Creepy history, Health & Medicine, Indianapolis

Indiana Eugenics: Better Babies project. Part II

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Measuring “Better Babies” at the  Indiana State Fairgrounds 1930.

Original publish date:  August 3, 2012

Last week, we discussed the Eugenics movement in America. The idea that by monitoring, charting and “tweaking” a person’s family tree through systematic genetic engineering in the form of sterilization, society could create a perfect race of people. It should come as no surprise that the movement, most prevalent in the first half of the 20th century, coincides with the birth of the “Superhero” culture so ingrained in the hearts and minds of the baby boomer and succeeding generations. Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Aquaman, the Hulk, and Thing; all genetically enhanced human beings imparted with “Superhuman” powers. The debate continues today in the medical community with genetic testing, “test tube babies”, In Vitro fertilization and stem cell research. Regardless of how you feel about the subject, can you imagine going to the state fair to witness state sponsored “Natural Selection” in person?
The program was called the “Better Babies” program and crowds flocked to the State Fairgrounds to participate, both as spectators and participants. Indiana was one of the leaders in the National Eugenics movement whose goal was the “improvement of the human race.” In those days, supporters of eugenics considered their work humanitarian, today we consider their methods radical, drastic, and even cruel. During the 1920s, Indiana launched a multifaceted program of “child saving” and maternal education, including radio talks, mother’s classes, the screening of hygiene films, statistical reports, and consultation clinics.

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Central State Hospital in Indianapolis.

Indiana’s most relevant participating institution was Central State Hospital, now the Indiana Medical History Museum but others included the Eastern Indiana Hospital for the Insane, now Richmond State Hospital, the Indiana State Reformatory at Jeffersonville, Indiana Village for Epileptics in New Castle and the School for Feebleminded Youth in Fort Wayne. The Medical and Law Enforcement associated institutional names somehow helped soften the shock of the experimental program. After all, a Eugenics program in the Indianapolis Public School system, area YMCAs and local churches would elicit an entirely different response, wouldn’t it? However, the state was seeking a vehicle to introduce the idea of Eugenics to the masses in a positive public forum.

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Better Babies contestants-Indiana State Fair 1930.

In 1920, the first Better Babies Contest, sponsored by the state’s “Division of Infant and Child Hygiene”, was “born” at the Indiana State Fair. For the next dozen years, these contests were the centerpiece of the state’s “dynamic infant and maternal welfare program” that was really Eugenics in disguise. More than just another exhibit for fairgoers, these contests brought public health, “race betterment,” and animal breeding together for public consumption. For the next twelve years, Better Baby Contests became the most popular expression of public health and race betterment in rural America. Almost a century after that first contest, the Better Babies Contest continues to spark debate about the connection between hereditarian and medical conceptions of human improvement in respect to child breeding and rearing.

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Fair visitors watching the “Better Babies” at the  Indiana State Fairgrounds in 1930.

By 1928, the Better Babies Contest had become so popular with Hoosiers visiting the fair that the State Fair board built the program a brand new building all it’s own. The “Better Babies” pavilion was built in the style of a bungalow house and originally housed information and exhibits about infant health literally designed to create “better babies.” As the Eugenics project fell out of favor during the Great Depression, the State Board of Health used the building for exhibits. In 1966, it was remodeled into an old-fashioned drug store and now operates as the Hook’s Drug Store museum. Visitors to the fair have no idea of the building’s dark history as they browse the exhibits it now contains and sip blissfully on root beer floats within it’s walls.

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Better Babies building at the  Indiana State Fairgrounds 1930.

An early morning Labor Day Week trip to the State Fair during the “Roaring Twenties” would reveal the original building’s dark charter. When the gates opened at 8 AM, dozens of anxious mothers balancing fidgety babies on their hips rushed forward to line up in front of the doors (often the lines circling around the building) in hopes of entering their children in the Better Babies Contest. Within the walls of this unassuming little building, babies from nearly every county in the state were then weighed, measured, and tested by physicians and psychologists affiliated with the State Board of Health’s Division of Infant and Child Hygiene.

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Better Babies building (now the Hook’s Drugstore Museum) at the  Indiana State Fairgrounds as it appears today.

The contest was one of the most spectacular and beloved events at the fair, drawing hundreds of young entrants and thousands of curious onlookers to the state fair. Visitors watched nurses demonstrate proper infant feeding techniques, collected free pamphlets such as the Indiana Mother’s Baby Book, or perused displays about nutrition and the virtues of sterilized and sparkling bathrooms and kitchens. While individual girls and boys, twins, and triplets competed for blue ribbons, cash prizes and trophy cups. Tired, anxious mothers tried to relax at the rest tent as they fretted about the imagined fate and placement of their children. The families non-contestant children could romp in the playground or nap peacefully in the nursery.

