American Eugenics Movement

Figure 1.--

No where were the principles of eugenics more accepted than America. Eugenics was adopted by the Oneida Community in the mid-19th century. The first American eugenics law was passed in Indiana in 1907 and by 1936 there were 35 states that had such laws. As a result, large numbers of individuals in America were forcibly sterilized--primarily poor children taken in by state institutions. We do not have an estimate yet of the actual number of people sterilized. As these operations were sometimes conducted covertly, an accurate assessment is probably not possible. The mentally ill and retarded were the most frequent victims of this program. There were also, however, children and youths sterilized. These included unwed mothers and boys in reformatories and orphanages, especially if they were judged to be retarded. The extent of the sterilizations varied widely from state to state, but was most pronounced in states that were largely Protestant because of the opposition of the Catholic Church. There were also large numbers of sterilizations conducted on blacks in the South by the largely white medical establishment. These were known as Mississippi appendectomies. An outgrowth of the eugenics movement was the popularity of beautiful baby competitions in the early 20th century.


Eugenics was looked on by many as a scientific approach to creating a genetically superior human race. Many including prominant Americans expoused the idea despite the fact that the science of genetics was at a very primitie states. The breeding of livestock, however, is as old as civilkization. Thus egenecicts commonly focused on breeding. No where were the principles of eugenics more accepted than America. The American eugenics movement focused on people considered to be mental defectives. The theory was that eliminating mental defectives could address a variety of social problems, including as poverty and crime.


Many major magazines and newspapers carried articles on eugenics, usually claming a scientific basis for the programs being expoused. There were even magazines specifically devoted to eugenics, including Eugenics Quarterly.


Eugenics apparently became the central theme of some movies, although I am unsure just what movies were involved here.

Oneida Community

Eugenics was adopted by the Oneida Community in the mid-19th century. Oneida is a recognized industrial concern in the United States. Its heritage is very different from other American industrial concerns which were organized on the basis of the limited corporation created by Alexander Hamilton when he founded the first National Bank of the United States. The origins of Oneida are religious, utopian, and socialistic.

State Laws

The first American eugenics law was passed in Indiana (1907). Most other states priceeded to pass a variety of eugenics law. Some of these laws were challenged in the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court held in Buck vs. Bell that these state laws were constitutional (1927). As a result, state legislatures continued to enact new eugenic laws including authorizations for sterilization. By 1936 there were 35 states that had such laws. This continued through World War II (1939-45). Inncreasing questions were raised about eugenics even before the War. Many of the objections were based on ethics. Eugenics from the beginning, however, was not scientifically based. The relevations of NAZI race and eugenics laws thoroughly descredited the movemnent.


One approach of the eugenicists was sterilization. The principle was that sterilizing large numbers of "defective" people could prevent the perpetuation of targeted defects and genetic diseases. The state eugenics laws were tested in the courts. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the eugenicists in Buck vs. Bell (1927). Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes speaking for the Court, wrote, "three generations of imbeciles are enough". State governments under the authority of these laws forcibly sterilized thousands of Americans. Most of those sterilized were poor children being cared for in various state institutions. Many did not known what was being done to them ast the time. The operations were caried out foricibly if the individuals objected. We do not have an estimate yet of the actual number of people sterilized. As these operations were sometimes conducted covertly, an accurate assessment is probably not possible. An estimated 60,000 to 100,000 people are believed to have been sterilized, but in fact there are no precise records. The mentally ill and retarded were the most frequent victims of this program. There were also, however, children and youths sterilized. These included unwed mothers and boys in reformatories and orphanages, especially if they were judged to be retarded. The extent of the sterilizations varied widely from state to state, but was most pronounced in states that were largely Protestant because of the opposition of the Catholic Church. There were also large numbers of sterilizations conducted on blacks in the South by the largely white medical establishment. These were known as Mississippi appendectomies.

