Cacogenic Cartographies: Space and Place in the Eugenic Family Study


I’ve got a new article out in the Journal of the History of Biology. It’s an historiographical re-examination of the eugenic family studies which were so critical to moving eugenics into mainstream cultural and thinking, with a specific focus on space and place as analytical frameworks.


Though only one component product of the larger eugenics movement, the eugenic family study proved to be, by far, its most potent ideological tool. The Kallikak Family, for instance, went through eight editions between 1913 and 1931. This essay argues that the current scholarship has missed important ways that the architects of the eugenic family studies theorized and described the subjects of their investigation. Using one sparsely interrogated work (sociologist Frank Wilson Blackmar’s “The Smoky Pilgrims”) and one previously unknown eugenic family study (biologist Frank Gary Brooks’ untitled analysis of the flood-zone Oklahomans) from the Southern Plains, this essay aims to introduce “environment” as a schema that allows for how the subjects of the eugenic family study were conceptualized with respect to their surroundings. Geospatially and environmentally relevant constructions of scientific knowledge were central to the project of eugenics during its formative years, but remain largely and conspicuously absent from the critical literature which engages this project to separate the fit from the unfit in American society. The dysgenic constituted a unique human geography, giving us significant insight into how concatenations of jurisprudence as well as cultural and social worth were tied to the land.


Eugenics; Family studies; Environment; Heredity; Human geography

You can read the whole essay here: marcattilio-mccracken-cacogenic-cartographies-2016:
Update, 11/2/16: The essay suggests that such studies which make use of environmentally relevant frameworks probably abound, if we but take the time to look. Here are two more.
It should also be pointed out that projects of this sort align well with the nascent field of critical cartography and the attendant matrices of spatial citizenship.

The Stubborn Little Eugenics Pamphlet That Wouldn’t Die


One of the fallacies perpetrated by the age of digitization is that anything worth scanning into an online database already has been. This is, of course, laughable. Even the most well-funded research libraries (or should I say, particularly the most well-funded research libraries) have cubic fathoms of storage space taken up by the superfluous, the redundant, the extant, and the strange. Ask any historian who’s done sustained archival research about the weirdest thing s/he has seen and you’ll get a good story. Probably it won’t even be related to the kind of work s/he does, but something stumbled upon by accident. Archival research is in many ways a weird endeavor–its feels like going through somebody’s mail in a way, even though you know the box in front of you was donated expressly for those who come after to try and make some sense of that which came before. We are so often the poorest judges of the lives we lead.

I’ve come across plenty of strange stuff, both of the why-the-hell-would-someone-keep-this and the what-in-the-name-of-Zeus-is-this variety. Electrician repair bills from the late 1920s with line items that compel me to believe said house burned down shortly thereafter, strange pictures of animals or vistas with no accompanying context or explanation, written ephemera that is both bizarre and disturbing. That kind of thing. Inevitably it makes me wonder what kind of picture would emerge of my life if all someone had was a dozen boxes of the stuff that defined my life in all its intention, abstraction, and banality.

The pamphlet pictured above is neither of the former, but of a different class of material culture history. Despite little evidence of a measurable market–academic or otherwise– and the de-legitimization of its premises by both genetics and changing cultural norms, it simply refused to go away. A testament to that fact is that its author, Kansas-born artist Corydon Granger Snyder, self-published 8 editions between 1928 and 1952.

Most of the time, anthropometry is discussed as a late-nineteenth or early twentieth-century phenomenon with perhaps its best-known footprints laid in craniometry, phrenology, and criminology, though it remained a practice with a far longer arm across the world than is commonly acknowledged even by historians of science and medicine (chronologically, intellectually, and institutionally). Snyder’s little text is proof of an incarnation which remained intimately bound with another scientific bogeyman of the first half of the twentieth century: eugenics.

Split into roughly halves, the first section of the text above sets the foundation for the second and proposes three roughly discrete but interlocking projects to be undertaken: first, that there exists an objective, quantifiable, and universally valid notion of beauty; second, that society can, and should, strive to increase its number of beautiful people and (its inevitable corollary) decrease the number of “homely” people; and third and finally, that the mechanism by which to achieve this project exists if we combine the aesthetic and tools of classical art and those of the science of genetics.

