Eugenics: A Historical Analysis
By Kevin Nilsson


According to Webster’s Dictionary, eugenics is defined as “the theory dealing with the production or treatment of a fine, healthy race.” Despite this seemingly innocent representation, eugenics is an extremely controversial science. Some even debate whether or not it is worthy of the label of science, or if it’s just a form of intellectual racism. Nevertheless, eugenics was greatly embraced and was behind a new scientific and social revolution during the late 19th century through the Second World War. In order to shed some light and allow for interpretation, the below entry will discuss the eugenics that has virtually gone unwritten in today’s science textbooks. This includes a thorough history of the origin of eugenics, the people behind its movement, as well as its application in society.

Sir Francis Galton

Sir Francis Galton first coined the term ‘eugenics’ in 1883. Under his definition, eugenics was the “study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally.” (Newman, 441) Galton was born in 1822 into a rich English family. From an early age he was put under incredible pressure to follow in the footsteps of Erasmus Darwin, Galton’s medically famed great-uncle. However, this pressure had little impact as he transferred from King’s College Medical School to Cambridge University due to an intense dislike of the study of medicine. At Cambridge he attempted to receive an honors degree in mathematics until during his third year he suffered a nervous breakdown. After taking a semester off, he returned and eventually received his degree although it was not an honors degree but rather a pass-degree. Once again Galton attempted the study of medicine, but with the death of his father in 1844 he felt he no longer had to fulfill the wishes of his deceased father and dropped out of school. Using his share of his inheritance, Galton proceeded to travel throughout much of Africa for the next few years. (Kevles, 6) Why Galton turned to eugenics is a mystery. He was a mathematician by degree with little to no experience in biology. He treated the study of eugenics as if it were a statistical problem, something completely foreign to the field of biology. (Kevles, 13)

Galton believed that a wide range of human characteristics were inherited, including mental, physical, and moral traits. This view was stimulated in part by Galton’s cousin, Charles Darwin, and his recent work in the field of evolution. Although Darwin didn’t play a direct role in eugenics, he had shown how man, despite his relative complexity as compared to plants and most animals, was still evolving. Because of this, Galton reasoned that humans could be controlled and manipulated so that the next generation would be of higher stock. He reasoned that man had been focusing too much on the evolution of lower level species for too long. So long in fact, “that human defectives [were] increasing at such an alarming rate that, unless some efficient methods [were] devised for keeping them in check, they [would] endanger the welfare of the entire race.” (Fasten, 283) In the mind of Galton it was essential to fix this problem. He concurred that “all creatures would agree that it was better to be healthy than sick, vigorous than weak, well-fitted than ill-fitted for their part in life; in short, that it was better to be good rather than bad specimens of their kind, whatever that kind might be. So with men.” (Galton, 2)

What were defectives? And how were they classified? Galton devised the “law of deviation from an average” to help classify humans into their particular group. According to this law, approximately half of the human race is clustered around some mean that is determined by a variety of causes. (Blacker, 106) He gathered these causes in a questionnaire called the Record of Family Faculties. (Kevles, 14) This questionnaire was sold to the general public at a price equal to its cost. If the subject was to fill out the survey and return it they were eligible to win 500 pounds prize money. The survey consisted of a variety of questions about themselves and their family over the three previous generations. (Internet, 1) In addition to this, Galton established an Anthropometric Laboratory at the International Health Exhibition in 1884. Some nine thousand individuals volunteered to be measured for height, weight, arm span, breathing power, and other physical characteristics. (Kevles, 14) The data from both the questionnaire and Anthropometric Laboratory was averaged and converted into a statistical table. When drawn up graphically, the table formed a bell curve. Most people will be placed at or near the average on one side of the mean or the other. The further from the mean one goes, the more rare they are. It was in the distribution of the deviations that Galton was the most fascinated by. The defectives are on the far left of the chart and the most gifted are on the far right. (Blacker, 106) Galton hoped that results of his statistical analysis could be used to determine eminent people early in their lives so they could mate with other eminent people.

