Shedding More Light on the History of Eugenics: Are These Ideas Still With Us Today?

“Ideas have consequences. Bad ideas have victims.” — J Stonestreet

Ed Newman
Ed Newman
Mar 1 · 8 min read

It is quite astonishing to consider how widespread the acceptance of eugenics was in this country 100 years ago. describes Eugenics as “ the practice or advocacy of improving the human species by selectively mating people with specific desirable hereditary traits. It aims to reduce human suffering by ‘breeding out’ disease, disabilities, and so-called undesirable characteristics from the human population.”

It all sounds so noble. Let’s produce a “better human race.” Where it led is quite disturbing.

What follows is a brief overview of the rise of the Eugenics movement. At the end of this page, I will include a link to the more complete timeline this is drawn from.

Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and Descent of Man (1871) planted seeds that germinated in the form of eugenics, even if he himself did not entertain this notion. “Social Darwinism” was the application of continuous improvement in the human species. It came about the many educated people who began to conclude that certain hereditary features (such as “feeble-mindedness”) should not be permitted to reproduce.

In July 1893, the Kansas State Asylum became one of the first institutions to put this idea into practice, implementing a program of castration for patients they believed should not reproduce. Four years later Michigan became the first state to introduce a bill permitting the castration of certain types of criminals and “degenerates.” The bill did not pass.

In the Spring of 1901. David Starr Jordan published a thesis in Popular Science magazine titled “The Blood of the Nation: A Study in the Decay of Races by the Survival of the Unfit.” His aim was to promote eugenics to the general public. It was reprinted as a book in 1902 and again in 1910. He even suggested that the fall of the Greek and Roman empires came about because they didn’t take action against the reproduction of inferior people.

In 1904 the Carnegie Institute of Washington opened its Station for Experimental Evolution (SEE) in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. The plans for SEE were developed by eugenicist Thomas Davenport. It was initially to be used for the study of heredity and evolution in plants and animals. What it became in a few years would shock you.

In 1906 the American Breeders’ Corporation formed a Committee on Eugenics. A year later the Eugenics Education Society was created in England. Prominent names associated with the EES include H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and others concerned with the problem of overpopulation. Aims included marriage restrictions and sterilization.

[ EdNote: There were numerous events taking place in Canada and England which I am bypassing here.]

1909 was a big year for the Eugenics movement. California became the first state to pass a sterilization law. This law remained on the books till 1979! California was soon followed by Washington. Connecticut also passed eugenics legislation that year titled “An Act concerning Operations for the Prevention of Procreation”.

Why weren’t people speaking out? Or more importantly, why weren’t they heard? How did the newspapers cover these issues? I am imagining that this was all being presented in the name of science. “The science says that if we don’t do something, it will be the end of the human race.” Was that the argument? Or was it, “These are smart people. We should listen to them.”

As Home Secretary (1910–11), Winston Churchill expressed his concerns about “the unnatural and increasingly rapid grown of the feeble-minded and insane classes.”

Back in the U.S. Teddy Roosevelt, too, expressed his concerns, writing that “the prime duty, the inescapable duty of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.”

In 1911 Nevada passed a pro-sterilization law, but it was never used. New Jersey also passed legislation that was later found unconstitutional.

As you read through the writings and laws being proposed, it was primarily targeted to feeble-mindedness and sexual deviance. In 1912 New York became the 8th state to pass a sexual sterilization law. That same year the First International Eugenics Congress was held in London. The aim was to address this issue head-on: Western Civilization is in danger of collapse unless we deal with the weak and “genetically undesirable”.

In 1913 more states passed legislation including Michigan, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Kansas. Wisconsin’s law was to eliminate reproduction by “defectives”.

In 1917 Oregon, New Hampshire, South Dakota, and Idaho followed suit with their own laws. Idaho’s legislation was vetoed by the governor, however.

In 1919 North Carolina passes its first sterilization law. The wording was such that it's noble aim is to improve the lives of inmates by allowing them to be sterilized. Alabama followed a similar law that same year. Pennsylvania succeeded with such a law two years later.

The Second International Eugenics Congress was held in New York at the Museum of Natural History in 1921. 53 scientific papers were presented. Alexander Graham Bell served as honorary president of this conference. Major Leonard Darwin, Charles Darwin's son and chairman of the British Eugenics Society from 1911–1928, gave the opening talk. 300 people attended and afterward a committee was formed to promote eugenic ideas in America.

In 1922 GK Chesterton’s was published. The subtitle was An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized State. Much of his research took place before the Great War, but he eventually discarded it because he believed saner heads would prevail. When it became apparent that the eugenics movement had grown stronger than ever, he assembled this book and made a case on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves.

In the 20’s still more states bought into the need for sterilization laws. More books in support of these ideas were pushed out into the mainstream.

Virginia went further than to just pass a sterilization act. They also passed a Racial Integrity act that defined what it meant to be white. If you had “one drop” of non-Caucasian blood then you could not be called White. The aim was to get everyone registered so the state could protect whiteness. Marriage licenses could not be granted until both parties could prove they were of the same race.

