Jewish population).
American eugenicists visited & were jealous that “the
Germans are beating us at our own game,” by
sterilizing on a larger scale.
Mass murder (“euthanasia”) of
Germans with disabilities
August 1939: 5000 disabled children under age 3
killed in secret operation, by gassing, injection,
starvation. Form letter to parents about death.
Oct 1939: T-4 program begins for systematic mass
murder of adults in institutions (200,000), seen as
“unproductive.” By order of Hitler (not by law),
decisions made by doctors.
1941: order to kill Jews in German hospitals, all
concentration camp inmates who were unable to work
and Jews. Moved the gassing apparatus and medical
personnel from the hospitals for the disabled to the
camps. Jan 1942: “final solution”
US Eugenic “Euthanasia” and
1917 eugenic film The Black Stork
(retitled Are You Fit to Marry?)
Physician Harry Haiselden:
“There are times when
saving a life is a greater
crime than taking one.”
“We have been invaded. Our
streets are infested with an
Army of the Unfit—a
dangerous, vicious army of
death and dread.... Horrid
semi-humans drag
themselves along our
streets.... What are you
doing to do about it?”
Government apologies for
Virginia 2001
Oregon 2002
North Carolina 2002
records destroyed
proposed reparations
California 2003
Indiana 2007
Criticism: does
history matter? Do
we want close
examination of who
sanctioned eugenics
and the rights
violations. Does the
public still believe
PWD “deserved” to
be sterilized? Voices
of PWD in process?
Is disability still framed as “natural”
deficit, as race & sex used to be?
“Unlike other minorities, disabled men and
women have not yet been able to refute
accusations of biological inferiority that
have often been invoked to rationalize
the oppression of groups whose
appearance differs from the standards of
the dominant majority.”
disability studies scholar and activist Harlan
Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber’s
eugenics apology, Dec. 2, 2002
To those who suffered, I say, The people of Oregon are
sorry. Our hearts are heavy for the pain you endured.
And, it is in honor of you that I declare December 10
hereafter to be Human Rights Day in Oregon—a day
on which we will affirm our commitment to the value
of every human being. On this day, we will renew our
determination to protect the rights of all people,
regardless of their color, their religious or
philosophical beliefs, their sexual preference, their
economic status, their illnesses or disabilities. We
value them all, for they are our brothers and sisters.
Making historical memory
Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement
Eugenics and Disability: History and Legacy in Washington
Nazi Persecution of the Disabled (US Holocaust Museum)
Against Their Will, eugenics movement in North Carolina
Eugenics in California
Indiana Eugenics: History and Legacy
"Eugenics Apologies"
"Davis's Apology Sheds No Light on Sterilizations in California"
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