Individual Accounts

An ABC investigative report looked into the case of one Michigan boy. "One man who has carried this dark secret with him was Fred Aslin. When Aslin was a boy in 1936, his father died, leaving his mother to bring up nine children. For unknown reasons, Michigan state representatives deemed her unable to care for her children, and they were taken to a state mental institution and left there. When Aslin was first admitted, doctorsí reports labeled him 'a feebleminded moron', but during his years at the institution, he received glowing reports from his teachers. Nevertheless, the "feebleminded" label stuck, and when Aslin turned 18 he was told that he would be sterilized. "I [didnít] want anybody cutting on me and they knew I wasnít crazy; they knew I wasnít retarded," says Aslin. Although he protested, a court order supported the surgery, and he was sterilized." [Parker]

Indiana Committee on Mental Defectives

Indiana had one of the strongest eugenics laws in the nation. The state set up a Committee on Mental Defectives, funded in part by the state Legislature. This Committe acted like the hereditary courts that the NAZIs established in Germany during the 1930s. This committee collected information from doctors, hospitls, teachers and various government officials. Surveyors would make home visits and submit assessnents of suspected individual mental defectives as well as whole families suspected of being mentally defective. The Committe submitted an annual report to the givernor. The Committee defined "mental defective" as including the insane, epileptics and the feebleminded. The Committee claimed on a scientific foundation that mental defects were "transmitted from parent to offspring". The feebleminded were put in three categories: idiot, imbecile and moron. ABC reviewed some of the Committee's with relatives who were shocked to ind that thei families were surepticiously invetigated. [Parker]

State Boys

The central thrust of the eugenics movement was preventing inferior people from diluting the gene pool. Sterilization was one way of doing this, isolation was another. Mentally defective individuals were isolated in state homes. Intelligence was widely believed to be heritary and some believed that newly developed intelligence tests could be used to select out indivifuals who should be institutionalized. Two of the problemns assovciated with this effort was that 1) early intelligence tests were of questionable accuracy and 2) the environmental aspect of intellience was just beginning to be understood. As a result, many children of normal intelligence with deprived background were wearhoused in these state institutions. One such facility wa the Walter F. Fernald State School in Waltham, Massachusetts. These facilities varied greatly. Some were chambers of horror where younger children were brutalized by older children. In many cases the staff was also abusive. The educational program was a best defecuent and often entirely absent. Many of the individuls referred to as state boiys were institutionalized for life. Only in the 1960s did better educated staffs and new social policies began to prepare these boys for life in the outside world. [D'Antonio]


Eugenicists had a passion for measurement. This undoubtedly reflected their claim that eugenics was a science. This included both physical and intelectual mwasurements. The actual meaurements were a fairly simple matter. The first system for human physical measurements (anthropometry) was developed by the French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon. Eugenicist Francis Galton adopted Bertillon's system. His work with his student assistant Karl Pearson provide the basis for modern anthropometric statistics. Physical measurements by themselves are data of some actual scientific and soicietal utility. The use eugenicists made of the data compiled, however, was not scientific. American eugenicists had already formed their conclusions before even beginning to collect theiur data which as any 7th grade general science call tell you in the anthisis of real science. Eugenicists wanted to use anthropometry to support their belief that the white race was superior. Many of these studies were conducted in public schools, prisons, and state mental hospitals where study populations could be readily studied. Draftees in World War I (1917-18) provided another large study population. These institutins provided a cross section of children and adults from the different racial and ethnic groups. As far as we can tell, the actual measurements taken were accurate. The conclusions drawn from the studies were a very different matter. Although the eugeniits claimed to be scientsts, they attempted to draw conclusiond from the data with out considering variables that could affect body measurements. Again any 7th grade science fair participant could tell you that his was not science. The eugenicists ignored variables such as nutrition and access to medical health care that varied among racial and ethnic griups which could have an impact on growth and development and thus influence the differences dound. Physical measurements could be done with considerable accuracy. Measuring intelligence, however, was a very different matter. And it was a very critical matter as eugenicists advocated sterilization for the mentally deficient. Efforts to measuring intellgence first began after the turn of the 20th century. French psychologist Alfred Binet first created what is now known as a Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test (1905). He sought to assess a child's "mental age". He wanted a test which could be used as an aid to direct primary school children to either academic or vocational education tracks. Binet's system classified a child of average intelligence as having a mental age equal to his chronological age. Binet's mental age was used to generate an IQ (1910). The mathematical calculation was mental age/chronological age x 100). IQ scores can range from 0 to 200 and are designed to fit a bell curve, averaging 100. Average IQs range from 86 to 115. A variety of terms were used to dedevelop individuals below ("moron," "imbecile," and "idiot") and above ("bright" and "genius") the average. Eugenicists eagerly employed IQ or other intelligence tests to compare different racial and ethnic groups. These comparisons purportedly showed whites were more intelligent than blacks, native-born Americans were more intelligent than foreign-born immigrants, and northern Europeans were more intelligent than southern Europeans. Eugenicits failed to assess the validity if the early IQ tests or other variables besides race ad ethnicity. The Iearly IQ tests wereuseful, but they did not measure innaste intelligence, but rather education. And of course many factors can affect education besides innate intelligence. Immigrants and poor Americans who had little who often came families with illiterate parents and had limited educational opportunities. They as a result scored poorly on these IQ tests.


