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Scientists and Society

Eugenics becomes popular (1901-1930)

Also see Eugenics timeline 1901-30

Notice that the eugenic policy may be divided into two: "positive eugenics" which aims to foster more prolific breeding among the socially meritorious, and "negative eugenics" which intends to encourage the socially disadvantaged to breed less or not at all. (see Kevles 1985, 85)

[The turn of the century]

What he [Galton] had to say about eugenics in the new century differed little from his pronouncements in the heyday of Victoria's reign, but the response was hardly the same. In 1904, a large audience---including medical men and scientists, not to mention H. G. Wells---turned out to hear him at the Sociological Society, In London, and his address was reprinted on both sides of the Atlantic. ... In the last few years of his [Galton's] life, among the thinking classes of the Anglo-American community, Francis Galton and his eugenics were suddenly very much in season. ...

In America, thousands of people filled out their "Record of Family Traits" and mailed the forms to Charles B. Davenport's Eugenics Record Office, ... (Kevles 1985, 57-8)

The outbreak of the war thrust eugenics into the background of public discourse, ...

... public attention to eugenics was renewed after the Armistice with a force that made Galton's religion as much a part of secular pieties of the nineteen-twenties as the Einstein craze. (Kevles 1985, 58-9)


The vogue of eugenics derived energy from the organizational efforts of its advocates. In 1907, inspired by Galton, a national Eugenics Education Society was founded in Britain. ... Branches of the society sprang up in Birmingham, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton, Liverpool, Glasgow, and Sydney, Australia. Local eugenics groups sprouted across the United States, ... Eugenic themes diffused into groups devoted to sex education and sex hygiene, and were evident in the baby-health competitions that spread to some forty states before the war. Various efforts ... were mounted to organize eugnics on a national basis, along the lines of the British society; they culminated in the formation in 1923 of the American Eugenics society, which rapidly spawned twenty-eight state committees and a southern California branch. (Kevles 1985, 59)

[Eugenic contests]

The Fitter Families contests had started in Topeka, in 1920, at the Kansas Free Fair. Under the aegis of the American Eugenics Society, they were soon being featured---together with eugenic exhibits---at seven to ten state fairs yearly; ... Local publications gave front-page attention to the competitions and their winners. At the state fairs, the Fitter Families competitions were held in the "human stock" sections. ... Any healthy family could enter. Contestants had only to provide an examiner with the family's eugenic history. All family members had to submit to a medical examination---including a Wassermann test and a psychiatric assessment---and take an intelligence test. At the 1924 Kansas Free Fair, winning families in three categories---small, average, and large---were awarded a Governor's Fitter Family Trophy, ... (Kevles 1985, 61-2)

At the Sesquicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the American Eugenics Society exhibit included a board which, like the population counters of a later day, revealed with flashing lights that every fifteen seconds a hundred dollars of your money went for the care of persons with bad heredity, that every forty-eight seconds a mentally deficient person was born in the United States, and that only every seven and a half minutes did the United States enjoy the birth of "a high grade person ... who will have ability to do creative work and be fit for leadership". (Kevles 1985, 62)

[The movement spread]

After the turn of the century, eugenic efforts---often called "race hygene"---had also developed in Sweden, Norway, Russia, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, France, and Italy; in the nineteen-twenties, the movement spread to Japan and Latin America. (Kevles 1985, 63)

[Wide spectrum of supporters]

It is in the nature of social movements that they often command the support of disparate groups who share few ideas in common other than those of the movement. In 1908, the American geneticist Raymond Pearl noted that eugenics was "'catching on' to an extraordinary degree with radical and conservative alike, as something for which the time is quite right". (Kevles 1985, 63)

Eugenics enthusiasts in the United States and Britain were largely middle to upper middle class, white, Anglo-Saxon, predominantly Protestant, and educated. The movement's leaders tended to be well-to-do rather than rich, and many wer eprofessionals---physicians, social workers, clerics, writers, and numerous professors, notably in the biological and social sciences. ... Fully half the membership of the British eugenics society consisted of women, and so did about a quarter of its officers. In the United States, women played an insignificant role in the national society but a prominent one in local groups. In both countries, women constituted a large part of the eugenics audience. Eugenics, concerned ipso facto with the health and qualityof offspring, focused on issues that, by virtue of biology and prevailing middle-class standards, were naturally women's own. (Kevles 1985, 64)

[A substitute for religion]

Galton had expected eugenics to provide a secular substitute for traditional religion, and in the opening decades of the twentieth century, amind the turbulence of Anglo-American urban industrial life, it was said to have accomplished just that. (Kevles 1985, 68)

With the modern miracles went a modern priesthood: the scientists---no small number of them geneticists. In America, the eugenic priesthood included much of the early leadership responsible for the extension of Mendelism ... The large majority of American colleges and universities---including Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, Brown, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Berkeley---offered well-attended courses in eugenics, or genetics courses that incorporated eugenic material. (Kevles 1985, 69)

[Social changes essential]

Yet neither the lierature of eugenics nor the preexisting intellectual climate of social Darwinism in which it came to flourish were enough to create a eugenics movement. Essential to that were the social changes straining both Britain and the united States after the turn of the century: industrialization, the growth of big business, the sprawl of cities and slums, the massive migrations from the countryside and (in the United States especially) from abroad. Urban Anglo-America may have always known prostitution, crime, alcoholism, and disease, but neither society had ever before possessed the weight of statistical information, expanding yearly by volumes, that numerically detailed the magnitude of its problems. Statistics revealed, with seeming mathematical exactitude, that afflictions such as "mental defectiveness" and criminality were worsening every year. (Kevles 1985, 72)


Racism---in that era racial differences were identified with variations not only in skin color but in ethnic identity---was a feature of both British and American eugenics. ...