To effect greater numbers of the beautiful, regular, and proportional continues in the 1952 edition the motivation behind the first edition of the text, and is expressed in its original 1928 title: Beautiful Children from Homely Parents: If They Are Opposites (1928). It also serves as a bridge to the dual problems, in Snyder’s estimation, that his project solves: first, one which provides a systematic and authoritative exploration of beauty as it relates to type, and both as they impact reproduction. Throughout the course of the pamphlet is becomes abundantly clear that his underlying concern also engages the eugenic impulse and thus places Art and Human Genetics next to other neo-eugenic Malthusian treatises of the postwar era (like Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet and William Vogt’s Road to Survival, both published in 1948). Just one excerpt that demonstrates this comes midway through:

It is hardly desirable in this day and age to breed a race of giants. In fact it has been stated by scientists that in the not far distant future it may be necessary to breed a smaller race in order to offset the fast diminishing food supply. It is to be hoped, however, that before that time we have a rational birth control.


Eugenics–even more than most intellectual movements–was polysemic its heyday; following it into the postwar world demonstrates how adaptable ontologies of hereditary worth which confound simple chronological, disciplinary, and rhetorical categorization really were.

The casual reading might erroneously suggest that, despite half its title, in fact there is little genetics contained within. There is no discussion of genetic mutation, alleles, or population statistics. But a closer look reveals that Snyder in fact remains very much concerned with the particulars of how genetics might be marshalled to improve the human race. Four short quotations illustrate this. On regression towards a mean, he writes:

In writings on eugenics a great deal has been said regarding height, color of hair and eyes, but little on the feature and nothing on the possibility of opposite extremes equalizing the features and creating a normal type in their offspring.

Again on regression, as a caption to profile sketches of a nuclear family with three children, he asserts (capitalization in original):

When EACH of the parents has one or more IRREGULAR features, but which are OPPOSITE to each other’s, the children will have features that are more nearly REGULAR than either of the parents.

One more time on regression, but with some injection of Mendelian inheritance:

Coming back again to the matter of facial proportions, let us first consider the fact that the children of parents having opposite extremes in features may quite closely resemble one of the parents. The chances are that at least one in three will. Nevertheless, there will be some correction towards the regular type of features. And in another generation, care in respect to any objectionable feature will remove it entirely as a family tendency.

Lastly, a clearer formulation of Mendelian inheritance, from the standpoint of art:

When one parent has REGULAR features, and the other parent has ONE or more IRREGULAR features, the children will all resemble the IRREGULAR FEATURED parent. This is because the REGULAR FEATURED parent is really a NEUTRAL, and has little or no effect in modifying the IRREGULAR features of the other parent.

Snyder’s terminology here is easily translatable to the realm of genetics, with “neutral” indicating a heterozygous parent (with one dominant and one recessive gene), and “regular” and “irregular” indicating pure recessive and dominant homozygosity, respectively. It appears that “irregularity” is the dominant trait for Snyder, for even one irregular feature dooms the next generation to the same irregularity of features. The text itself is bracketed by diagrams showing the measuring of heads, and the second half of Art

It might seem to some that Art and Human Genetics is nothing more than a peculiarly archaic but ultimately harmless pamphlet, the work of a self-employed artist at the twilight of his career feeling left behind in the modern world. But what lies behind this seemingly nostalgic but facile treatment of opposite types and marital compatibility is in actuality nothing less than an attempt to unearth the racial typology of physical anthropology, phrenology, and their far more insidious progeny: eugenics.

And so tracing individuals like Snyder after World War Two allows us to follow eugenic notions and arguments with a flashlight as they scurried to inhabit new disciplinary frameworks and discourses in the post-WWI world. To say eugenics in America after 1945 existed as a shadow of its former self is both far from and tantalizingly close to the truth; it would be far more accurate to say postwar eugenics existed as shadows of its former self, conspecific incarnations which broke off to occupy new intellectual and cultural spaces. The move was painful, cladogenetic, and rife with the ghosts (both literally and figuratively) of the past. But eugenics was a powerful idea. And ideas, unlike life, are not so easily destroyed.

Exorcising the Demons of our Past: Why Eugenics Wasn’t What You Think It Was, and Why That Matters

Science of human perfection

BOOK REVIEW: Comfort, Nathaniel. The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

With for-profit companies offering genetic testing at prices approaching the commercially viable for the first time since the sequencing of the human genome ($1,000), eugenics as a topic of discussion in academic circles and in the popular news cycle alike will increase dramatically in frequency over the course of the next decade. In fact, it will likely be one of the conversational signposts of the twenty first century.  Designer babies, three-parent children, genomic medical therapeutics, and the stubborn persistence of racism and poor arguments disguised as science, like an eye booger clinging crustily on and just generally being a pain in the ass for everyone.

