What do the SAT, the Kellogg Company, Woodrow Wilson and Adolf Hitler all have in common? They are all connected by the practice of eugenics in the first half the 20th century.
From 1904 until shortly after the close of WWII, the United States aggressively engaged in a scientific quest to create a master race. This radical new science, dubbed “eugenics” by Sir Francis Galton in 1883, called for selective breeding between those deemed “fit” for existence (i.e. generally those of Nordic descent), with sterilization, marriage prohibition and even euthanasia aimed at those deemed “unfit.”
Based on an extreme view of social Darwinism, eugenics permeated the scientific and academic elite, securing funding through such notable organizations as the Carnegie Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation. The Supreme Court eventually came to sanction eugenic practices, and 27 U.S. states enacted incredibly racist laws enforcing its doctrines. Overseeing these laws and heinous practices presided a virtual army of scientists and doctors steeped in the desire to eradicate anyone seen as a threat to society. These included immigrants flooding in from Europe, Native Americans, epileptics, alcoholics, Jews, Mexicans, Blacks, small-time crooks, the mentally ill, and even those unfortunate enough to be caught unemployed and homeless at the wrong time.
Spreading from Long Island to across the whole United States, from the Liberty Bell to the Golden Gate Bridge, eugenics wormed its way overseas to England and the whole of Europe before it ultimately landed, like a kind of lamp containing an evil genie, into the lap of Adolf Hitler.
Here are 33 disturbing but true facts about eugenics, a pseudoscientific belief that began in the cradle of the land of liberty and ended in the clutches of a genocidal regime:
1. Even with concentration camps, euthanasia campaigns and sterilization wards public knowledge in both Germany and America, early eugenic founders looked on with approval as Nazi Germany enacted brutal racial campaigns against its own citizens. Joseph DeJarnette, superintendent of Virginia’s Western State Hospital even complained in 1934, “Hitler is beating us at our own game.”
2. The term “social Darwinism” never came from Darwin himself. It was a term distilled around the notion that in the struggle for survival, some humans were not only less worthy but were actually more or less supposed to die away. Merely acting to help the weak and needy within society became itself an unnatural act. This thinking helped propel the eugenic movement forward during its embryonic stages at the start of the 20th century.
3. On July 15, 1911, the American Breeders Association, or ABA, an organization comprised of eugenic-minded scientists and doctors, met in Manhattan to identify ten groups classified as “socially unfit” and deserving of elimination. These included, in order of priority: the feebleminded, the pauper class, alcoholics, criminals of varying degrees such as petty thieves and those imprisoned for not paying fines, epileptics, the insane, the constitutionally weak class, those genetically predisposed to specific diseases, the deformed, and finally, the deaf, blind and mute.
4. In 1907 Indiana became the first state to legalize forced sterilization on its mentally impaired patients and poorhouse residents. Known as Sharp’s Bill (named after a Dr. Harry Clay Sharp who was already sterilizing and castrating men and women in Indiana’s prisons well before it became legal) it passed the Indiana House 59 in favor, 22 opposed, and passed in the Senate with 28 ayes and 16 nays.
5. New Jersey passed its own sterilization legislation in 1911. It allowed for the creation of a three-man board that would determine whether “procreation is inadvisable” for the reams of prisoners and children living in poor houses and other charitable organizations. The governor who signed the bill into law was Woodrow Wilson, who was elected president of the United States the following year.
6. The term “moron” comes from the eugenic movement. Coined by Henry Goddard, an early eugenic founder, it comes from the Greek word moros, meaning “stupid and foolish.” We use the term lightly these days as a kind of vague, almost teasing insult. For Goddard and the eugenic community, a “moron” was anyone deemed unfit for life and indeed a target to be eliminated.
7. The IQ Test also emerged from eugenics. In 1916, using an intelligence test created by a Dr. Binet of Stanford University, eugenic activist Lewis Terman devised a simple way to score an individual. By dividing mental age by chronological age and multiplying by 100, Terman created what he nicknamed “IQ” score, or “intelligence quotient.”
8. In 1917, as America entered WWI, eugenic psychologists devised an intelligence test for the armed forces known as the Army Alpha Test. Carl Brigham adapted the test as part of a college entrance exam. The College Board later asked Brigham to create another qualifying test for other colleges in the country. Eventually, Brigham’s efforts produced the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or the SAT.
9. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg of Battle Creek, Michigan served as a member of the state board of health and operated a sanitarium known for its unorthodox food regimens. He developed for his patients a natural product made of wheat flakes. In 1898 his brother, Will Kellogg, invented the corn flake and began selling it commercially through a company that would ultimately become the cereal behemoth the Kellogg Company. In the same year as the founding of the company, Dr. Kellogg founded the Race Betterment Foundation to help stop the “propagation of defectives.”