Classifying humans was only the beginning for Galton. The real questions dwelled in how to apply these results in order for eugenics to succeed in bettering the human race. To eugenicists, there are two ways to apply eugenics in society. The first is through positive eugenics. This is the act of applying the science to genetically fit persons through selective breeding. Only people of equal genetic ability would be able to mate. In such a case, the “desirables” (Blacker, 107) are constantly evolving in a positive way. However, Galton ran into a surprising problem. He calculated that the offspring of exceptional parents tend to be, on the average, one-thrid less exceptional than the parents. He arrived at the conclusion that offspring do not get all of their hereditary characteristics from their immediate parents, but some of them come from their grandparents, some from their great-grandparents, and some from even more remote ancestors. (Newman, 471-472)

The second way to apply the science is through negative eugenics. This concept dictated the actions of the so-called “defectives”. “Through passing antimiscegenation laws, curtailing immigration from countries considered to harbor weaker genetic material, employing forced sterilization, and supporting mercy killings, negative eugenics would restrain the reproduction of the genetically unfit.” (Internet, 2) While Galton’s ideas of eugenics as a science did not change much throughout his years, he constantly wavered on how best to apply them socially. In 1901, he wrote: “The possibility of improving the race of a nation depends on the power of increasing the productivity of the best stock. This is far more important than that of repressing the productivity of the worst.” (Blacker, 111) This view clearly supports positive eugenics. Yet, Galton’s mind seems to waiver. And, ultimately, in the 1908 publishing of Memories he writes that the objective of eugenics “is to check the birth rate of the unfit, instead of allowing them to come into being, though doomed in large numbers to perish prematurely. The second object is the improvement of the race by furthering the productivity of the fit by early marriages and healthful rearing of their children.” (Blacker, 111) Just as the founder, and arguably the man behind much of eugenics, had trouble putting into words what should socially be done with the science, so to did his successors.

While Galton clearly pioneered the field of eugenics, the majority of his work has been proven to be incorrect. “On the whole, it may be said that Galton’s work is now considered as chiefly of historical value. It served a useful purpose mainly in that it definitely called attention to the fact of heredity in man, a fact that was at the time hardly recognized in political, educational, and sociological circles.” (Newman, 475) Nonetheless, a large group of upcoming scientists were there to take up the struggle left behind by Galton at the time of his death in 1911.

Karl Pearson

Karl Pearson, Galton’s protégé and successor, was born to a middle-class Quaker family in London on March 27, 1857. In 1875 he attended King’s College on a mathematics scholarship. After graduation, he went to Germany for postgraduate work in the fields of mathematics, law, and philosophy. As was the case with Galton, Pearson was under intense family pressure to achieve the status his family desired of him. Instead, Pearson preferred thought to actual labor. He believed that “thinking was as noble a form as stoking a furnace, and more valuable to society.” (Kevles, 24)

Eventually Pearson submitted to the pressure of his parents and accepted a professorship at University College in London. It was here that he began to collaborate with zoologist W. F. R. Weldon, who exposed Pearson to Sir Francis Galton and his work for the first time. In fact, Pearson later recalls that “It was Galton who first freed me from the prejudice that sound mathematics could only be applied to natural phenomena under the category of causation. Here for the first time was a possibility, I will not say a certainty, of reaching knowledge – as valid as physical knowledge was then thought to be – in the field of living forms and above all in the field of human conduct.” (Pearson, 19).

Pearson was enraptured with Galton’s theories of eugenics and immersed himself in Galton’s theory that succeeding generations always regressed toward the mean of their “ancestral population”. By pointing to the fact that man’s facial features have not regressed back to the facial features of apes, Pearson suggested that the “ancestral population” was in fact the immediate parents of the subject. Therefore, Pearson believed that human improvement could be guided due to the fact that “the mean of the population for a given character might be deliberately moved in an evolutionary line of eugenic advance.” (Kevles, 30) Like Galton, Pearson believed that the guiding of society towards betterment was to be done through statistical analysis. And together with Weldon, he invented a new discipline called “biometry”, the statistical study of evolution and heredity. Eventually, Pearson would go on to found Biometrika, a journal that was consistent with his statistical ideas.

Near the end of his life, Francis Galton began to worry about the continuance of eugenic studies after his death. In order to combat his fears, he donated 500 hundred pounds a year to University College in National Eugenics. In 1906, Pearson formed and headed up the Galton Laboratories for National Eugenics. In his will, Galton left University College 45,000 pounds, which they dispersed to the Galton Laboratories at a rate of 1500 pounds a year. Pearson used this money to trade over 60 individuals and continued much of the work left by Galton.

