Bad Blood: The American Eugenics Movement
Despite internal differences in emphasis among various eugenics advocates, there was nearly universal acceptance of the notion that both Britain and the United States were experiencing a dire decline in the fitness of the population. In Britain Karl Pearson stated that nations could only prosper by “insuring that its numbers are substantially recruited from the better stocks.” However, Britain had to face the fact that it was “ceasing as a nation to breed intelligence.” It was futile to hope that improved education could improve this situation – “No training or education can create [intelligence]; you must breed it.”
In the U.S. in the period directly following the Civil War, major cities experienced a rapid influx in decommissioned soldiers, and in rural workers seeking better jobs. The net result was the growth of slums in large cities. Such areas were concentrated with derelicts: they were highly visible pockets of poverty and disease. In Britain, the beginning of the industrial era had also produced significant numbers of impoverished city dwellers. A significant number of social critics assumed that the presence of slums resulted from the genetic inferiority of its inhabitants. This was a direct consequence of the doctrine of Social Darwinism, which postulated that individuals who were successful in society, politics or business achieved this success because of their inherent genetic fitness. Conversely, citizens who were poor, diseased or retarded had been handicapped by their inferior genes. It was assumed that the laws of heredity would guarantee that individuals would occupy their ‘natural’ status in society.
In 1911 David Starr Jordan, who had previously been president of my own institution (Indiana University) and was then president of Stanford, claimed that “it is not the strength of the strong but the weakness of the weak that engenders exploitation and tyranny.” This was a typical claim for a eugenics advocate. In fact, in 1901 Jordan had written an influential book on eugenics, The Blood of the Nation: A Study in the Decay of Races by the Survival of the Unfit.
The first wave of the eugenics movement took place before the Mendelian laws of inheritance were fully understood. During this period, a common analogy was to reference the concept of ‘bloodlines’ in breeding horses. American biologist Charles Davenport claimed that “’the most progressive revolution in history’ could be achieved if somehow ’human matings could be placed upon the same high plane as that of horse breeding.’” Following upon this metaphor, eugenics arguments were often justified as a means of maintaining the purity of the bloodline of a particular group. For example, in 1926 Rabbi Harry Mayer of Kansas City, Missouri suggested to his congregation “May we do nothing to permit our blood to be adulterated by infusion of blood of an inferior grade.”
References to ‘blood’ at this time appear quite literal. This phrase quite likely refers to statements made before it was understood that inherited characteristics were transmitted through the genes and not the blood. The phrase is also consistent with descriptions of inherited characteristics in horses (‘bloodlines’). Although use of the term ‘blood’ was clearly metaphorical, eugenics advocates often claimed that a national ‘bloodline’ (or, the blood of the fittest citizens) needed to remain pure. Many eugenics advocates argued that if ‘superior’ blood was mixed with even small amounts of blood from less fit sources, the result of this mixing would necessarily degrade the original strain. The various “proofs” that traits such as intelligence and ability were genetically inherited only increased efforts to maintain superior “bloodlines.”
However, a minority in the eugenics movement maintained that mixing of different bloodlines might produce beneficial effects. As the ‘genes’ controlling unfit traits were thought to be recessive, some asserted that mixing of different racial groups might result in a general improvement. Biology professor Samuel Holmes of Berkeley reported that the result of white males mating with black females was producing a “bleaching” of the Negro race and that, “from the white point of view, this is a fortunate type of race assimilation.” After the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Adolph Hitler maintained that the presence of his SS troops (elite forces chosen on the basis of their “Nordic” qualities) had greatly increased the quality of the population around Berchtesgaden. Hitler went on to say that “[This] shows that elite troops should really be sent wherever the composition of the people is poor, in order to improve it.” Indeed, Hitler and Himmler planned to use the SS as the basis for the racial “regeneration” of Europe following the final victory of Nazism.
But what were these superior bloodlines? Here, we find differences between American and British eugenicists that immediately reveal the cultural prejudices behind these pseudo-scientific claims. At the end of the 19th century, Britain was a relatively stable society. The British had small percentages of Irish and Jewish immigrants, but for the most part were homogeneous nationally. As a result, British eugenic ‘scientists’ were more concerned about differences between social classes than distinctions between different national or ethnic groups. For example, British psychologist Cyril Burt claimed that “while for the individual the influence of heredity was ‘large and indisputable,’ for the race it was ‘small and controversial.’” British eugenicists also worried that their own national stock was degrading more quickly than that of their European rivals France and Germany.