10. President Theodore Roosevelt long held eugenic views. After he left office, he wrote Charles Davenport, the man considered the father of the American eugenic movement, and said:
Society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind. Some day, we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty, of the good citizen of the right type, is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.
Such a statement certainly takes the old snarky phrase “white man’s burden” a step further.
11. Virginia may be “for lovers” these days, but shortly after WWI, the state was well known for sweeping its social outcasts into homes for the feebleminded and epileptic. While those two terms meant virtually the same thing in practice, they also equaled another kind of diagnosis: shiftlessness. Shiftlessness, a term that could easily be applied from unruly boys to legitimate mental patients, generally meant “worthless” or “unattached in life.”
12. On May 2, 1927, with only one justice dissenting, the Supreme Court officially sanctioned eugenic sterilization in the case of Buck v. Bell. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a man revered throughout the nation as a voice of reason and justice, wrote the opinion for the majority that could have sprung from the Third Reich:
It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.
Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
13. The Beach Boys sang about the girls in California. The state is known for its pristine beaches and laid back populace. But the Golden State also is famous for something else: leading all states in the U.S. in eugenic sterilization. From 1907 to July of 1925, at least 4,636 sterilizations were performed. All mental patients and those deemed feebleminded were allowed to have their procreative powers removed. The threat of asexualization even included criminals found guilty of any crime three times, at the discretion of a consulting physician.
14. Although not wholly related to the eugenic movement, the birth control campaign as orchestrated by Margaret Sanger emerged from the conjoined spirits of women’s rights and population control. However, before the term “birth control” reached the American consciousness, it had many prior variations that included: voluntary parenthood, voluntary motherhood, the new motherhood, constructive generation, the new generation, Neo-Malthusianism, Family Limitation, Conscious Generation, population control, race control, and finally, birth rate control. It was only when someone suggested dropping the word “rate” from the previous term that “birth control” became the name of Sanger’s growing movement.
Is it any surprise that a campaign designed to eliminate the weakest within the population aborted so many undesirable names before finally choosing its correct moniker?
15. In its quest to find and identify anyone of mixed blood and separate them from those of pure, Nordic stock, the state of Virginia enacted the Racial Integrity Act on March 8, 1924. Falsely registering your race in the subsequent consensus and questionnaires was considered a felony and punishable by a year in prison.
16. Following the Racial Integrity Act, Virginia’s registrar encountered a problem. Some citizens of Indian descent were registering as white but actually had African ancestry in their genes as well. To remedy this intolerable snafu, the registrar devised used a highly scientific and accurate method to differentiate a person of Indian or African stock: a hair comb. Walter Plecker, health officer of Elizabeth City County, wrote of the comb solution, “If it passes through the hair of an applicant he is an Indian. If not, he is a negro.” If those Guinness Ad guys had been around when Plecker devised his comb strategy, they would have surely declared “Brilliant!”
17. America was not alone in the growing field of eugenics. Britain passed its own legislation against the “unfit” in the form of the Mental Deficiency Act of April, 1914. The Act defined four classes of undesirables: idiots, imbeciles, the feebleminded and moral defectives. If you had the misfortune of having a doctor identify you as any one of those, you could then be carted off to a special colony, sanitarium, or hospital designed to house your kind.
18. Switzerland passed its own eugenically spirited law in 1928 that targeted a poorly defined class of “unfit.” While concrete numbers have never been ascertained concerning Switzerland’s eugenic conduct, some estimates say that 90% of sterilization procedures were performed on women.
19. Norway had its own forced sterilization legislation on the books for 43 years. After passing a law legalizing it in 1934, it wasn’t until 1977 that the law was amended to make sterilization voluntary. In the interim, 41,000 operations we performed, with almost 75% done on women.
20. But even if you managed to escape Britain, Germany, and Norway, you still had Sweden to worry about. Known throughout the world for its mostly blonde-haired, blue-eyed populace, Sweden passed its own sterilization law in 1934 as well. Similar to laws in other countries at the time, the new law targeted pretty much anyone classified as having a mental illness or having mental defects in any way. It even targeted those who had an “anti-social way of life.” Again, as with Norway, the largest victim group was women, who suffered forced sterilization at the rates of 63% to 90% over their male counterparts. In all, over 63,000 government-approved sterilizations were performed on the “unfit” individuals who had the misfortune of living within Sweden’s borders.
21. George Bernard Shaw, the renowned Irish playwright who has the distinction of being the only person to receive both a Nobel Prize for Literature and an Oscar, was also a eugenic extremist. Speaking at London’s Eugenic Education Society in 1910, the scribe had this to say regarding the use of lethal gas chambers on the unfit:
A part of eugenics politics would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber. A great many people would have to be put out of existence, simply because it wastes other people’s time to look after them.