Given American attitudes toward race in the late-19th an early-20th century, race inevitably became involved in the Eugenics movement. The principal way this occurred was state laws which addressed inter-racial marriage. These laws were strongest and most prevalent in the southern states. They were, however, not limited to the South or states with segregation laws. The laws were first passed in the colonial period. They unlike most colonial legislation were not based on Ebglish Common Law. Mixed race parents having children is tered myiscegenation. More than half of the states had these laws by the early 20th century, 28 states in 1915. These laws were in large measure of the slave system, but criminalization in the slave staes was improbable because so many slave owners fostered children with slave women. Affter emancipation (1863-65), this changed and state legislsatures throughout the South passed laws against mixed race marriages. Six southern states included this prohibition in their constitutions. The states laws varied substatially, but mosdt focused on marriages between whites and blacks. This could get quite complicated because of how race was defined and what level of parentage defined clasification. In addition there were also orintals and Native Americans to be considered. Each state addressed these issues differently. The laws until the late-19th century were primarily based on tradition and assumed differences. The eugenics movement provided what was considerd as a scientific foundation for laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage. And important eugenicists spoke out to support these laws. Madison Grant called race mixing "a social and racial crime" and was a step toward "racial suicide". Grant and other eugenicists insisted thsat the nixture of "higher" racial types with "lower" racial types esulted in the decline of rhe reputed higher race. Grant wrote, "When it becomes thoroughly understood that the children of mixed marriages between contrasted races belongs to the lower type, the importance of transmitting in unimpaired purity the blood inheritance of ages will be appreciated at its full value." [Grant] Officials at the Eugenics Record Office expressed similar views, including Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin. Civic leaders, government officials, authors, teachers, ministers, and a broad spectrum of Americans shared these sentiments, now apparently endorsed by science. This scientific endorsement was enormously influential at the tome when science was rapidy transforming America and Europe. Soon to be president, Vice President Calvin Coolidge erote, "Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend." These law remained in effect through Wotld War II. The NAZI Holocaust in Europe and actual scientific work in biology and genetics undercut the foundatin for these laws. The laws were finally invalidated by the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia (1967). This landmark decision by a 9-0 vote ruled that Virginia's anti-miscegenation statute ("Racial Integrity Act of 1924") was unconstitutional because it denied the plantifs the equal protectiion of the law. It overturned Pace v. Alabama (1883).


The eugenics movement was a very dangerous one. One very eloquent author warned that pseudo sience and poorly conceived scientific theories pose great dangers if used to deal with socia; problems. [Gould] Nothing could be a better example of this than the eugenics movement. Eugenecists claimed that their program was founded by science. In fact it was not. Genetics was very poorly understood at the time. DNA would not be discovered for several decades. Also many of the disorders they targeted were poorly understood, especially the genetic component. Assesing mental rtardation was another problem. This is not a simple matter today and in the early 20th century little solid scientic work had been done on such assessments. Often other disorders such as dsylexia were confused with intelligence. Race and social class were other troubling factors. The poor and racial minorities were more likely to be sterilized than middle-class whites.

American Debate

One interesting aspect of the debate over eugenics was the people who supported and opposed it.

