A century ago, scientists from the top universities in America began to study people’s pedigrees in the hopes of creating “perfect” children. Instead, they spawned a monster: the pseudoscience of eugenics. We bury memories of those days under a mountain of shame; rarely does the full scope of our flirtation with race science come to light.
But now more than 1200 images from the heyday of eugenics are about to be opened to wide public view, under a program funded by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island.
The Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement, pieced together by a staff led by David Micklos of the lab’s DNA Learning Center, contains explosive material on such topics as “race mixing” and “Mongolian idiocy.” Well-written essays accompany the images and put the times in perspective.
It’s more than coincidence that the Cold Spring Harbor Lab hosts this project. It is, after all, home of the Human Genome Project to map DNA. A fairly straight line connects this project to the early eugenics movement, although the scientists of yesteryear took gene research down a darker road. Believing that single genes could determine whether someone would be “inferior,” they hoped to build a better human by deciding who should or shouldn’t make babies. Minority groups were most often the target of this plan.
In 1910, the Eugenics Record Office was set up at Cold Spring Harbor, making the lab the center of what became an international movement. In the United States, the results ranged from “Fitter Families” contests, aimed at encouraging people of “good stock” to breed, to laws restricting immigration of non-WASPs and ordering sterilization of the “feebleminded.”
Arguing for limiting immigration from southern and eastern Europe, Harry Laughlin, head of the ERO, told Congress in 1920, “We in this country have been so imbued with the idea of democracy or the equality of all men that we have left out of consideration the matter of blood or natural inborn hereditary mental and moral differences.” Adolf Hitler, of course, took the same logic to pathological conclusions, using eugenics as a rationale for genocide.
Micklos, the site’s editor, doesn’t mince words about the American involvement in eugenics. In one essay, he describes the ERO’s journal Eugenical News as the “dominant mouthpiece for the racist and anti-immigration agenda of eugenics research.”
The digital archive serves as a reminder that crackpot science isn’t just the domain of Nazis and ignorant racists. Among the leaders of the American eugenics movement were Stanford president David Starr Jordan, Luther Burbank, and Alexander Graham Bell. Charles Darwin’s son headed the Eugenics Society in England. The ERO itself was endowed by a grant from the widow of railroad magnate E.H. Harriman, and such population-control progressives as Margaret Sanger also believed in the cause.
Micklos and his team say they want to ensure that genetics research like the Human Genome Project doesn’t get transmogrified. Today’s breakthroughs in, say, prenatal screening would have been embraced by eugenicists, and there’s always a group of people who will subscribe to racial-inferiority theories like those in The Bell Curve. Maybe the history of how scientists veered off the path decades ago will help ensure it doesn’t happen again.