The History of the American Eugenics Movement

Conservationists. Nobel Peace Prize winners. College professors. All these roles have a distinctive honorable, humanistic atmosphere around them. When you consider this group, you probably don’t think of “racial purists.” But the truth is, many who held these titles were also supporters of the American Eugenics movement, a social and political movement that focused on advancing the human race through selective reproduction.

The American eugenics movement was a movement of pseudoscience focused on controlling the reproduction of certain populations of humans in order to create a better society.  And its unfortunate heritage of prejudice is still felt today.

Eugenics is, by definition, is ‘the study of how to arrange reproduction within a human population to increase the occurrence of heritable characteristics regarded as desirable.’ The end result of this is that you treat a population of humans the same way you’d treat dogs or a certain type of rose. If you want the loveliest shade of red for that bloom, you’d better make sure the good ones germinate and flower, and the undesirable ones are cut off and cast aside. Of course, it’s one thing if it’s flowers at the park, and something completely different when it is your fellow human.

 To be clear, eugenics is, by no means, a new or novel concept among humans, nor did the concept originate in America. It is arguably part of the reason why so many cultures indulge in arranged marriage, why ancient Greeks would inspect infants to make sure that they did not have any congenital disabilities (and why ancient Germanic tribes would often drown those they saw as ‘undesirable’ (1). Throughout history, we see examples of humans “arranging reproduction” to increase traits seen as desirable, so perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that this idea popped up again in modern science. 

The American eugenics movement came about in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when a progressive atmosphere fostered the exploration of scientific thought and social good. This was a time of world fairs that showcased the advancements of the scientific age, and social justice bastions such as the Hull House in Chicago came into being. It was also the time when Darwin’s theory of evolution became widespread, and when his cousin, Francis Dalton, expressed his own take on the subject: that the principles of evolution could be applied to humans to “improve the inborn qualities of a race” and to “develop them to the utmost advantage.”

Galton, the polymath’s polymath (meaning that homeboy was good at a metric buttload of things) developed psychometrics, this science behind understanding mental ability. He used surveys and questionnaires as tools to better understand human thinking and ideas (arguably, he developed the precursor to the modern Buzzfeed questionnaire). Did I mention he also developed a lot of statistical models too?

He applied these statistical theories, as well as the concept of understanding mental capability, to humans. The problem is that he started to use his metrics to assess what makes a human more “fit” for survival, and his research eventually devolved into the idea that only certain human beings should reproduce, so that the human population, overall, would produce the best offspring. And what about unfit humans? Well, they should be discouraged or even prevented from having children, either through sterilization or other, more brutal means.

american eugenics movement
Charts used at a Kansas Free Fair show types of marriage. The American Eugenics Society organized a series of “fitter families contests” in which participants (divided into small, medium and large family classes) were ranked based on the mental, physical and moral health of family members. Photos and caption information courtesy of the American Philosophical Society.

It was during the time of 19th century scientific discovery that Galton’s theories were being used to encourage ‘racial purity.’ In fact many natural history exhibits in museums were being set up that buoyed the understanding that different aspects of the human race could be attributed to the loathsome term of ‘breeding.’ Around this time of innovations in industry and thought, society was rife with curiosity and learning–remember, this was the time when scholars and artists were creating the wonders that we take advantage of today, from our favorite museums in Chicago, to some of our most beloved novels and art that we still revere. In fact, we love diving into exhibits about our fellow human in museums such as the Field Museum.* But many of these exhibits are mired in the story of humans trying to understand humans not as their brothers and sisters in need, but as a scientific curiosity that needed to be examined, and if necessary, either adjusted to fit their environment or outright destroyed.

Thus, the unfortunate mingling of science and prejudice: in a scientific experiment, if something is shown that it’s likely to occur, then the hypothesis declares it probable. Apply prejudice to this logic—and if it’s shown that [insert any given category of humans] often have children who are ill-mannered and prone to misbehavior, well, then, it’s clear they shouldn’t reproduce and should thus be sterilized for the greater good of society. It was only statistics, according to Galton (and a lot of racists I found on the internet. Yikes!), and it behooves the idea that science is completed by scientists and is arguably biased as a result.

But was what Galton did truly science? Isn’t statistics a necessary tool of science? Yes, but at the same time, merely observing things in nature with an inherent bias, like Galton did, is not science, and should not be considered as such. Observations are indeed a form of data gathering that many scientists perform, but Galton and his peers based these observations in their desire to ‘improve’ the genetic pool through cultural preferences and biases present in their culture, rather than based them on objective scientific inquiry. By using selective observations and measurements to come to a pre-determined answer (i.e., the ideal response Galton wanted), these individuals pushing for eugenics were not abiding the rules in how science is objectively done.