What was eugenics? For those unfamiliar, eugenics was a wildly popular scientific, cultural, social, and political movement in America (most popular) during the first half of the twentieth century. Spurred by advances in genetics after the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s famous work with pea plants in 1900, it developed simultaneously to medical genetics (i.e. using knowledge about genes to improve medical care). Both stretch all the way back to the beginning of the twentieth century (though most histories of medical genetics really begin in the 1950s).

So eugenics developed alongside humanity’s first stumbling investigations about what, how, and why traits get passed along from generation to generation. Eye color, physical build, demeanor, mental ability, susceptibility to disease—these are the types of qualities a new breed of scientists called geneticists initially sought out in the base material responsible for the direction taken by human evolution. Naturally, many quickly (and early on) suggested that now that humanity had access to the “germ plasm” (as they called DNA, which wouldn’t be discovered until the 1920s) we could take a conscious hand in directing the future of human evolution.

What does this have to do with Nathaniel Comfort’s Science of Human Perfection? Everything! This book is an attempt by Comfort, an historian of genetics and medicine at Johns Hopkins University, to do two things: 1) recover the thread of “medical genetics” from the history of eugenics, and 2) Demonstrate how the larger eugenics movement, reviled in the popular mind as the twisted progeny of the Nazis unleashed upon Europe’s non-Aryan ethnicities, was in fact a far more complex phenomena that, at its heart, was about “human improvement and the relief of suffering” (x). Now “human improvement” sounds an awful lot like the superman programs of the Third Reich, but, as Comfort shows clearly, the larger aim of the movement saw “improvement” as eliminating disease, inherited disorders, as well as increased intelligence and a stronger constitution.

Comfort traces this thread of medical genetics as it gradually thickened from 1910-1930. He notes the abandonment of most geneticists of eugenics by the 1930s as two obstacles appeared: first, the complexity of designing reliable experiments that could account for the complicated milieu going on inside the “germ plasm” as it was affected by environment (this is the classic nature vs. nurture dichotomy), and second, the ethical boundaries to carrying out those experiments on human beings. Instead, scientists like Michael F. Guyer at places like the University of Wisconsin occupied themselves with mice, fruit flies, and corn.

During this process, Comfort introduces another welcome formulation of distinguishing the strands of eugenic thought: Galtonian vs. Garrodian. The former settles its gaze on the population, whilst the latter emphasizes the individual. This opens up a whole new framework for understanding American eugenics that moves beyond the positive-negative dichotomy and adds nuance without sacrificing the accomplishments of previous scholarship.

Comfort follows the narrative into the 1950s and the advent of heredity clinics (which we still have today in the form of marriage counseling as it pertains to heredity), and shows how geneticists, with the onset of the Cold War and worries about the effects of radiation on the human genome, and also now bolstered by a quarter century of advances in knowledge and technique, re-approached medical genetics in the 1950s. There, The Science of Human Perfection ends.

This is a monograph that is, importantly, thoroughly researched and convincingly argued. Despite seeing increasing popularity in the scholarship during the last twenty years or so, eugenics still remains something of the bastard stepchild of history of science in academia. To blame this trend solely on the uncomfortableness the subject tends to engender (being tied so closely with the (bio-)political) seems to come, at least in part, from a public that wishes to forget the United States ever had an active movement for forced sterilization  and a larger history of science community of scholars who have gone along with that. At the same time, this is something of a copout and a cliché all at once. American eugenics was not Nazi eugenics: in intellectual grounding, structure (both in terms of the individuals proponents and organization), praxis, or even mostly time. And the threads of American eugenics, as we can see in Comfort’s excellent treatment (and elsewhere), certainly didn’t die with Hitler in that underground bunker in April of 1945. Comfort, thankfully, elaborates with nuance and persuasiveness on both realities.

Even more welcome by those of us in the history of science who are too used to slogging through interminably boring prose, is that The Science of Human Perfection is incredibly well-written.Comfort has a wonderful way with words, and an ability to render primary sources into a compelling narrative. It is, aside from being one of the more important revisions of the historical literature on eugenics, one of the best-written studies in any sub-discipline of history I have had the pleasure of reading.