Anglo-American eugeniticists embraced the standard views of the day concerning the hereditarily biological inferiority of blacks. ...

Especially in the United States, assumptions of genetic differences between white Protestants of Northern European stock---"Wasps", in the term of a later day---and the country's substantial numbers of blacks and Jewish and Catholic imkigrants figures significantly in the eugenics movement. ... (Kevles 1985, 74-5)

[Intelligence tests]

Like Francis Galton, whom they took as their patron saint, eugeniticists identified human worth with the qualities they presumed themselves to possess--the sort tha tfacilitated passage through schools, universities, and professional training. They tended to equate merit with intelligence, particularly of the academic sort. ... the idea of systematically measuring intelligence had captured the attention of the French psychologist Alfred Binet, an acolyte of Galton's quantifying aims, if not of his particular methods.

In 1904, the French govenment, expanding its educational system, asked Binet for ways to detect mentally deficient children. Binet drew up a series of tests consisting of numerous short problems designed to probe such qualities as memory, ratiocination, and verbal facility. In collaboration with a colleague, Theodore Simon, he also devised a scheme for classifying each test taker according to his "mental age". ...

The American psychologist Henry H. Goddard brought the Binet-Simon tests from Europe to the United States in 1908. ... He employed the Binet-Simon examinations at the Vineland, New Jersey, Training School for Feeble-minded Boys and Girls, where he had recently been appointed director of a new laboratory for the study of mental deficiency---one of the first established in this country. (Kevles 1985, 76-7)

[Goddard classified idiots, imbeciles, and morons, according to their mental ages---one or two, three to seven, and eight to twelve]

Goddard was unsure whether mental deficiency resulted from the presence in the brain of something that inhibited normal development or from the absence of something that stimulated it. But whatever the cause, of one thing he had become virtually certain: it behaved like a Mendelian character. Feeblemindedness was "a condition of mind or brain which is transmitted as regularly and surely as color of hair or eyes." (Kevles 1985, 79)

[Eugenics and mental tests]

Whatever their prejudices, American and British eugenicists were alike distressed over the trend in their respective nations' intelligence. Before the First World War, eugenicists like Karl Pearson and Charles Davenport had warned that excessive breeding of the lower classes was giving the edge to the less fit. The growth of I.Q. testing after the war gave a quantitative authority to the eugenic notion of fitness. For the voque of mental testing did more than encourage fears regarding the "menace of the feeble-minded." It also identified the principal source of heedless fecundity with low-I.Q. groups, and it equated national deterioration with a decline in national intelligence. (Kevles 1985, 84)

[Eugenics and Immigration Act]

In the spring of 1920, Laughlin [Harry H. Laughlin, superintendent of Eugenic Record Office] went down to Washngton, D.C., to present a sheaf of eugenic petitions to the House Committee on Immigation and Naturalization, which was then working on the original emergency restriction act. The majority chairman of the committee was Congressman Albert Johnson, Republican of Washington, ... In short order, Johnson appointed Laughlin "Expert Eugenical Agent" of the committee. ...

Quickly, Laughlin became known in Washington as an indispensable authority on the "biological" side of the immigration issue. Without much difficulty, he won over influential members of the committee, including not only albert Johnson but also the minority leader, John C. Box, to the eugenic point of view. In 1923, Johnson joined the Committee on Selective Immigation of the newly founded American Eugenics Society; the committee issued a compendious report at the end of 1923 which added up to an endorsement of the permanent immigation restriction bill. (Kevles 1985, 103)

[Eugenics and birth-control]

Eugenicists were generally against the feminist movement and the birth-control; but some people such as Margaret Sanger combined eugenic ideas with birth-control.

Women were said to expect sexual fulfillment in marriage without fear of pregnancy. Birth control had come to stay, and so, it seemed, had a steady decline in the birthrate of the upper classes. As Margaret Sanger put it, the sensible eugenic response to the differential birthrate was to make available to lower-income and less educated groups the contraceptive knowledge and opportunities enjoyed by others. Before the war, Sangar had linked birth control with feminism. Now, like her British counterpart Marie Stopes, she tied contraception increasingly to the eugenic cause. In 1919, she wrote: "More children from the fit, less from the unfit---that is the chief issue of birth control." (Kevles 1985, 90)

Last modified November 30, 1999. (c) Soshichi Uchii (except for quotations)