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Race Cleansing In America
A nationwide gene-purity movement promoted methods that eventually were adopted by the Third Reich. And everyone from John D. Rockefeller to W. E. B. Du Bois supported it.
March 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 1
The American eugenics movement was diffuse and decentralized, encompassing a wide variety of interests. At a popular level, social hygienists and health enthusiasts emphasized staying physically fit and finding an equally fit marriage partner. The “beautiful baby” contests held at state fairs and amusement parks were one manifestation of the interest in “good breeding.” Articles on mate selection and the science of the “wellborn child” frequently ran in newspapers and magazines. At a more elite level, the hard-core disciples of Galton’s beliefs saw the need for a forceful and focused agenda of legislative action. The founding of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) in 1910 provided the adherents of that agenda with a coordination and direction previously lacking.
Charles Davenport, a Harvard-trained biologist and the founder of the ERO, first obtained funding from the Carnegie Institute in 1904 to establish a Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Davenport was convinced by Mendel’s laws of heredity that behavior and moral traits were passed on in the same way as eye color, and he published a book-length study in 1919 titled Naval Officers: Their Heredity and Development, in which he identified a single recessive gene as responsible for “thalassophilia”—love of the sea—to explain why naval careers seemed to run in certain families.
Seeking to start a second institution at Cold Spring devoted solely to eugenics, Davenport found a sympathetic supporter in Mary Williamson Harriman, widow of the railroad magnate E. H. Harriman. She remained a financial mainstay of the ERO until 1917, when the Carnegie Institute assumed responsibility for annual operating expenses. These twin sources of funding were indicative of the generous support the eugenics movement would receive from some of America’s wealthiest families and foundations. The Philadelphia soap millionaire Samuel Fels was a regular contributor, and John D. Rockefeller was the ERO’s second-largest supporter.
Subsequently, the Rockefeller Foundation expanded this commitment on an international scale. Beginning in the 1920s, the foundation backed the research of German eugenicists and helped establish the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Eugenics and Human Heredity, in Berlin. The Russell Sage Foundation funded research on the feeble-minded and endorsed eugenic solutions, particularly for “feeble-minded girls of child bearing age.” In Michigan, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, brother of the cereal manufacturer, organized America’s First Race Betterment Conference in Battle Creek, in 1914, and set up a special school for “eugenic education.” Charles Brush, a Cleveland millionaire and one of the founders of the Brush Electric Company, created his own eugenic organization, and Dr. Clarence Gamble, heir to the Gamble soap fortune, started more than 20 sterilization clinics and was a force in the eugenics movement until the middle of the century.
At the ERO, Davenport set out to build a network of field-workers to compile an index of eugenic information on American families. This included not just medical facts but such traits as “liveliness, moribundity, lack of foresight, rebelliousness, trustworthiness, irritability, missile throwing, popularity, radicalness, conservativeness, nomadism.” His hope was to create a clearinghouse that could give advice to individuals and communities on preventing reproduction by defectives, encourage research, and propagate “eugenic truths.” Early on, Davenport made a decision crucial to the future of the ERO. He offered the job of superintendent to Harry Laughlin, a biology teacher in Iowa with whom he had been corresponding for several years.
Laughlin envisioned a day when every sort of defective would be barred from entry into the United States. He also hoped to help bring about a new social order “wherein selection for parenthood will not be held a natural right of every individual; but will be a prize highly sought and allotted to the best individuals of proven blood, and those individuals who are not deemed worthy and are by society denied the right to perpetrate their own traits in subsequent generations will be held in pity by their fellows.” Laughlin would play a significant part in turning eugenic theory into legislative reality.
One of Laughlin’s first assignments with the ERO was to assist the American Breeder’s Association (ABA). The first formal eugenics group in the United States, with a self-proclaimed mission to “emphasize the value of superior blood and the menace to society of inferior blood,” the ABA included among its original members Alexander Graham Bell, Luther Burbank, Vernon L. Kellogg, and the Stanford University president David Starr Jordan. In 1913 Laughlin wrote a report for the ABA that concluded that “approximately 10% of our population, primarily through inherent defect and weakness, are an economic and moral burden on the 90% and a constant source of danger to the national and racial life.” He recommended an aggressive policy of involuntary sterilization and began drafting a model law to provide state legislatures with a working example of how to proceed.