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.

The Time Kansas Sterilized Sixty-Two Girls in a Rehabilitation School Over Eighteen Months (and almost twenty two others)

Flashing light sign at fitter family contests via APS archives

When most people hear that I study the American eugenics movement, their first question is “what the hell is that?”

So I say “You know how the Nazis went about rounding up millions of people and then either sterilized or murdered them because they weren’t the ‘right’ types of people?”

Then they’re usually all like “Oh yeah, some pretty redonk stuff going on back then. Glad this is ‘murica, where we didn’t do stuff like that.”

And then I say, in the condescending voice I’ve learned from being a student interacting with professors for nine years, “Actually, the United States sterilized over sixty thousand people during the twentieth century. Many of them before the July 14th, 1933 Law for the Prevention of Progeny of Sufferers from Hereditary Disease was approved in Germany under Hitler. In fact, the masterminds behind the German program enthusiastically credited American eugenicists for their development of eugenic ideas and practices. They gave one of the leading American eugenicists, Harry Laughlin, an honorary doctorate for it. Which he openly accepted.”

The truth is, eugenics was a powerful and persuasive force in the early twentieth century. It promised to allow the manipulation of the most basic “stuff” (what early eugenicists and geneticists called germ plasm) that, it seemed, governed our biological and perhaps even our mental lives. Early work in genetics, by accessing those realms and seemingly laying them bare for scientists and philosophers alike, appeared to have finally uncovered a blueprint for all human action and interaction, simultaneously opening a window to the past and offering a guide the future. It begot Social Darwinism, and was wildly popular in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century.

Thus a narrative of human history had appeared, driven by a biological engine (Darwinian) rather than one that was sociopolitical, economic, cultural, or technological (Lockean, Marxist, Goethe-esque, Veblenian, etc.) (In a word, this is why Darwin is such a big deal, still today). Crime, racial tensions, poverty, public health, war, overpopulation, interpersonal relations, and mental disease seemed for the first time solvable problems. Thus eugenics had at its disposal both a culturally pervasive ethos and a powerful vocabulary borrowed from a number of different social- and hard-scientific disciplines.

Kansas, in particular, finds itself in a somewhat unique position. In sterilizing 3,032 people by 1963 it catapulted its relatively low state population (twenty-ninth, nationally) to the number six spot in terms of sterilizations. In the 1930s, it was third in the nation in total sterilizations.

From another angle, if you lived in Kansas’ southern neighbor, Oklahoma, from 1935 to 1963, you had roughly a 1 in 4196 chance of being forcibly sterilized. If you lived in Kansas from 1913 to 1963, you had roughly a 1 in 718 chance of being sterilized. Men were sterilized at a higher rate than women in Kansas, at a ratio of about one and a half to one. When combined with Nebraska and Oklahoma, the southern plains region enjoys the dubious distinction of contributing roughly seven percent (4,490) of the total number of persons eugenically sterilized in the United States (~63,000). Kansas accounts for a full sixty-eight percent of those on the southern plains.

What does this have to do with the sixty-two girls sterilized in 1937? Kathryn O’Loughlin McCarthy was Kansas’ first elected female congressperson, and served from 1933-1935, during the heyday of eugenic sterilization in the United States. In 1937 she initiated a firestorm by accusing the Beloit Industrial Girls School of the cruel and “wholesale” use of sterilization against its inmates by the institution as a punitive measure.

Sixty-two of the one hundred forty eight girls in residence at Beloit had been sterilized over a period of eighteen months from September 1935-March 1937, a rate far higher than at any other point in the state’s history.

More than a third of its population.

After studying eugenics for the last four years, I can tell you that’s almost unheard of. But it gets more horrifying.

It was particularly unusual because Beloit was not a mental health facility, where most of the nation’s “unfit” were sterilized, nor was it a penal facility, where a majority of the remainder were. When the firestorm broke out in 1937, almost two dozen additional girls at Beloit were scheduled for “treatment.”

A former state representative, McCarthy had a record of social activism. It would be a casual exchange between then superintendent Blanche Peterson and McCarthy that introduced the latter to the politics of control that had existed under (previous superintendent) Lucy Coyner’s tenure:

“There’s been a change in this school since my last visit.” Mrs. McCarthy remarked [to Peterson]. “There seems to be a wonderful improvement in the morale of the inmates.” “Yes?” Mrs. Peterson was pleased. “And the next time you come to see us, I hope we’ll have better furnishings. For one thing, I hope to have that off the floor.” She pointed to a shabby rug. “I think we can buy some new rugs, now that we won’t have to spend so much money for operations.” “What operations?” asked the puzzled visitor. “I don’t understand.” “Come into the office. I think you will,” Mrs. Peterson told her. [1]

The vouchers Peterson showed McCarthy were for four thousand dollars-worth of eugenic sterilization operations performed on Beloit girls at the Women’s Prison Hospital in Lansing, just a short distance away. All were performed, at a cost of twenty-five dollars to the state of Kansas, by a Dr. Outland from Kansas City. In all, a full forty-two percent of the current population of Beloit (148 girls) had been sterilized during the period 1935-1937.