In the U.S., a nation of immigrants, there was far more focus on racial and ethnic distinctions. We will review this in detail in a subsequent section. Also, the late 19th century had seen the abolition of slavery in the U.S., and the eugenics movement paralleled the establishment of Jim Crow laws in the South. Thus, American eugenicists emphasized racial differences much more strongly than their British counterparts.
Eugenics and the Wellness Movement:
At the same time as the field of eugenics was being defined in Britain, a “wellness movement” had developed in the U.S. A pioneer in the field of wellness was John Harvey Kellogg, whose Battle Creek Sanitorium in Michigan was a center for radical new ideas in nutrition, fitness, and temperance.
J.H. Kellogg is a fascinating case because he had very strong opinions on almost every topic. This will turn out to be a common trait among pioneers in eugenics. We reviewed Kellogg’s health practices in our blog series on wellness fads.
On the positive side, J.H. Kellogg was one of the first to champion the germ theory of disease. His emphasis on vegetarian foods sparked a revolution in the American diet. Kellogg strongly emphasized the benefits of a healthy breakfast. His advocacy took place at a time when people either skipped breakfast, or when that meal included massive quantities of smoked and fried meats, washed down with beer or hard liquor. The Sanitarium developed and marketed a concoction of cooked grains and nuts that they called “Granola.” Kellogg’s brother W.K. Kellogg later made a fortune from developing and marketing Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Attendees at the Battle Creek Sanitarium were also required to ingest large quantities of yogurt, a rarity at that time.
Kellogg was also a fitness buff. His Sanitarium provided organized breathing exercises and group marches. In addition, clients at his Sanitarium could avail themselves of a number of machines that would exercise various areas of the body. Kellogg was strongly opposed to smoking and the use of alcohol. He wrote one of the first books on the dangers of smoking, the 1922 publication Tobaccoism, or How Tobacco Kills. His guests were also forbidden to partake of alcohol or caffeinated drinks while at the Sanitarium.
J.H. Kellogg was a major leader in a wellness revolution in the latter half of the 19th century. However, in addition to his far-sighted emphasis on nutrition and exercise, Kellogg simultaneously championed ideas that now seem bizarre. Kellogg espoused the notion of “autointoxication.” This is the now-debunked hypothesis that a major cause of disease is the build-up of harmful substances or “toxins” in the intestines. Kellogg’s recommended cure was the regular administration of enemas. His clients were required to have at least four bowel movements per day, and his Sanitarium maintained a large number of hydrotherapy rooms that provided enemas. In fact, of the one pint of yogurt that was required daily for all clients, half of that was to be eaten and the other half administered via enemas.
Kellogg was also fascinated with electro-magnetism, and he developed a number of appliances that were utilized in his Sanitarium. Several “electro-therapy” devices were constructed that appear to provide no useful effects. For example, patients would stand inside coils that carried large electrical currents; and dentist’s offices would bombard their patients’ mouths with ultra-violet rays. In addition, Kellogg forbade his clients to engage in sexual activity while at his Sanitarium (in fact, the initial purpose of the toasted-wheat cereal that became Corn Flakes was as a substance to prevent sexual arousal).
In light of our current knowledge of nutrition and fitness, we now view J.H. Kellogg’s practices as a combination of exceptional insight, mixed with positively bizarre notions on medicine and health. The field of eugenics also combined significant advances in applied science with a set of misguided, and in some cases tragic, biases and prejudices.
J.H. Kellogg was an enthusiastic proponent of eugenics, and in 1911 he established the Race Betterment Foundation in Michigan. That Foundation held three national conferences on Race Betterment in 1914, 1915 and 1928. The Race Betterment congresses allowed advocates of eugenics to share their suggestions for the most effective practices that would lead to maintaining or improving ‘racial purity.’ Kellogg himself had a complicated relationship with the notion of racial purity, particularly with respect to blacks. He and his wife had no children, so over the course of their lives they raised a large number of foster children; this included a number of black youths.
On the other hand, Kellogg was a strong supporter of segregation and a firm believer that different races should not mix. Here Kellogg adopted a common theme from the eugenics movement that Nordics, Mediterraneans, Alpines, Mongolians and blacks all represented different ‘races.’ Kellogg warned of “the rapid increase of race degeneracy, especially in recent times,” and urged the adoption of steps that he claimed would result in the “creation of a new and superior human race.”
With his characteristic energy and ambition, Kellogg proposed a multi-step plan to save the U.S. from a calamitous fate. His plan included “a thoroughgoing health survey to be conducted in every community every five years, free medical dispensaries for the afflicted, the inspection of schools and schoolchildren, health education, prohibition of the sale of alcohol and tobacco, strict marriage laws in every state, and the establishment of experiment stations [devoted] to investigating the laws of heredity in plants, animals, and humans.”