For anyone interested, Comfort runs the excellent Genotopia over at scienceblogs.

Hill Folk and Hereditary Pauperism: The Eugenic Family Study


Numbers are seductive to us all, alluring, like the aroma of a fine (organically grown and fairly traded) coffee. They whisper promises of clarity in our ears. Easy solutions to complex problems are likewise appealing and easily sold to a public who, while its individual members are capable of critical thinking and sacrifice, collectively believe any burden at all in the name of the greater good is a burden too much. And new methodological tools and frameworks are like powdered alcohol to academics (especially those looking to professionalize and legitimize a new discipline)—easily transported, flexible, and everyone wants to be a dealer and corner the market.

Add these individual ingredients together in a world all of a sudden uncomfortably crowded, shrinking, apparently degenerate, and confusingly modern, and you get a monumentally potent tool that would, eventually, usher in American eugenics: the family study.

The eugenic family study has its roots in a genealogical report done by Richard Dugdale in The Jukes: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity (1877), which I won’t regurgitate at length here because Wikipedia exists. In any case, what it was is far less important than what it suggested for future generations of social scientists—that one’s familial line was an accurate predictor of intelligence, success, indigence, and criminality. The more palatable offshoot of this brand of progressivism was, of course, the “fitter family” contests of the first quarter of the twentieth century.


These family studies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries located specific familial clans (like the pseudonymously named Jukes or the Kallikaks or the Nams or the Zeros) and attempted to trace their lineage and prove that imbeciles and criminals reproduced in proportionally greater numbers more imbeciles and criminals. Funded by organizations like the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor, and either submitted to state review boards or, in a couple of cases, published by philanthropists and eugenicists like John D. Rockefeller, these eugenic family studies were powerful artifacts of a cultural ethos. They were birthed by those taking part in a countermovement to public welfare reform in the United States, the latter of which itself had been stimulated by a public worried by the excesses of unregulated capitalism in what Twain called the “Gilded Age.”

Coetaneously, the eugenic family studies were a driving force in their own right. Proliferating between 1890 and 1924, they were read, cited, and built upon by prominent eugenicists in their efforts to maximize reproduction of the fit and reduce procreation of those deemed “feebleminded.” As such they were part of a much larger ideological and political stance, which in no small part stressed the burden on the state of families of these “degenerates.” They were no less than scientifically-sanctioned statements of bloodline worth, ontologies of heredity which would have much wider implications in decades to come.


But they were also something more, and served yet another purpose that heavily influenced their methodology, content, and scope. Because the investigators who undertook these projects—going into the countryside and seeking out the poor in rural areas and pestering them with questions about their immediate and extended families—were themselves preoccupied with privileging a merit-based hierarchy where mental capacity was equated with genetic worth (in order so that they could advance their own careers and reputations), the studies subsequently came to reflect and validate the ambitions of middle-class professionals who emerged to fill this new niche of social control in a culturally tumultuous time.


How popular did they become? Nathaniel Comfort offers a nice pithy summation for us:

“The ERO [Eugenics Records Office] introduced a novel and durable method of collecting human genetics data. Elaborating on [Francis] Galton’s idea of the eugenics ‘record,’ [Charles] Davenport developed a questionnaire of the type Galton used. But instead of marching people though his kiosk one by one, Davenport used mass-mailing, and, most effectively, ‘fieldworkers’ to collect data. The fieldworkers—more than 250 of them between 1910 and 1924—were mostly young women, many of them nursing students form the New York City area . . . [t]rainees spent a summer in Cold Spring Harbor, where their received twenty-five lectures encompassing interview methods, construction of pedigrees, and the elements of statistics and biometry. The young women then went out in the field for a year, where they catalogued and documented the hereditary patterns of the diseased and insane. The data were recorded three-by-five-inch cards and stored in a fireproof vault back at Cold Spring Harbor. By 1924, fieldworkers had filled out and filed 750,000 cards.”[1]

The result is that they helped grease the wheels for American eugenics with a potency long forgotten by high-school history textbooks, a movement which resulted in the sterilization of over 63,000 individuals between 1907 and 1964.

The general consensus is that the eugenic family studies died a justifiable death by the early 1920s, succumbing to advances in genetics which ate at the crumbling foundations of easy, simplistic biological determinism. And yet, polemics invested in the notion of races and classes of hereditary worth have been with us ever since.