Charles Davenport

Charles Davenport was to the American study of eugenics what Sir Franics Galton was to the study in Great Britain. After graduating from Harvard in 1889 and serving as a biology professor at the University of Chicago, Davenport was asked by the Carnegie Institution of Washington to organize a research facility for the study of experimental evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island in 1904. The supposed purpose of this facility, called the Station for Experimental Evolution, was to research the evolution of plants and animals. However, it was inevitable that the facility would ultimately be used for the study of the evolution of man and eugenics. This became a reality in 1910, when a subdivision of the research facility was formed and called the Eugenics Record Office. Headed by Davenport, the Eugenics Record Office amassed hundreds of thousands of records and case studies of families for use in its research. (Fasten, 284) By studying these records, he believed that he could determine a way to mathematically predict the occurrence of certain traits, such as height, eye color, etc.

As a eugenicist, Davenport was a proponent of Galtonian principles, deeply fascinated with the study of race. He believed that people of different race were in fact members of entirely different elementary species. Each of these different species was characterized by their own set of moral, mental, and intellectual aspects. It was this belief that led to his disparagement of inter-racial marriages. These marriages led to, in the words of Davenport, a “disharmony of physical, mental, and temperamental qualities and this means also disharmony with environment.” In other words, racial mixing was a social evil that resulted in a “clash of instincts in groups with unlike temperament and mores. The present safe course is to pursue the idea of race homogeneity. For man is an animal and permanent racial progress in eugenics must be based on the laws of biology.” (Pickens, 57) It should come at no surprise then that Davenport was in favor of segregation. He believed that segregation was necessary to maintain a stable social and ordered environment. Davenport went as far as to say to an international gathering of scholars “that the biological basis for [eugenic] laws is doubtless an appreciation of the fact that negroes and other races carry traits that do not go well with our social organization.” (Internet, 4)

Davenport, like Galton, had trouble making up his mind on how best to apply eugenics socially. Many of his papers call for the use of positive eugenics. “Only by breeding for superiority would the numbers of the weak and unfit diminish….” (Pickens, 58) So by forcing selective breeding of genetically fit individuals, the unfit would slowly disappear. But how they would disappear is another story? In this case, Davenport calls on negative eugenics. “Society saved money by sterilizing female inmates of state institutions, so that these potential wrongdoers would be prevented from reproducing their own kind.” (Pickens, 58)

Social Rise and Consequence of Eugenics

The social rise of eugenics in popular society was a matter of being at the right place at the right time. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a time rapid social and economic change in both Europe as well as the United States. As cities became more industrial, millions sought jobs within their boundaries leaving the rural areas behind. In addition, Europeans immigrated to the United States in vast numbers and blacks migrated north to fleeing the Jim Crow laws in the South. This mass exodus from the rural regions created friction as people faced merciless competition for the ever-decreasing number of city jobs. The white middle and upper classes began to fear the ultimate consequence of the social changes. Eugenics provided an answer to maintaining the level of respectability they had grown accustomed to. Eugenics was the “new science that would combine advances in the field of genetics with the efficiency of the assembly line.” (Internet, 4) In fact, even before eugenics was publicly defined by Galton many groups, beginning in the 1860s, corresponding with the Charles Darwin’s publications on evolution, advocated “better breeding in order to advance the cause of liberty in human couplings.” (Kevles, 21)

At the turn of the century, the eugenic movement was approaching full speed. It was predominantly being lead by upper middle class whites that were particularly well educated. Among the areas they fought for federal regulation was immigration. In the United States, Congress listened to their demands and proposed stricter immigration standards for the country. These proposals became law in April of 1924 when President Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act. Interestingly, as Vice-President Coolidge had publicly stated that “America must be kept American. Biological laws show…that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.” (Kevles, 97) The act limited the number of European immigrants into the United States to a small percentage of the number of immigrants from the same country in 1890. Historians are quick to point out that in 1890 few immigrants from the eugenically “inferior” regions of Eastern and Southern Europe immigrated to the United States. This clearly shows federal intent to block people of such European decent from supposedly tainting the Nordic races currently in the United States.

In addition to immigration, eugenicists were concerned about the large population of “mentally unfit” living in the world today. Several federal laws passed as a result of eugenic pressure on the governments of the world. In 1914, some 30 states in the United States had either created or restructured marriage laws. “Three-quarters of the statutes declared voidable the marriages of idiots and of the insane, and the rest restricted marriage among the unfit of various types, including the feebleminded and persons afflicted with venereal disease.” (Kelves, 99) Some states went as far as to force a time delay between license application and the actual wedding so that proper authorities could determine if a wedding was to be permitted. Although not as radical as the legislation in the United States, in July of 1913, the English government passed the Mental Deficiency Act which granted authority to the government to segregate and detain certain of the “feebleminded”. However, the law did not enforce mandatory segregation or prevent handicapped people from marrying and reproducing.