Progressives and socialists

Some prominent American progressives including socialists were important supporters of eugenics. The Progressive Movement fundamentally changed America. It transformed how Americans began to vew their gvernment, especially the government's role in regulating the economy. It was in the Progressive Era that the regulatory state was founded. As the Progressives began to push for major reforms, another important movement was garnering considerable support--the eugenics movement. Progressive wee convinced that technocrats in government could use the state to improve society and cure social evils. And many thought that eugenics could be used in that effort. Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species was one of the world's most influential scientific works. Although Darwin never addressed the topic, social and economic reformers began to apply Darwin's biological work to human society, the result was Social Darwinism. These reformers and other social scientists and political thinkers argued that society should eliminate those unfit for productive work, often labeled as "unemployables," "parasites," and the "industrial residuum". The idea was to uplift superior, more capable workers. The definition of who the unemployable varied, but often included immigrants, blacks, the handicapped, amd others. Today we tend to see these groups as victims of the Industrial Revolution and other social and economic trends. Many Progressives at the time. often influenced by racial attitudes, tended to view them very differently. They were seen as threats to the well-being of productive workers and of society as a whole. One of the most notable Progressive champions of eugenics was Margaret Sanger, the crusader for birth control. As historians tend to lionize many of the progressive leaders, this connecton with eugernics is often conveniently ignored. Progressive leaders influenced by eugenics played a major role in the labor and immigration reforms enacted during the Progressive Era. [Leonard] Of course not all or even most progressives or socialists were eugenicists, but they were heavily represented in the eugenics movement. The connection is obvious because progressives and socialists wanted to use state power to remake society. And this is just what the eugenecists wanted to do. Some important American and British progressives who endorsed eugenics included: social worker Jane Addams, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, educator and public health official Harry Laughlin, economist John Maynard Keynes, President Teddy Roosevelt, philospher Bertrand Russell, birth control campigner Margaret Sanger, author George Bernard Shaw, author H.G. Wells, and President Woodrow Wilson, Important foundations funding progressive projects also helped promote eugenics, including the Rockefellers, Harrimans, and Carnegies, and others. [Hall] A HBC reader tells us, "Many Progressives you point out ultimately rejected eugenics. This never seems to make that into the eugenics postings I notice." [Hall] The reader does not specify just which progressives repudiated eugenics.

William Jennings Bryan

A major opponent was perenial Democratic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan. Jennings opposed eugenics in part because of his opposition to teach evolution in schools. Most of us are familiar with the drama, "Inherit the Wind". The play was written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee and debuted on Broaway (1955). It is a fictionalized depiction of the Scopes "Monkey" Trial (1925). The focus of the plsay was religion and the literal interpretation of the Bible. The playrights meant to open a discussion of the McCarthy trials and wehat they saw as mind control. The play does not fully or even fairly depict Bryan's view of evolution or scientific research. Bryan objected to evolution not just because he believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Bryan though that equating man and animals would adversely affect public morals. He also thought that the principle of survival of the fitest in human society would lead to war and Bryan was a noted pacifist. Notably the NAZIs adopted the rincipole of survival of the fitest to justify his aggressions. Bryan alsdo saw evolution as being used to justify the sterilization of the poor and less inteligent. This is not far fetched because it is precisely what happened. It also should be noted that while Bryan did not want evolution taught in the schools, he did not object to scientific research. [Kazin]

Catholic church

The Catholic Church opposed eugenics from the very onset of the movement. It played a major role in defeating eugenics legislation in many european countries. The Church was unable, however, to stop eugenics legislation in largely Protestant America.

Beautiful Baby Contests

An outgrowth of the eugenics movement was the popularity of beautiful baby competitions in the early 20th century. Better Babies" contests were part of the Eugenics movement. Eugenics became a popular concept, and at its height, it infused many areas of American culture. There were magazines such as Eugenics Quarterly, and many state fairs featured contests searching for "Fitter Families" and "Better Babies". The topic even became the central theme of some movies. When turning over history's stones, sometimes you find some nasty bugs hidden underneath.


D'Antonio, Michael. The State Boys' Rebellion (Simon & Schuster, 2004), 308p.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Mismeasure of Man.

Grant, Madison. The Passing of the Great Race (1916).

Hall, Mike. E-mail message, February 9, 2012.

Kazin, Michael. A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan.

Parker, Valerie. "Breeding better citizens: A Hidden chapter of American history," ABC News March 22, 2000?.

Leonard, Thomas C. "Protecting family and race: the progressive case for regulating women's work," American Journal of Economics and Sociology (July 2005).


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Created: September 17, 2003
Last updated: 12:51 AM 2/9/2012