Further reading

Dugdale, Richard. The Jukes. New York: Putnam, 1877. Link to full text via

Estabrook, Arthur Howard. The Jukes in 1915.Washington: Carnegie Institution, 1915. Link to full text via 

Comfort, Nathaniel. The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Rafter, Nicole Hahn. Creating Born Criminals. Urbana-Champagne: Illinois University Press, 1998.

—. White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies, 1877-1919. Boston:   Northeastern University Press, 1988.

Smith, J. David and Michael Wehmeyer, Good Blood, Bad Blood: Science, Nature, and the Myth of the Kallikaks. Washington: American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 2012.


*Image 1: The Jukes, ca. 1910, by Arthur Estabrook

**Image 2: State expenses for maintaining the socially inadequate classes, Eugenical News, 1916.

***Image 3: medium family winner, fitter family contest at the Kansas Free Fair, 1927.

****Image 4: ERO data collected by Miss Devitt in Oklahoma in May and November, 1915.


[1] Comfort, The Science of Human Perfection, 40.

“Perverts, obstreperous, fighters, or near degenerates,” and “I don’t believe any girl was sterilized who was fit for motherhood”: American Eugenics as Genocide



So the other day I was doing what all dissertating graduate students in the humanities (read = those of us staring unemployment in the face with little prospect of anything but a VAP for the first three years) do: sorting through an infinity of symposia posts and CFPs for conferences and book chapters, looking for anything that remotely matches what it is we do, so that we can yet again write some words for free in the hopes of adding yet one more line to the old curriculum vita. Someday I’d like to do a survey of graduate students and see if I can’t pin down the average cost/line of a humanities’ vita (in both time and money), though perhaps not because I’m pretty sure it would be horrifying.

But I digress. If nothing else, this process keeps us sharp: we get all sorts of practice re-thinking and re-framing what it is we do, or think we do, and that can help when some philosophy of ethics professor emeritus has nothing better to do but show up at one of your conference talks and asks how you think moral nihilism can inform your arguments about violence, or what R.M. Hare would say about the state legislating the body in the name of public healthcare for the greater good.

So I ran across a call for chapters in a new edited collection titled something like An Anthology of Genocide: Women. It used the following as a way to begin the discussion about genocide:

Our approach is a four point comparative framework derived from earlier Holocaust studies (Ofer and Weitzman 1998) that examines (1) the impact of culturally defined roles of women; (2) women’s “anticipatory reactions,” not just in the sense of what perpetrators would do to men, but to women as well. In examining anticipatory reactions, we explore women’s political and social awareness as the genocidal process unfolds; (3) the extent that women were treated differently than men; and (4) their reactions and processes as women to the physical and emotional circumstances of experiencing genocide.

Eugenics hits on every one of these points. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more ridiculous it seemed that I hadn’t written anything about it. After all, even though they came from very different intellectual places, Nazi eugenics (definitely a genocide) and American eugenics didn’t look all that different to the people getting sterilized (which the Nazis started with before moving on to murder). The Nazis targeted Jews and gypsies and homosexuals, and American eugenicists targeted the “feebleminded,” African Americans and American Indians, the indigent, and the insane.

So I wrote a proposal for a chapter, and I sent it in, and it’s been stuck a little in my mind ever since. Of course American eugenics was a genocide, but I’ve rarely seen that particular word used to describe it except in the really bad (for other reasons), polemical histories of eugenics (like War against the Weak, and Better for all the World). In fact, I think historians of American eugenics have been, to a certain degree, counter-programmed to avoid that connection. As if it were somehow incapable of being framed that way, as if it will obscure the narrative in some way, because no centralized state apparatus directed its activities under a specific ideology or schema. Which is, to my thinking, a limiting act. Taking “genocide” off the table eschews ways of interacting with the data and the narratives in an unhelpful way.

Because in fact, not all genocides are the same. Not all genocides make international headlines, spawn sprawling legal tribunals, or shape the popular consciousness of subsequent generations (how many of your friends who didn’t go to graduate school in the humanities have heard of eugenics?). In fact sometimes genocide, or something very much like it, can hide in plain sight, adumbrated, tentative outlines the only evidence it ever existed. American eugenics remains the perfect example of this type of genocide. From 1907-1960, more than sixty-three thousand individuals were forcibly sterilized in mental facilities, reform schools, prisons, and health clinics in the United States.

