Original publish date: July 27, 2012
Eugenics: The study of hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled selective breeding. Most Americans think of eugenics as something that happened a long time ago in Nazi Germany. What many are not aware of is that eugenics was a very real part of our countries past, and for awhile, Indiana was the national test study. In fact, ours was the very first state to pass a “sterilization statute,” which authorized surgical sterilization of citizens seen as a threat to the nation’s gene pool, whether they were deemed criminally insane, “feeble-minded,” afflicted with “pauperism,” or otherwise undesirable. Yikes! Enough to send shivers up your spine isn’t it?
The sad truth is that 2,424 people were medically sterilized in Indiana institutions. There was near parity between males and females in that number: 1,167 males and 1,257 females were sterilized. 1,751 of these people were considered mentally deficient and 667 mentally ill. That figure does not reflect the number of sterilizations performed in the years before the law was passed. As many as 800 of those sterilizations were carried out in the Indiana State Reformatory by one man, Dr. Harry Sharp. It was Dr. Sharp who is credited with performing the very first vasectomy in the United States and the procedure has changed little since he created it in 1899.
The idea of Eugenics as the sterilization of prisoners somehow softens the practice to the ears of most people. After all, these guys weren’t in jail for singing too loud in the choir. However, consider that the public face of the Eugenics movement in Indiana was known as the “Better Babies” program and the stage set for the Hoosier experiment was none other than the Indiana State Fair.
The eugenics movement was rooted in the biological determinist ideas of Sir Francis Galton, dating from the 1880s. Galton studied the upper classes of Britain, and arrived at the conclusion that their social positions were due to a superior genetic makeup. Early proponents of eugenics believed that, through selective breeding, the human species could direct its own evolution. Eugenicists tended to believe in the genetic superiority of Nordic and Anglo-Saxon peoples; supported strict immigration and anti-miscegenation (race mixing) laws; and supported the forcible sterilization of the poor, disabled and “immoral”. The American eugenics movement received extensive funding from various corporate foundations including the Carnegie Institution, Rockefeller Foundation, cereal magnate J.H. Kellogg , and the Harriman railroad fortune.
By the turn-of-the-century, Eugenics was quickly accepted by the U.S. academic community and by 1928 there were 376 separate university Eugenics study courses in many of the nation’s leading schools, enrolling over 20,000 students. By 1910, there was a large network of scientists and educators engaged in national eugenics projects while actively promoting eugenic legislation. Beginning with Connecticut in 1896, many states enacted marriage laws with eugenic criteria, prohibiting anyone who was “epileptic, imbecile or feeble-minded” from marrying. The state of California led the way in the eugenics movement in America by performing an estimated 20,000 sterilizations, or one third of the 60,000 nationwide from 1909 up until the 1960s.
In 1906, the American Breeder’s Association became the first official eugenic body in the U.S. The “ABA”, as it was known, was formed specifically to “investigate and report on heredity in the human race, and emphasize the value of superior blood and the menace to society of inferior blood.” Membership included Alexander Graham Bell, California pioneer Luther Burbank and Stanford University president David Starr Jordan, a former Irvington resident and graduate of Butler College who would ascend to the Presidency of Indiana University (1884-1891) before moving on to become the first President of California’s Stanford University (1891-1913). When Jordan assumed his post at I.U., he became the nation’s youngest university President at age 34. The California connection cannot be understated for it was at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco that Eugenics was formally introduced to the world.
Over 19 million people attended this “West Coast World’s Fair Exposition” during 10 months from February 20 to December 4, 1915. The fair was devoted to extolling the virtues of a rapidly progressing nation, with particular emphasis devoted to new developments in science, agriculture, manufacturing and technology. The display generating the most interest among fairgoers was devoted to medical developments concerning health and disease, particularly theories on race betterment or, the promotion of eugenic studies. Expo promoters noted the interest of excited visitors and soon, Eugenics, billed as the advancement of civilization, became the main theme of the fair.
The “Immigration Restriction League” was the first American entity associated officially with eugenics. Founded in 1894 by three Harvard University graduates, the League sought to bar what it considered inferior races from entering America and diluting what it saw as the superior American racial stock (upper class Northerners of Anglo-Saxon heritage). They felt that social and sexual involvement with these less-evolved and less-civilized races would pose a biological threat to the American population. The League lobbied for a literacy test for immigrants, based on the belief that literacy rates were low among “inferior races”.