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Dr. Ada Schweitzer (center in black) at the Better Babies Contest Day-September 9, 1931.

The program was supervised by Dr. Ada E. Schweitzer, the newly appointed director of the Division of Infant and Child Hygiene. Before the division was disbanded in 1933, Dr. Schweitzer counted 4 physicians, 4 nurses, and 5 assistants on her state funded payroll. To her credit, Dr. Schweitzer worked tirelessly to lower infant and maternal death rates and convince Hoosiers of the importance of scientific motherhood and child rearing. She lectured to hundreds of neighborhood and civic associations, authored countless articles and poems, assessed the physical condition of babies in all 92 counties; all while she diligently managed the state’s newest public health division. Dr. Schweitzer’s efforts proved fruitful as Indiana’s infant mortality dropped by one third, from 8.2% in 1920 to 5.7% in 1930. (Compared to the rate of 4.5 infant deaths per 1,000 live births today)
The State Fair’s newest building was the pride and joy of Indiana health reformers who were collectively frightened by what they perceived to be an escalating menace of the feeble-minded. The Better Babies Program was created by Indiana Progressives who sought to control procreation and promote the birth of only the “best” and healthiest babies. For many Hoosiers, born and raised as farmers, breeding superior children was a natural extension of producing heartier crops and livestock.
z eugenics-exhibitIf the criteria were based solely on demography and topography, Indiana was the perfect test case for the larger National Eugenics movement. In 1920, the state’s population approached 3 million residents, 95% of whom were native-born and 97% of whom were White. The bulk of Indiana’s African American and immigrant communities lived in segregated communities within the cities of Indianapolis, Gary, and East Chicago. Unlike other more racially diverse, multilingual states such as New York, Illinois, and California, Indiana’ Eugenics project did not have to translate their message into foreign languages or tailor their “Americanization” campaigns to foreign speaking populations. Instead, the Hoosier project targeted poor and working-class Whites, especially impoverished farm dwellers living in undeveloped rural communities. (Keep in mind that most rural Hoosier farms and homes did not have indoor plumbing or electricity until the 1940s.)
Despite the rural setting, the 1920s were an important time in Indiana history. The steel and iron industries enjoyed success. Despite stiff competition from Henry Ford’s Model T, Indiana car makers Marmon, Duesenberg, and Studebaker continued to pump out high-end vehicles. It is no mere coincidence that the Indiana Eugenics project’s Better Babies Contest coincides directly with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in state and local politics. Klan members espoused 100-percent Americanism by seeking to rid the state of immigrants, Catholics, Jews and African-Americans. The Eugenics theory fit right into the charter of the KKK. The Indiana Klan embraced eugenics as a vehicle for destroying crime, pauperism, and bad behavior.
z eugenicsMarker1As a Hoosier, although others may argue otherwise, the connection between Eugenics and the Ku Klux Klan cannot be denied. Implicit to be sure, both organizations shared undeniable common goals, the first being the assurance of racial purity and the second being the improved survival of the Anglo-Saxon race. Luckily for us, the fall from favor of the Eugenics movement in our state and nation coincides with the fall of the KKK.
Every good eastside historian knows how Irvington facilitated the death of the Klan with the sacrifice of one of her own back in 1925. But the death of the Better Babies Contest and the Indiana Eugenics project was much less spectacular. As the Depression droned on throughout the 1930s, the good citizens of Indiana figured out that putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads was far more important than breeding perfect Aryan babies. When the newly elected Democratic Governor Paul McNutt took office in 1933, he fired Dr. Schweitzer and replaced her with a male director. He then wrested control of the Division of Infant and Child Hygiene and turned it over to the Indiana University School of Medicine, who ironically use the amphitheatre in the Medical History Museum on the grounds of the old Central State Hospital as a teaching facility today. The program faded from the public eye and the State Fair Better Babies Contest was discontinued. Adolph Hitler cinched the deal by taking Eugenics to horrific new heights in the gas chambers of rural Germany. So next time you visit the fair and amble through the old Hook’s museum at the State Fairgrounds, take a good look around and try to imagine that building full of perfect little babies, Eugenics style.

 

Creepy history, Health & Medicine, Indianapolis

Indiana Eugenics: Better Babies project. Part I

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Nurses examining :Better Babies” at the State Fair in 1931.

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?
z p2eugenics-copyThe 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.

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Eugenics Medical Certificate from the late-1920s.

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.

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Topeka, Kansas Eugenics Building Circa 1930. 

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.
better_baby contest KentuckyOver 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”.

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Topeka, Kansas Eugenics Building Circa 1930. 

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!

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Topeka, Kansas Eugenics Building Circa 1930. 

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.

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German Eugenics poster. Translation: “the right choice spouses”

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.