American eugenics remains a potent example of genocide because those official sixty-three thousand sterilized were accompanied by thousands, and ultimately unknowably more, for whom records were purposefully obscured, lost, or altered. American eugenics serves as an example of genocide not for stealing the lives of the current generation, but for terminating a priori the lives of the next. The creation of ontological markers of hereditary worth, the complicity of scientific apparatuses and epistemologies, the cooperation and collaboration of neighbors, professionals, and even the victims themselves—all of these activities and processes mark the discourse and praxis of American eugenics.

eugenics as genocide


I think that we need to push the operative boundaries of genocide theory in order to return vocality to the individuals persecuted by the apparatuses of the American state. Letters from victims, newspaper coverage, and institutional correspondence; these are the doors and windows into American eugenics, and it remains one of the most compelling narratives of biopower and genocide in the twentieth century. Rebecca M. Kluchin has written about the difficulty in histories of eugenics in “locating the voices of the sterilized.”[1] Recovering those voices reveals that men women underwent radical transformations in self-identity as fathers and husbands, wives and mothers, and citizens. Their reactions to being forcibly sterilized were manifold, in accordance with the experiences they underwent not only in the physical (before, on the operating table, and after) but emotional realms as well. Sometimes they understood what was being done to them, and why, but most of the time they did not.

The history of American eugenics has been elided, which is a grave disservice to its people, despite and perhaps especially because of its connection with that most famous example of genocide under the Third Reich, and its own resemblance to other genocides throughout history. So let’s see what happens when we talk about it in that way. A little more American humility, and a little less smugness, would do us all good.

letters from beloit


[1] Rebecca M. Kluchin, “Locating the Voices of the Sterilized,” The Public Historian 29, no. 3 (Summer 2007): 131-144.

*Image one: Sterilization table, 1937.

**Image two: Eugenic sterilizations by state, 1935.

***Image three: Excerpt from Beloit, Kansas, State Industrial Girls School, where between September 1935 and March 1937 62 girls were forcibly sterilized as a punitive measure under Kansas’ eugenic sterilization law.

One Way American and Nazi Eugenics Were Pretty Much the Same

us and nazi eugenics

One of the problems the literature on the history of eugenics as a whole has is that it has a tendency to want to forget the ways American eugenics was like Nazi eugenics. It gets hidden in explorations of specific socio-cultural products or institutional aspects of the eugenics movement, or from (justified) theoretical and methodological attacks on legitimately bad histories of eugenics (like War Against the Weak or Better for all the World). It even comes from a desire to acknowledge all the ways American eugenics was like Nazi eugenics, but excavates those processes, impulses, and trends which are unique to the American experience.

Now, to be clear from the beginning: Nazi eugenics and American eugenics did spring from largely different intellectual, cultural, social, and political circumstances. But the fact of the matter is, at least 63,000 (officially, and likely many, many more) individuals were sterilized by the state in America during the twentieth century. Thus I’d like to take the eugenics movement as it operated for a large proportion of a particular profession (medical practitioners), and see where it takes us. What we’ll see is that there are some striking similarities between American and Nazi eugenics that are not so easily forgotten. Perhaps the most visible of these is the central role doctors, physicians, and other medical practitioners played in the sterilization of thousands upon thousands of “unfit” people.

United States

The eugenics movement arrived in the United States in 1907 (when the first compulsory sterilization law was enacted in Indiana) and remained a potent force until its slow decline and transformation beginning in the late 1930s. Whereas we will see below that, in Nazi Germany, eugenics enjoyed critical scientific and institutional support from medical scientists and physicians both as front-line practitioners and experimenters as well as ethical justification by medical bureaucrats, in the United States this was not the case. While at its apex in the early 1930s some thirty two states had enacted eugenic sterilization laws, the movement in the United States is characterized best as having had a diffused, decentralized, and multifaceted nature. There is no doubt that many physicians and medical practitioners in the United States were eugenicists. But what is equally certain is that, for the most part, the America eugenics movement from 1907-1945 remained, both in quality and quantity, composed of politicians, non-medical scientists (ichthyologists, entomologists, biologists, sociologists, paleontologists), and bureaucrats far more than physicians and other medical practitioners.

The qualification to this is in direct settings where both forced and voluntary sterilizations did take place in the United States—some 21,000 by 1935 and 64,000 by 1960, by most estimates—and that was the prison ward and the mental hospital. Leading the charge were California, with the most involuntary sterilizations during the period in question, and Virginia, with the second most.

