The Roots of American Eugenics

Derived from the Greek word eugenes or “good birth,” eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices that aim at improving the genetic quality of the human population or the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.

If those definitions sound familiar, they should. Adolf Hitler and his fellow Nazis used the concept of eugenics to persecute and murder Jews, Roma (Gypsies), Poles (people from Poland), Soviet prisoners of war, Afro-Germans (people of African descent living in Germany), Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and people with disabilities in their quest for racial superiority during Hitler’s reign from 1933 to 1945.

The persecution of homosexuals by the Nazis is the topic of a previous Your Sexy Librarian blog, The Persecution of Homosexuals in the Holocaust.


Eugenics did not start with Hitler or his henchman Dr. Josef Mengele. The Nazis were inspired mostly by America’s history of successfully using eugenics to keep certain populations from reproducing.

The term “eugenics” was coined by Englishman Francis Galton (1822-1911), who was a half-cousin to Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the father of evolution. In Galton’s first academic study of eugenics, he analyzed the characteristics of England’s upper class and concluded they were hereditary and could be passed down from generation to generation. In 1869, Galton published a book called Hereditary Genius in which he advocated a selective breeding program for humans akin to the breeding programs used by pedigree dog and horse breeders.

The English eugenics movement focused on selective breeding for positive traits while the American movement focused on eliminating negative traits.

The American eugenics movement took hold in the early 1900s and was led by biologist Charles Davenport (1866-1944) and former teacher and principal Harry Laughlin (1880-1943). In 1910, Davenport founded the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island “to improve the natural, physical, mental and temperamental qualities of the human family.” Laughlin was the ERO’s first director. The ERO collected data on families, including their physical traits and family genealogy and kept this information on index cards at its facility.

The ERO zeroed in on the poor, criminals, people with physical disabilities, people with dwarfism and those they viewed as being promiscuous and attempted to find patterns in heredity for reasons behind these “conditions.”

The ERO operated for three decades.


In 1907, Indiana became the first state to pass a sterilization law. California and 28 other states followed suit and passed their own sterilization laws by 1931. The earliest laws, including Indiana’s, were legally flawed and subsequently overturned by state courts.

As a result of the overturned laws, Laughlin designed a model eugenics law. Basing its law on the ERO’s model, Virginia enacted its eugenic statutes in 1924.

At first, forced sterilizations were used only on the disabled. The practice would eventually include those living in poverty. American eugenic laws legally allowed for the forced sterilization of an estimated 64,000 to 65,000 Americans without consent of the person being sterilized or consent of a family member. Some sources estimate as many as 70,000 forced sterilizations have occurred in America as a result of eugenics.

The United States Supreme Court upheld the practice of legal forced sterilizations in the 1927 case Buck v Bell. The state of Virginia sought to sterilize Carrie Buck. Some sources report Carrie was born out of wedlock to her mother Emma, who was committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in Lynchburg, Virginia, after being accused of promiscuity and of being “feeble-minded.” The colony opened in 1910.

After her mother was institutionalized, Carrie was sent to live with foster parents. Carrie was 18-years-old when the state of Virginia found her to be “feeble-minded” and committed her to the Virginia Colony, where her mother still resided. At the age of 17, Carrie had given birth to her daughter Vivian out of wedlock, which was the state’s proof that Carrie was promiscuous as well.

Some people believed that Vivian’s birth was the result of Carrie having been raped by her foster parents’ nephew and that Carrie had been institutionalized to avoid bringing additional shame to her foster family, who was given custody of Vivian.

Seven-month-old Vivian was deemed by ERO field worker Dr. Arthur Estabrook (1885-1973) as being “backwards.” Some researchers believe this was solely in the effort to sterilize Carrie. This propelled Virginia state officials to use the three generations of the Buck family as a test case in favor of the state’s eugenics sterilization law.

Upon reviewing the case, the Supreme Court in an eight-to-one decision sided with Virginia officials and ruled “that Carrie Buck is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization.”

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935) delivered the Supreme Court’s verdict in Buck v Bell. Justice Holmes was a staunch supporter of eugenics, and it was no surprise he fought to uphold Virginia’s sterilization laws. In 1902, Justice Holmes was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and served the court until 1932.

As part of the Supreme Court ruling in Buck v Bell, Justice Holmes wrote, in defense of forced sterilizations, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind… Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

The legal and ethical flaws in Buck v Bell are numerous. The term “feeblemindedness” was a catch-all term with no clinical meaning that is no longer used in medical terminology today. Those who supported eugenics pushed their own morality onto others by condemning women whom they believed were promiscuous.

Once Vivian was old enough to attend school, she made the honor roll in April 1931, proving she was not an imbecile as presumed by the state of Virginia and the ERO. Vivian died the following year after a bout of measles so we will never know what she or her potential children would have accomplished in life.

Buck v Bell is still a legal court ruling, which means forced sterilizations are still legal in the United States and that eugenics can be resurrected at any time by any government official who so chooses.

In 1905, George Santayana (1863-1952) wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”



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