One of the most radical social consequences of the eugenic movement was the adoption of state mandated sterilization laws. In the United States by 1917 16 states had adopted sterilization laws. These laws were made possible by federal statues that gave states the power to sterilize a wide variety of people. These included criminals, epileptics, the insane, and the mentally ill in state institutions. Iowa went so far as to mandate the sterilization of twice-convicted sexual offenders, thrice-convicted other felons, and of anyone convicted just once of involvement in white slavery (Kevles, 100) Sterilization laws were subsequently held up in courts as well. In Buck vs. Bell, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 8 to 1, said that sterilization on eugenic grounds was within the power of the state and that it did not constitute cruel or unusual punishment. (Kevles, 111)

Nowhere is the social effect of sterilization more prevalent than with the story of Howard Hale. Howard Hale was the proprietor for a small candy store that catered to the “misfit” families of the mountains of Virginia during the 1930s. He recalled how state sterilization authorities would literally round up whole “misfit” families. “Everybody who was drawing from welfare then was scared they were going to have it done on them. They were hiding all through these mountains, and the sheriff and his men had to go up after them…They really got them up on Brush Mountain. The sheriff went up there and loaded all of them in a couple of cars and ran them down to Staunton so they could sterilize them.” Hale added that “people as a whole were very much in favor of what was going on. They couldn’t see more people coming into the world to get on the welfare.” (Kevles, 116)

The Death of the Eugnics Movement

In 1933 the Nazi party seized control of Germany and forever altered public opinion of eugenics. Initially, the Nazis enacted only sterilization laws. However, these laws went far beyond the actions of the United States. In Mein Kampf Hitler wrote that "anyone who wants to cure this era, which is inwardly sick and rotten, must first of all summon up the courage to make clear the causes of the disease." (David, 89) The Nazi party took several steps to rid the Third Reich of the "causes of the disease." On July 14, 1933 the Cabinet passed the Law for the Prevention of Heridtary Diseases in Future Generations. This law, which was to be implemented on January 1, 1934 called for the sterilization of "lives unworthy of life". These "unworthy lives" included those persons suffering from congenital mental retardation, schizophrenia, manic-dpressive insanity, epilepsy, Huntington's chorea, hereditary blindness, hereditary deafness, grave bodily malformation, and severe alcoholism. To enforce the sterilization laws, Nazi leadership created special "Hereditary Health Courts." All physicians were legally required to report to the courts anyone they encountered who fell into any of the categories for sterilization. As a result, by 1937 some 225,000 individuals had been sterilized by German authorities, a figure that was roughly ten times the number in the United States. (David, 91) Surprisingly, many eugenic supporters saw the rash tactics of Germany as a threat to the United States eugenic movement. Many began to argue that the United States was in fact sterilizing too few people. In 1934, Joseph S. DeJarnette, a key figure in Virginia eugenics said, “The Germans are beating us at our own game.” (Kevles, 116)

Eventually, the megalomaniac ideas of Hitler and his closest advisors would completely end public support for eugenics. With the mass extermination of the Jews and those deemed unfit in the eyes of Hitler, a very powerful anti-eugenic movement arose. Public support wavered and eugenic programs slowly faded away. The science that was once thought to contain the key to human betterment became nothing more than a black mark on history.


Books / Articles

  • Blacker, C. P. Eugenics: Galton and After. London, England: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., 1952.
  • David, Henry P., Fleischhacker, Jochen, Hohn, Charlotte. "Abortion and Eugenics in Nazi Germany" Population and Development Review (March, 1988): pp. 81-112.
  • Fasten, Nathan Ph.D. Principles of Genetics and Eugenics. Boston, Massachusetts: Gin and Company, 1935.
  • Galton, Francis. “Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, And Aims” The American Journal of Sociology 10.1 (July, 1904): 1-6.
  • Galton, Francis. “Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences.” 19th Century Science: An Anthology. Toronto, Canada: Broadview Press, 2000.
  • Kevles, Daniel J. In The Name of Eugenics. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1985.
  • Newman, Horatio Hackett. Evolution, Genetic and Eugenics. New York, New York: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1969.
  • Pearson, E. S. Karl Pearson: An Appreciation of Some Aspects of His Life and Work. Cambridge, England: The University Press, 1938.
  • Pickens, Donald K. Eugenics and the Progressives. Nashville, Tennessee: Vanderbilt University Press, 1968.
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