Monday, May 15, 2017

Well Born?: America's Troubling Fascination with Eugenics

By Rachel Dworki, Archivist
As part of their quest for more ‘scientific charity,’ the Elmira Federation for Social Services published a genealogical study of 67 impoverished local families as part of their 1912 annual report. The study tracked instances of alcoholism, criminality, blindness, deafness, feeble mindedness, insanity, epilepsy, tuberculosis, and sexual immorality amongst Elmira’s poor. “Since we are not a large manufacturing center, this problem of degeneracy rather than that of industrialism, is the chief cause of our poverty,” the report concluded. The main problem then was not a lack of quality housing, education or employment, but the fact that degenerates kept breeding with other degenerates. The question was what to do about it. “Has a community any right to allow the bringing into the world of offspring which it must in self-defense and for the children’s own sake, take away from the parents?” As far as the Federation was concerned, the answer was no. 

Genealogical chart from Elmira Federation for Social Services study. Alcoholic dad with feeble-minded brother produces feeble-minded kids & grandkids.

Eugenics, or the science of breeding better humans, was all the rage in Elmira in the first quarter of the 20th century. In fact, it was all the rage throughout the Western world. The term was first coined by British scientist Sir Francis Galton in 1883. Galton and his supporters argued that superior humans should breed more and inferior breed less. The cause was taken up in the United States by Charles Davenport, who established a eugenics laboratory and records office at Cold Spring Harbor, New York in 1904. 

For the next few decades, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum turned to eugenics as a cure for social ills. Eugenics, supporters claimed, would reduce infant mortality, save tax payers money, and reduce crime. In a 1919 study of repeat offenders incarcerated at the Elmira Reformatory, Superintendent Dr. Frank L. Christian concluded that nearly 50 percent of habitual criminality was caused by medical conditions like epilepsy and congenital insanity or feeble-mindedness. He was just one of many Elmirans calling for a program of practical eugenics. Other local supporters included Dr. Arthur Booth (founding member of CCHS), social worker Anna Pratt of the Elmira Federation, Elmira College professor Charles Reitzel, Rev. Arthur B. Rudd of Grace Episcopal Church, and the editorial staff of the Elmira Star-Gazette

The laws based on eugenic theory were deeply troubling. They impacted everything from immigration policy to marriage to reproductive health care. In 1896, Connecticut became the first state to mandate pre-marriage health screenings and ban people with certain conditions from marrying. Many other states quickly followed suit. Indiana became the first state to pass an involuntary sterilization law in 1907 and, once again, others soon did the same. Although the laws were aimed at the intellectually disabled and mentally ill, they were often used as population control against Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and the poor. The practice of forced sterilization continued well into the 1980s and many of the laws are still on the books.
Poor Elmira family, ca. 1920.

During the 1930s and 40s, Nazi Germany took American eugenic theory and practices to their horrifyingly logical conclusion by systematically murdering ‘unfit’ individuals like the physically and mentally disabled, the mentally ill, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities. For American eugenicist, it was a sobering mirror to look into and the movement fell out of favor in the 1950s. Despite now being considered ablest, racist junk science, many eugenics-based laws still remain on the books.

1 comment:

  1. Oh my I don't even know what to say.....Interesting it took 50 years to fall out of favor. I wish I could say this is shocking but it's not to long ago we treated Aids with the same ignorance and present day transgender men and women...