22. However, while lethal gas chambers weren’t employed on the weak until the rise of Nazi Germany, there were many instances of euthanasia performed by doctors of eugenic persuasion. On November 12, 1915, a woman named Anna Bollinger gave birth to a baby with severe intestinal abnormalities at German-American Hospital in Chicago. But rather than fighting to keep the baby alive, the hospital chief of staff, Dr. Harry Haiselden, decided it was not fundamentally worth saving. A friend of the mother’s pleaded for him to save the baby’s life, but Dr. Haiselden only laughed and said, “I’m afraid it might get well.” The baby died shortly thereafter. A health commission investigation later questioned the doctor for his decision, but he was ultimately exonerated of any wrongdoing and allowed to continue practicing.
23. Haiselden persisted in his eugenic euthanasia over the years, and justified it by declaring that public institutions used to house the unfit in effect acted as lethal chambers anyway. He secretly visited the Illinois Institution for the Feebleminded where he discovered that windows were left open to allow the flies to cover the patients, and the inmates were given milk from a herd of cattle infected with tuberculosis.
24. Eugenics has its own movie. In 1917, Hollywood produced The Black Stork, a story about a mismatched couple who are counseled by a doctor against having children. However, the couple become pregnant anyway and the woman gives birth to a defective child that she allows to die. The deceased baby’s spirit then ascends into the arms of Jesus Christ. Hailing it as a “eugenic love story” in publicity ads, the eugenic movement had its own propaganda film at last, and it promoted The Black Stork throughout the nation. It’s catch-phrase: “Kill Defectives, Save the Nation and See ‘The Black Stork.” Not quite “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World,” but close. Dr. Haiselden, then famous in eugenics circles for his baby-killing ways in Chicago, played himself as the doctor in the film.
25. Even during WWI the American eugenic movement strengthened its ties with Germany. The book credited with planting eugenics throughout Germany was Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race. Published in 1916, Grant’s tome asserted that the white Nordic race was destined to rule the planet. It inspired thousands of German scientists, allowing them to mask their already racist feelings under the guise of objective science. It also galvanized the country’s future dictator, Adolf Hitler.
26. Not content to produce books and films extolling the virtues of eugenics, followers of the new pseudoscience in Germany introduced a series a race cards in 1927. Coming ten in a package just like baseball cards today, the cards profiled every racial variation from the Tamils of India to the Baskirs of the Ural Mountains.
27. Eugenic sterilizations began literally the moment Hitler assumed power in Germany. Starting on January 1, 1934, the Reich Interior Ministry’s eugenic expert declared that children as young as ten and men over the age of fifty were all able targets for the scalpel. Quickly, this mass program became known as Hitlerschnitte, or “Hitler’s cut.” In the first year alone, at least 56,000 Germans were sterilized, or almost 1 out of 1200 citizens.
28. While Germany savaged Poland in the beginning of the Second World War, the Reich also committed euthanasia against elderly German citizens to conserve its valuable wartime resources. Starting in 1940, between 50,000 and 100,000 Germans were taken from old age homes, mental institutions, and other places and exterminated in gas chambers.
29. Dr. Edwin Katzen-Ellenbogen presided over the extermination practices at the concentration camp Buchenwald. He was also a founding member of the Eugenics Research Association and chief eugenicist of New Jersey under then-governor Woodrow Wilson.
30. The rare brain disease Hallervorden-Spatz Syndrome is named after two Nazi doctors who discovered the condition in 1922.
31. For years one of eugenics greatest crusaders, Harry Hamilton Laughlin, fought to sterilize the feebleminded and people diagnosed with epilepsy. He was well known for believing that people with epilepsy did not belong in society. Laughlin was also known among colleagues for his occasional seizures. It turned out the doctor kept a tightly held secret for most of his life: Harry Laughlin, the attacker of the “unfit” and eugenic co-founder, himself had epilepsy.
32. Even though they have not been used for years, eugenic sterilization laws are still officially on the books in North Carolina. Chapter 35, Article 7 permits the state to perform them for moral as well as medical improvement.
33. Despite post-war Germany denouncing its Nazi past, investigators discovered that some universities still house body parts taken from prisoners used in eugenic experiments and later killed in concentration camps. The University of Vienna’s Institute of Neurobiology still houses four hundred Holocaust victim’s brains. In addition, tissue samples and skeletons have also been found in Tubingen and Heidelberg.
Black also wrote IBM and the Holocaust, and his book on eugenics is equally profound and revealing. I derived virtually all my data in the above article from his book, but what I’ve written only scratches the surface of the wealth of information contained in War Against the Weak.
For a sampling of more diversified resources, the Wikipedia page on eugenics stands as a doorway to many informative sites and archives.
My novel Nemesis, a psychological thriller, is now available on Amazon.