So who were the medical practitioners central to the American movement?

Physicians in mental hospitals and prisons: Plenty of historians have looked at the history of the vasectomy and the salpingectomy, the rise of eugenic sterilization laws, the debate at the legislative level over both the desirability and parameters of such laws, the legislative debate surrounding them, and the differences that existed between the various states when it came to implementing and sustaining involuntary sterilization of citizens.They show that medical practitioners argued for greater degrees of eugenic sterilization not only in the Eugenical News (the leading forum at the national level), but alsothe discussions at the local level by physicians at mental hospitals in Ohio, Maine, Virginia, Minnesota, North Carolina, and, of course, California,

Psychiatrists: Other historians have shown how psychiatrists as a group of professionals fighting for validation and legitimization in an environment where they were uniquely predisposed to assimilate ideas about the heritability of defective characteristics advanced eugenic ideas. Indeed, at the same time that they were facing pressure from politicians and the federal government to modernize and standardize as a scientific discipline, psychiatrists participated in the public eugenics debate both in Canada and the United States. By looking at patient court cases at mental hospitals and state asylums, national legislation, and internal debates among the rank of file of psychiatry in varied places like New York, California, Rhode Island, Mississippi, and Toronto, we can get a valuable look at how an emerging discipline navigates the waters of an often murky and ambiguous scientific endeavor.

A change in the air: Reform Eugenics: Beginning in the mid-1930s, the emergence of a new, more sophisticated genetics brought with it a “reform eugenics,” which at once recognized the perverted state the eugenics movement lay in at that moment, but still sought after the original Galton vision of a humanity free from its pernicious biology by excising the identifiably genetically unfit. This is evidenced by the fact that the Third International Congress of Eugenics, held in New York in 1932, saw an attendance of only about a hundred people. Reflecting the developments of nearly half a century of experimentation and theorizing, by this time genetics had begun to inform the movement and change its nature.

It can be marked particularly by the publication of a 1936 report by a committee of the American Neurological Association, itself a strong opponent of eugenics throughout the entirety of its existence in the United States. Headed by prominent Boston psychiatrist Abraham Myerson, and drawing upon independent conclusions as well as the findings of the Brock committee report, this group found no sound scientific basis for sterilization on account of immorality or character defect. Human conduct and character are matters of too complex a nature, too interwoven with social conditions, to permit any definite conclusions to be drawn concerning the part which heredity plays in their genesis.

This change was reified primarily in the makeup of the eugenics movement as well as a slight shift to its message. In the case of the former, it meant that medical professionals became the new spokespeople, albeit of a eugenics that was far less oppressive, naïve, confident, and involuntary than before. For some diseases, like Huntington’s chorea, it was clear that dominant genetic traits were indeed often passed from parent to offspring. In such cases, physicians from the mid-1930s on took it upon themselves to present such evidence to parents and suggest the outcome of carrying a pregnancy to term—but leave the ultimate decision to them. In the case of most other conditions, doctors began to conclude that genetic traits were, at best, only indices of a range of phenotypic presentations that were determined equally by environment—both external (what we would normally think of in the nature vs. nurture debate) and genetic (in terms of the chromosomal milieu that connected specific genes to each other).


It may surprise you to learn that the eugenics movement in Germany was not the sole creation of Hitler or the Nationalist Socialist regime. In fact, it officially began there earlier than in the United States, with the Society for Racial Hygiene coalescing in Berlin in 1905. Yet during its first two and a half decades of existence, the movement had trouble securing legitimacy and garnering a widespread following before the early 1930s. On July 14th, 1933, the Law for the Prevention of Progeny of Sufferers from Hereditary Disease was approved, and allowed (just like its American counterparts) for the sterilization of the feebleminded, schizophrenic, manic-depressive, epileptic, blind, and deaf, among a plethora of others. This law also set up the foundation for the emergence of the “eugenic courts” which oversaw all cases prosecuted by the state with the aim of involuntary sterilization. Relatively quickly, though not exclusively, eugenic sterilization morphed into the Holocaust. This is the defining feature of Nazi eugenics, and the principal way it differed from American eugenics. Both were perpetrated by medical practitioners, and grew from the notion that a portion of the population should be excised for the good of the gene pool. In Germany, as we will see, they just took it to the next logical step and eliminated the “unfit” instead of just sterilizing them.