Access to detailed information about the sterilized, as is so often the case in histories of eugenics, remains difficult to come by. But we know a few details. Fifty percent of the eighth-grade graduates had been subjected to the procedure. Ten of the eighteen members of the orchestra. Of the sixty two sterilized, five had one ovary removed, and eight had both, regardless of their age (one of the latter was a nine year-old girl).

Wasserman test records show none of the girls had a venereal disease (a common justification for eugenic sterilizations in the United States). From its inception Beloit did not even admit girls with an IQ below fifty, another common rationalization, and certainly none of the official records show below-average intelligence as a justification for sterilization. Indeed, one set of records shows one of the girls who was sterilized had an IQ of 102, which is decidedly normal.

Further, Beloit was a juvenile rehabilitation center, not a prison or a mental facility. All this points to an incontrovertible truth, and one that would be revisited in coming weeks by everyone incensed by McCarthy’s revelations: eugenic sterilization wielded at Beloit as a preventative measure or punishment, whatever the legality with respect to state and federal law regarding imbecility or criminality, would not have applied.

The state board which approved the procedures went on the defensive, calling the girls who had been sterilized “perverts, obstreperous, fighters, or near degenerates.” “I don’t believe any girl was sterilized,” one member wrote to the newspaper, “who was fit for motherhood.” Others, however, attacked the wanton abuse of power the sterilizations represented.

How in the world was the system, albeit broken in the first place, abused in such a way? Legally, the primary trouble for the girls at Beloit stemmed wholly from the draconian nature of Kansas’ eugenic sterilization laws. Kansas passed its first eugenic sterilization law in 1913. Unlike its neighbors to the south and north, however, Kansas passed a revision in 1917 which eliminated both the need for court approval and the circumscribed the ability of those marked for sterilization to appeal via the court process. In Kansas after 1917, then, jurisdiction and decision-making authority over the girls’ bodies lay effectively in the hands of the superintendent of their institution and the (often sympathetic to the latter) state boards of examiners and probate courts. This effectively meant that there existed little recourse for those who were recommended to undergo the procedure.

The archives tell one particularly Machiavellian series of moves enacted with the express intent of stripping a girl deemed “undeserving” or “undesirable” of her motherhood:

[One] victim was a girl of high school age—one whose parents had died, and who had been sent to an orphanage at Atchison. She had reached the age when the orphanage no longer could keep her. She had no place to go. It was decided to send her to the Beloit school so she would have a home. But, to do that, it was necessary to charge her with incorrigibility. It was done. She had an intelligence quotient of 115, and a negative report on her Wasserman tests and slides. Yet, in June, 1936, that girl was transferred to the state penitentiary at Lansing and sterilized! No allegation or proof that the girl was a pervert or that she was immoral or insane was made. Her crime was that she was homeless, an orphan with no relatives to look after her interests and no kindly person to protect her. [2]

McCarthy’s challenge to the system was not in vain, though it did not result in any amendment of Kansas’ sterilization law as she had hoped. When famed journalist Albert Deutsch published his castigating account of the nation’s juvenile facilities, the miscarriage of justice at Beloit featured prominently.[3]

General conditions improved at Beloit, and subsequent annual reports show no further sterilizations at the facility through 1948. But the damage was done, at least for the girls for whom motherhood was forever denied to them. At the same time, those who were sterilized were socialized to feel shame, and hide what had been done to them. If one did speak out, he or she faced an uphill battle with little support (as an orphan) or delegitimizing ontological markers (like criminality, deviance, mental incompetence, or subalternity).

The sterilizations at Beloit between September 1935 and March 1937 were, like so many others across the country, about controlling not only the current generation’s body but all subsequent generations. Eugenics sought to excise the individual from the gene pool in the name of the greater good.

Almost ten years later, between 1944 and 1946, Lula B. Benton was superintendent of the State Industrial Girls’ School at Beloit. When confronted with the history of sterilization at Beloit by a journalist, she replied: “There is [currently] no sterilization program at the Kansas Girls’ Industrial school. No inmates have been sterilized in the last 10 years. I have a good many so-near-feeble-minded—I.Q. 71. In my opinion they should be sterilized. School for feeble-minded full up [sic]—I have to keep them and try to train them. When they leave here on paroles—as is bound to happen—they will breed more of the same or worse.”[4]

These “inmates,” the “them” Benton so comfortably un-names, are not so unlike the sixty three thousand other individuals sterilized in the United States during the twentieth century. Too often, we cannot recover their voices.

[1] Dan T. Kelliher, “Sterilization: The Unholy Horror of Lost Motherhood,” Front Page Detective, July, 1938: 27.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Albert Deutsch, Our Rejected Children (Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1950).

[4] Letter from Lula B. Benton to Albert Deutsch, reproduced in Topeka Journal, July 3, 1948.