The League allied themselves with the American Breeder’s Association to gain influence and soon were using their money to find immigrants from specific ethnic groups and deport, confine, or forcibly sterilize them. In 1907 Indiana passed the first eugenics-based compulsory sterilization law in the world. Thirty U.S. states would soon follow their lead. Although the law was overturned by the Indiana Supreme Court in 1921, some states continued to sterilize those deemed to be “imbeciles” for much of the 20th century. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case that the state of Virginia could sterilize those it thought unfit. The most significant era of eugenic sterilization was between 1907 and 1963, when over 64,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized under eugenic legislation in the United States. A 1927 Fortune magazine poll found that two thirds of respondents supported eugenic sterilization of “mental defectives”, 63% supported sterilization of criminals, and only 15% opposed both.
Although looking back on it, the notion of engineering a superior race seems misplaced when applied to the image most identified with the United States today, in the decades between the world wars America seemed to be obsessed with the idea. One of the most commonly suggested methods to get rid of “inferior” populations was euthanasia. A 1911 Carnegie Institute report mentioned euthanasia as one of its recommended “solutions” to the problem of cleansing society of unfit genetic attributes. The most commonly suggested method was to set up local gas chambers. Yes, gas chambers. However, calmer heads in the eugenics field realized that Americans were not ready for a large-scale euthanasia program, so many doctors found more subtle methods of implementing eugenic euthanasia inside the walls of state run medical institutions. For example, a mental institution in Lincoln, Illinois fed its incoming patients milk infected with tuberculosis (reasoning that genetically fit individuals would survive), resulting in 30-40% annual death rates. However, the most common form of medical assisted eugenicide was simple, lethal neglect.
Eugenics for the populace was introduced on a large scale when Mary deGormo, a former teacher, married ideas about health and intelligence standards with competitions at state fairs, in what she called “better baby” contests. She developed her first “Scientific Baby Contest” for the 1908 Louisiana State Fair in Shreveport. She billed these contests as a contribution to the “social efficiency” movement, which was advocating for the standardization of all aspects of American life as a means of increasing efficiency. deGarmo was assisted by the pediatrician Dr. Jacob Bodenheimer, who helped her develop grading sheets for contestants; combining physical measurements with standardized measurements of intelligence. Scoring was based on a deduction system (think golf scoring), in that every child started at 1000 points with points deducted for every physical measurement that fell below a designated average. The child with the least defections was awarded the most points, resulting in the most ideal, or perfect, baby. Ah, Lord of the Flies at the State Fair!
Soon, these “better babies” contests were expanded to include the entire family in “Fitter Family competitions” combining the ideas behind positive eugenics for babies with a determinist concept of biology to come up with fitter family competitions. There were several different categories that families were judged in: Size of the family, overall attractiveness, and health of the family, all of which helped to determine the likelihood of having healthy children. At the time, it was believed that certain behavioral qualities were inherited from your parents. This led to the addition of several judging categories including: generosity, self-sacrificing, and quality of familial bonds. Additionally, there were negative features that were judged: selfishness, jealousy, suspiciousness, high temperedness, and cruelty. Feeblemindedness, alcoholism, deformities and paralysis in the family tree were “Zonks” sure to result in low scores.
Doctors and specialists from the community would offer their time to judge these competitions, which were originally sponsored by the Red Cross. The winners of these competitions were given Bronze Medals and trophies. The perks of entering into the contests were that the competitions provided a way for families to get a free health check up by a doctor as well as some of the pride and prestige that came from winning the competitions.
After the eugenics movement was well established in the United States, it spread to Germany. By 1933, California had subjected more people to forceful sterilization than all other U.S. states combined. Some historians surmise that the forced sterilization program engineered by the Nazis was partly inspired by California’s. Of course, in the hands of a mad man like Adolph Hitler, the Eugenics program was easily twisted into persecution of religion, and ultimately, the attempted genocide of an entire people. Who would ever believe that Eugenics could take root in the Hoosier heartland, and worse, at the State Fair?
Next week: Part II-Better Babies at the Indiana State Fair.