In 1927 the Virginia sterilization law was challenged in Buck v. Bell. The Supreme Court upheld law 8–1, approving Virginia’s right to sterilize people who are “socially inadequate.” Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared, “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”

By 1925 Idaho finally joined the eugenics/sterilization trend, as did Utah and Maine. (They must have had a new governor.) Minnesota also joined the herd. “An act to provide for the sterilization of feeble-minded and insane persons.” In 1928 and ’29 Mississippi, Arizona, and West Virginia followed. In 1931 Oklahoma and Vermont legalized sterilization of the unfit.

OK, let’s stop a minute and ask how these laws were justified. First, by citing educated people who said “unless we take drastic action, the human race is in trouble.” Second, by having articles published that pointed out how expensive it is to finance all these people we have set aside in mental institutions.

In more recent times one of the arguments used to justify euthanasia has been this financial argument. It costs money to keep people alive at the end of their lives. It begs the question, do people only have value when they have a utilitarian function in society? Are the handicapped and elderly expendable?

1932 could possibly be a major turning point in the advance of eugenics. The Third International Eugenics Congress was held in New York, once again at the American Museum of Natural History. Charles Darwin’s son Leonard served as chairman. Birth control was being heavily advocated at this time, so vice-chair Henry Osborn addressed this head-on. Should we rely on Birth Control or Birth Selection to improve our future humanity?

Osborn began his talk noting how cataclysmic plagues (tuberculosis, malaria, typhus, etc.) bring out the best of mankind’s genius to solve, eradicate or minimize their impact. In the next breath, he states, “In this world cataclysm of overpopulation, of over-multiplication of the unfit and unintelligent, of the reign of terror of the criminal, of the tragedy of unemployment, eugenics ceases to be the cult of the few pioneers like Galton and Leonard Darwin; it is forced upon our attention.”

In other words, the great threat to humanity was a reproduction of “inferior” people.

And the proposed solution? “The only permanent remedy is the improvement and uplift of the character of the human race through prolonged and intelligent and humane birth selection aided by humane birth control.”

This is pretty bold medicine. How is it to be implemented?

The reason I stated that 1932 was the high water mark for the movement is that in 1933 the newly elected Chancellor of Germany began to implement all these wonderful ideas he received from the eugenicists. He wasted no time getting down to it. That very same year Germany passed “The Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases.” What this meant was the State had the right to sterilize anyone with a hereditary disease. This included the following: congenital mental deficiency, schizophrenia, manic-depression, hereditary epilepsy, hereditary St. Vitus’ Dance (Huntington’s Chorea), hereditary blindness, hereditary deafness, serious hereditary physical deformity, and chronic alcoholism.

In other words, if you were using too much alcohol to self-medicate because you were trying to cope with the craziness taking place around you, you could be sterilized if someone reported you for using it to excess.

Germany’s next step was to pass a law forbidding intermarriage between races. In Nazi Germany, this applied to Aryans and Jews. Both intermarriage and sexual relations were forbidden. In other words, the State had a right to know what was happening in your bedroom. This same year, 1937, Jews were stripped of their citizenship.

In 1939 Hitler enacted Action T-4, a natural outcome around the thinking that produced everything else we have been appalled at here. Action T-4 was “a program of euthanasia, to kill the incurable, physically or mentally disabled, emotionally distraught, and the elderly.” Though purportedly discontinued in 1941 it continued covertly till the end of the war in 1945.

“Now that we know the laws of heredity, it is possible to a large extent to prevent unhealthy and severely handicapped beings from coming into the world. I have studied with great interest the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock. The possibility of excess and error is still no proof of the incorrectness of these laws. It only exhorts us to the greatest possible conscientiousness.” — Adolph Hitler

Is this ugly history of Eugenics behind us now? Surprisingly, it’s not. Last summer for disabled patients in England. Gus Alexiou wrote, “ In the report entitled, ‘Abandoned, forgotten and ignored — the impact of Covid-19 on Disabled people’, several survey respondents attested to being pressured by their doctor to have DNR, or Do Not Attempt Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation orders placed on their medical records.”

This month titled U.K. Forced Do Not Resuscitate Orders on Covid Patients with Developmental Disabilities. The NR story drew information for the piece from journalism pursued by The Guardian. “ People with learning disabilities have been given do not resuscitate orders during the second wave of the pandemic, in spite of the widespread condemnation of the practice last year and an urgent investigation by the care watchdog.”

A story in The Pillar, a Catholic publication, asks the question, “ ” One can only hope that ethicists have a voice at the table whenever these matters get discussed.

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Ed Newman

Written by

Ed Newman

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

The Shadow

We publish inspiring stories about different topics for a productive and entertaining life

Ed Newman

Written by

Ed Newman

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

The Shadow

We publish inspiring stories about different topics for a productive and entertaining life

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