The Secret History of Eugenics in America


I did not learn to appreciate history until long after I graduated from college.  Since then, I’ve developed a love of history.  While doing research for another article on this blog, I learned a little about the history of Eugenics in the United Sates.  What is Eugenics, you ask?  Good question.  Most people that I know have no idea what it is either.  Why was Eugenics not taught in your U.S. History class?  I can’t give a definitive answer, but I have a good idea.  Eugenics is a deep, dark secret in American history, very close to the disastrous kidnapping, relocation, and robbing of all their property, of Japanese Americans in World War II.  FDR did this without any thought and most Americans accepted it without question. Back to Eugenics.  If you type “Eugenics” in www.ask.com you will get this definition: “The study of hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled selective breeding.”

In the book, “Darwin Day in America” by John G. West,[i] Chapter 7, is titled “Breeding Our Way out of Poverty.”  This chapter thoroughly documents the Eugenics movement in the United States.  I read with horror what transpired in this movement.  I could not believe how intelligent men, such as our best minds in the county such as Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, The Rockefeller Foundation, Ralph Waldo Emerson and many distinguished scientists such as Professor Edwin Conklin, a biology professor at Princeton University could believe and propagate such evil as was propagated by the Eugenics movement.  This movement took science by storm throughout America from 1890 to the 1960s.

Psychologist Henry Goddard is noted for introducing the term “moron” into the English language.  Goddard was obsessed with what he considered “feeble-minded” Americans were degrading the country’s racial stock, according to John West.  West describes the case of Deborah Kallikak.  In 1912 Goddard wrote a book titled “The Kallikak Family:  A Study in Feeble-Mindedness.”  The scientific community received the book with great acclaim.  Deborah Kallikak was born to a single mother on welfare and was believed to be from a line of what Goddard considered feeble- minded family members.  Goddard studied the entire family tree to prove his point.  Goddard determined that the family tree was filled with what he called “defectives and delinquents.”

Goddard went as far as the Revolutionary war and found 480 descendants of which he found that 143 were feeble-minded.  He did not specify how he came to that conclusion.  Deborah was in the feeble-minded category, although all her teachers refused to consider her as such.  Convinced of his position Goddard urged that the nation apply biological science to its social-welfare policies.  In Washington D.C. Dr. Woods Hutchinson of the New York Polyclinic preached Eugenics at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association.  Hutchinson proposed that all American children be given a Eugenics inspection by their third year in school.  As soon as a child was identified as feeble-minded he/she would only receive training befitting such a child.  Then they should be segregated in farm colonies or sterilized.

Eugenics was promoted as a way to keep the race free of “less than desirable traits.”  What is most galling is that a determination of such so-called feeble-mindedness was a subjective decision, based on purely metaphysical criteria and not on any scientific measurements that could be tested.  Once a prominent scientist called you feeble-minded then you were stuck with this label – totally arbitrary and capricious.

The Eugenics movement drew direct inspiration from Darwinian biology, according to West, and later became known as “Social Darwinism.”  Professor Edwin Conklin stated “nevertheless a good many defectives survive in modern society and are capable of reproduction who would have perished in more primitive society before reaching maturity. Such defectives survive by charity and are allowed to reproduce.”  West points out that Eugenists seemed certain that once man took control of his own evolution, he could do an even better job than nature.  Confident that modern biology had revealed to them how to breed a better race, Eugenists set about putting their “scientific” ideas into action.

Eugenics had such a solid following that government started passing laws to promote its agenda.  The first law was to limit marriage and immigration.  Connecticut enacted the first Eugenics marriage law in 1896.  By 1914 more than half of the states had imposed new restrictions on the marriage of persons considered feeble-minded.  Immigration laws were also targeted by Eugenists, who believed that biological defectiveness from foreign countries contributed to social welfare programs.  By 1920 Congress held hearings on the “Biological Aspects of Immigration.”  In 1924 Congress adopted a new immigration law, which curtailed the number of immigrants allowed from southern and Eastern Europe.  Although they did not specifically call Southern and Eastern Europeans “feeble-minded,” the implication was clear.  Now how they made the jump of including Southern and Eastern Europeans with this category is unknown.  As of 1956 when my Southern European family immigrated to America from southern Italy, this immigration statute was still in force.

