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Scientists and Society

Charles Benedict Davenport (1866-1944)

Biographical Notes

Charles Davenport was one of the most prominent figures in American eugenic movement. He founded Eugenic Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor; raised numerous field workers, and gatherd a tremendous amount of "family records" in order to know the genetic assets of American people. He was good as an organizer and scientific entrepreneur, but he was a second-rate scientist.

The birth-control crusader Margaret Sanger recalled that Davenport, in expressing his worry about the impact of contraception on the better stocks, "used to lift his eyes reverently and, with his hands upraised as though in supplication, quiver emotionally as he breathed, 'Protoplasm. We want more protoplasm'." (Kevles 1985, 52)


1866 Born in New York; educated at home until 13 years old, and worked as office-boy in his fathers office of real estate and insurance. Then Charles learned natural science and engineering at school; he went to Harvard.

1892 Ph.D in biology; Charles read Karl Pearson's papers, and he was recognized as an important pioneer in biometry in the US.

1894 Married Gertrude Crotty, an ambitious woman

1899 Assistant Professor, Chicago University

Early in the new century, he visited England and met Galton, Pearson, and Weldon.

1904 Director of a biological research station at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, as well as the head of the summer Biological Laboratory of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences; he succeeded in obtaining a large fund from Carnegie Institute.

Davenport studied along the Mendelian genetics, as well as along Biometry; and he became eager to study heredity of human traits.

Davenport had to find his inheritance data by collecting extended family pedigrees. ... Davenport was interested in the "genotype"---the individual's genetic makeup. Not directly observable, the genotype had to be inferred from scrutiny of as many related phenotypes as possible, in and beyond the immediate family. ... To gather data on normal as well as abnormal characters, Davenport drew up a "Family Records" form and distributed hundreds of copies to medical, mental, and educational institutions; to numerous individuals, especially scientists; and .... Hundreds were returned, filled out for at least three generations. They formed the basis of a widely noted book he published in 1911, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics. (Kevles 1985, 45-6)

1910 Eugenic Record Office

To Davenport the professional scientist, the watchword of eugenics for the time being had to be "investigation". He dreamed of gathering enormous quantities of human hereditary data, recording them in a central bureau of study, and ultimately throwing light on " the great strains of human protoplasm ... coursing through the country".

... Institution building was the order of the scientific day, and Davenport, with his protoplasmic social purposefulness, was, more than anything else, an entrepreneur of the knowledge business. In 1909, his eugenic ambitions in mind, he approached Mary Harriman in the hope of stimulating the philanthropic interest of her mother, Mrs. E. H. Harriman, who had recently taken over the management of her late husband's immense railroad fortune.

... in February 1910, Mrs Harriman agreed to support Davenport's ambitions for eugenic research on a grand scale. "A Red Letter Day for humanity!" Davenport wrote in his diary. (Kevles 1985, 54)

1911 Heredity in Relation to Eugenics

1916 Eugenic News began.

Like Karl Pearson's research program, their [field workers's] work supplied ample "authoritative" material to the Anglo-American eugenics movement, which gathered increasing popular force after the turn of the century, with no small impact upon education and immigration policy and such sectors of social distress as the so-called feebleminded. (Kevles 1985, 56)


Last modified November 19, 1999. (c) Soshichi Uchii

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