Generally in looking at Hadamar, Treblinka, and Auschwitz, historians of eugenics in Germany have argued that physicians in Nazi Germany who killed were, just like any other professional, primarily motivated by a desire to raise their income, advance their careers, and benefit from the social advancement that came with participating in an ideological framework which placed them at the top of the food chain. The Nazi eugenic program was directed by the Chancellery of the Fuhrer in conjunction with the Health Department of the Reich Ministry of the Interior. In other words—it enjoyed a far more centralized, codified, and unified apparatus and voice. It came in two flavors: the euthanizing and sterilization of the disabled and terminally ill in hospitals by primarily physicians and medical practitioners, and the mass murder in the concentration camps by Nazi officers under the direction and advisement of physicians and medical practitioners.

Killing Wards: Doctors (both the newly licensed and the old), nurses, and aides all participated in this killing program. From 26 cities across Germany, caravans of the disabled and unwanted arrived at such hospitals, usually at night. Patients were not always killed outright; in fact, many of the T4 sites used more indirect (though no less fatal) methods of killing. For instance, doctors there made extensive use of the sedatives luminal and veronal, which if given in sufficient doses caused pneumonia and death within two to three days. At the same time, children 1-5 years old were murdered by way of slowly reducing their caloric intake until, over the course of several days, they starved to death. After 1941, Hitler ordered this process, which was initially centralized, altered as publicity and propaganda campaigns began to reveal the scope and mechanisms of the T4 killings. Hitler ordered the practices slightly changed and the hospitals decentralized to the countryside to avoid further publicity, and thereafter the T4 killings were characterized by a “wild euthanasia” which saw individual medical practitioners decide who lived and died with much less oversight and much more arbitrariness than before. The troublesome, irritating, sexually prolific, indigent and ill were all killed with equal equanimity.

T4 Centers and Concentration Camps: Notable names: Friedrich Mennecke (Eichberg), Imfried Eberl (Treblinka), Friedrich Entress (Auschwitz). Beginning as a location for the killing of disabled adults, the T4 killings (marked by designation 14f13) were expanded beginning in the winter of 1939-40 and beginning in late 1941 what would come to be known as the concentration camp genocide. Physicians and medical practitioners played a critical role in these activities. Some physicians (in fact, 7% of all physicians in Germany during the era, far above any other professional group) served in the SS in the camps themselves and made preliminary “special selections” that were then confirmed by other doctors after. Doctors inspected the forms of incoming unwanteds, made camp selections, oversaw the dispersal of gas, pronounced the death of those murdered, and subsequently wrote their death certificates. At the same time, 33% of all physicians were members of the Nazi Physicians League, the Nationalist Socialist arm which targeted doctors as part of its ideological agenda. 45% were members of the Nazi Party itself. This is compared to 25% for lawyers and 24% for teachers. Methods used included Zyklon B, and phenol injections to the heart

What did they get out of this? Physicians and medical practitioners enjoyed a myriad of benefits. They were named institutional director of regional hospitals; oversaw extensive and well-funded research programs (the most well-known is certainly Mengele, the most eugenically minded of these) which conducted experiments on the disabled and abled alike, as well as the old, the young, and twins; enjoyed the social status and increased pay of their position.

Concluding thoughts

From the point of view of the individual transported for sterilization, Germany and the United States in many respects would have looked very similar. Sterilization (or termination) would have been submitted or recommended by someone with medical experience. The sterilization (or euthanizing) procedure would have been approved by a doctor, or a group of doctors (the Board of Mental Health, for instance, in Kansas).  It would have been carried out by a doctor. Were American and Nazi eugenics exactly the same? Nope. They had different intellectual, sociocultural, and ideological roots. They happened under different auspices. But to the individual placed on the sterilizing (or killing) table, it didn’t matter. As historians who frequently get bound up in the larger questions driving historical inquiry, we’d do well to remember that.

The tl;dr version of this discussion is this: Doctors in the United States and Nazi Germany were absolutely crucial to the popularization and implementation of eugenic practices which stole bodily liberty from tens of thousands of people. But whereas in Germany these practices were sanctioned and directed by a more or less central state apparatus (encouraging dissenters to shut up or get out), in the United States there remained no unified federal control and no central voice or dogma, and so disagreement was allowed to propagate such that the public and professional winds of opinion changed by 1945. For the individuals sterilized, it didn’t matter though. They were getting sterilized in the name of some greater good either way.