Another good example of the horrors of Eugenics is the case of Carrie Buck.  Born to parents who were considered feeble-minded, she was taken from her parents and placed in a foster home at age four.  By age 10 her mother was declared mentally defective and incarcerated in a Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the feeble-minded.  Carrie made the best of her circumstances; she performed well in school, attended church and sang in the church choir.  Then, in the summer of 1923, Carrie was raped by the nephew of her foster parents and became pregnant.  Her foster parents, wishing to keep this a secret, had Carrie committed to the same Virginia Colony for the feeble-minded her mother had been committed to.  In 1924 the board of the Virginia Colony decided that Carrie must be sterilized under Virginia’s sterilization law.  Forced sterilizations swept the country.  By 1940 36,000 men and women had been forcibly sterilized.  Half of these were done in California alone, Virginia followed with 4,000.  All told, 36 states performed forced serializations on those classified as feeble-minded.

Carrie Buck fought the sterilization order and lost.  The case was eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and became the case of Buck vs. Bell.  The Supreme Court also ruled against Carrie and she was forcibly sterilized.  The Supreme Court voted 8 to 1 against her.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is noted for saying, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”  The only justice to vote for Carrie was Justice Pierce Butler, a conservative Roman Catholic.

Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, championed the Eugenics movement.  In a speech at Vassar College Sanger spoke about the “ruinous costs to taxpayers for defectives.” Sanger was an ardent Darwinist and considered blacks, Native Americans, Jews and Hispanics  “lower classes” which must not be allowed to multiply.  In 1939 she started “The Negro” project as a way to prevent the birth of too many blacks.  Even today, if you look at where the Planned Parenthood offices are, you will find most of them in lower class neighborhoods. The method is abortion; the goal to prevent too many “undesirables.”  I’m amazed at how this is totally ignored by the “tolerant” political left who think that abortion is “a woman’s right to choose.”

In the aftermath of the Eugenics movement, scholars pointed out how shaky and fraudulent the diagnosis of “feeble-mindedness” was.  Henry Goddard, who studied the Kallikak family mentioned earlier, for example, hid the real identities of the Kallikak family so no one could check his work.  One scholar, through great detective work, did finally discover the identities of the Kallikak family and he conclusively showed that the assessment was a product of prejudice.  Carrie Buck lived a very normal life; she was happily married for 25 years until the death of her husband.  She re-married and remained so until her death in 1983.  By the time of her death she was no longer considered “feeble-minded.”

Most Americans, although controversial, accepted the Eugenics movement.  Roman Catholics provided the stiffest resistance.  Pope Pius XI strongly condemned Eugenics in a 1930 encyclical.  Protestants such as William Jennings Bryan and Billy Sunday also condemned and spoke out forcefully against Eugenics.

Fast forward to the year 2009.  We have a culture, which does not consider the unborn as a human being and certainly not a person.  The U.S. Supreme court said so in so many words in Roe vs. Wade in 1973 and many liberal Americans believe it still.  How did Eugenics get such a strong foothold in America?  How did the culture of death such as the “pro-choice” advocates get such a strong foothold in America? These are questions that can be debated ad nauseam.  How did otherwise intelligent people fall for Eugenics?  How do intelligent people fall for “pro-choice” mentality?  Although I cannot point to definitive evidence for how Eugenics influenced the “pro-choice” mentality.  I think it is not difficult to see the inference one to the other.  The same fraudulent evidence for Eugenics is evident in the “pro-choice” mentality.


[i] John G. West, Darwin Day in America, (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2007

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