It’s a little murky, to be frank. A huge amount of the work I did as a graduate student in education and learning sciences at University of Illinois required surveys, and the work I do now as a nonprofit director also requires some amount of questionnaires in order to make sure that the program I oversee is delivering on its promise of equity. But with social science, and all science in general, we must be aware of our fellow humans and the fact that we are one sentient species with many differences that actually make us stronger as population. This is a distinction that eugenics tried to ignore as it saw humans as a categorizable subjects that could, and should, be controlled through selective reproduction.

As I mentioned at the beginning, perhaps the most troubling of the history of eugenics is the mingling of this mindset with some of the most progressive members of early modern society. Some feminists who would ultimately help women gain the right to vote were supporters of eugenics. In fact, they often expressed that violent or criminal behavior, which they associated with whatever classes were marginalized at the time because of their ethnic background, skin color, or religion, was due to an individual’s genetic background.  One such historical figure, Victoria Woodhull, even attributed an alcoholic parent as proof of not only why alcohol should be banned and also of why alcoholics should not procreate (2). While genetics research would eventually show that addictive behaviors can be being passed down through one’s genes, to say nothing of the psychological issues mired in abusive childhoods, eugenics focused on limiting the reproductive rights of individuals who were seen as less desirable elements of society. This ultimately sowed many of the seeds that would cause some of the most hateful crimes in human history. 

Many individuals who were intrigued by eugenics and later in support it did so out of scientific curiosity, laced with some of the more racist and prejudiced biases of the time. For some, such as W.E.B. DuBois and Helen Keller, they saw it as a necessary part of preserving culture. Others, such as Theodore Roosevelt, saw it as a good fixture to grow a more healthy, active population. Galton’s theories were in line with the political viewpoints of his administration, which admittedly, were his own personal views, as well. And this is where eugenics turned from something mundane in early modern American culture to a terrifying specter that still haunts science today.

Carrie Buck, who was committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded in 1924 on the grounds of feeblemindedness, incorrigible behavior, and promiscuity. She was forcibly sterilized, along with her mother and daughter. Read their story here .

When eugenics met politics, a scientific idea eventually became policy. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the forced sterilization of undesirable people – namely, groups who posed a threat to the government – took place throughout the United States. This included many Native Americans, African-Americans, and many ‘feeble minded’ individuals, which could mean a person with a low IQ, or even someone with depression or bipolar disorder. As an individual who has major depressive disorder (MDD) and a learning disability myself, this especially makes me shudder, as I’m sure you might, too. How many individuals do you know that would fit into one of these “undesirable” categories? 

Naturally, eugenics eventually culminated in many of the genocides that occurred throughout the world in the bloody 20th century. From the Holocaust to the Armenian genocide, Edwin Black (who wrote the book on American eugenics) argues, “many of these eradications of millions of people can be traced back to the American eugenics movement, that called for ‘breeding’ to produce acceptable populations and the forced sterilization of those deemed unacceptable by society.”

We do know that eugenics is not a true science because, although there is some theory behind it, there has not been valid research on the subject outside of quasi-scientific observations or extremely suspicious experiments. Like all pseudosciences, it deserves to be treated as what it is: a footnote in science history.

In the wake of so much horror, eugenics has rightly been cast aside. However, some parts still linger, which we as a society should be vigilant about: from the racism we see in our own government, in online quizzes about which ‘nationality’ you resemble, to the embodiment of Nazism and ‘racial purism’ on Internet forums, we should always be aware of when an outdated and disproven scientific theory is popping up to be used against our fellow human. Eugenics as a field has been disproven, but the concept of controlling humans’ reproductive rights is arguably a movement that perhaps, will always find a new voice to carry it on.

* The Field Museum has recognized the more challenging aspects of being a natural history museum that houses and documents human remains. The museum is a leader in decolonizing efforts throughout the world. To see their most recent exhibit on bringing science and humanity together in a 21st century mode, please visit: https://www.fieldmuseum.org/exhibitions/apsaalooke-women-and-warriors

References

1. Sanders, Karin (2009). Bodies in the Bog and the Archaeological Imagination. University of Chicago Press. p. 62.

2. Noll, Steven and Trent, James. Mental Retardation in America: A Historical Reader. NYU, 2004, pp. 73–75.

Kristen Vogt Veggeberg, Ph.D., is a science educator and content writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter @KrisVeeVee.

Author(s)

  • Kristen Vogt Veggeberg, Ph.D., is a science educator and content writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter @KrisVeeVee.