A central feature of Kellogg’s plan was the creation of a ‘eugenic registry’ that would establish criteria for ‘proper breeding pairs.’ The idea was that individuals would provide their credentials to a central clearinghouse. Males who met the highest standards for racial ‘fitness’ would be paired with similarly ‘fit’ females and encouraged to marry (the idea was clearly inspired by similar matings with ‘pedigreed’ dogs and ‘bloodlines’ for horses).
Kellogg proposed central record-keeping offices for family pedigrees and the establishment of contests for ‘best babies’ and ‘fittest families.’ A few years later, such contests became common at state fairs across the U.S., as we will describe in the next section. In addition to the fairly sinister aspect of ‘racial purity,’ such contests also placed an emphasis on wellness, and offered useful tips on healthy diets and nutrition for young children.
Better Babies and Fitter Families:
Popular events in early 20th century America were Best Baby contests at state fairs. After all, a state fair would feature competitions for the fattest pig, the fastest racehorse and the finest zucchini, so why not a similar contest for the Best Baby? Such contests dispensed useful information about healthy diets and nutrition. The emphasis on diet and nutrition was an offshoot of the wellness movement that we just summarized. State fairs were excellent venues to dispense this information, particularly to rural residents. Beginning in 1913, the contests were co-sponsored by Women’s Home Companion magazine. Below is a photo of the winner of a 1919 “Best Baby” contest from Salem, Oregon. The contests stressed proper nutrition and a healthy environment. This stemmed in part from concerns regarding high rates of child mortality, and a desire to produce common standards for evaluating normal youth development. The caption of the newspaper article calls the winner a “triumph for eugenics.” One troubling fact was that the heritage of the “Best Baby” generally turned out to be white, blond and blue-eyed – a typical “Nordic” profile.
Following the Best Baby contest at the 1911 Iowa State Fair, a Baby Health Examination Movement was initiated. This was an effort to standardize the rules under which the “Best Baby” competitions would operate, and make the contests more ‘scientific.’ Below we show a child being examined as part of such a competition.
Inspired by a “Better Baby” contest at the 1911 Iowa State Fair, Mary Watts and Florence Sherbon initiated “Fitter Families for Future Firesides” contests. They collaborated with Charles Davenport, in his role as a member of the American Association for the Study and Prevention of Infant Mortality. Davenport provided Watts and Sherbon with evaluation forms where families would provide a detailed history of physical and health traits. A team of physicians would then administer physical and psychological examinations to each member of the Fitter Family contestants. The records were stored in archives maintained by the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor. Every contestant with an overall ‘eugenic health’ grade of B+ or higher would receive a bronze medal bearing the inscription “Yes, I have a goodly heritage.” The first Fitter Family Contest was held at the 1920 Kansas Free Fair, and it subsequently spread to several fairs across the U.S.. Below is a photo of the winner of the “average family” Fitter Family contest at the 1925 Eastern States Exposition in Springfield, Mass (there were separate categories depending on the number of children).
The Panama-Pacific International Exposition:
The 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) marked an important moment in the eugenics movement. This was a World’s Fair hosted by San Francisco that highlighted a number of recent events. First, the PPIE showcased the completion of the Panama Canal just one year earlier. This was heralded as a feat of civil engineering, but at the same time served as a monument to American expansion and its worldwide economic and military ambitions. Americans were flexing their muscles as a world power as a result of the Spanish-American War of 1898, which left the U.S. in control of areas such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam and Hawaii.
An impressive aspect of the Panama Canal project was the advances in public health and tropical medicine. Armed with the recent understanding of the germ theory of disease, administrators had waged major campaigns against insects that carried yellow fever and malaria. American military physician Walter Reed proved that yellow fever, a disease that had killed thousands of workers in the Panama Canal construction, was spread by a particular strain of mosquito, Aedes Aegypti. Major William Gorgas used this knowledge to destroy mosquito breeding sites in Cuba. A few years earlier, British Dr. Ronald Ross had proved that the parasite that caused malaria was acquired by mosquitoes, and that the mosquitoes would subsequently bite humans and transmit the malarial parasite in the process. Following the success of Gorgas’ operation, a suite of techniques was developed to combat both yellow fever and malaria in the Canal Zone region. Measures used in this campaign included control of sites of standing water; killing insect larva with oil and other chemicals; extensive use of screening; and killing of adult mosquitoes. It is not clear whether the Panama Canal project could have been completed without the control of yellow fever and malaria.
The PPIE also focused on presenting a showcase for San Francisco and the American West. San Francisco was eager to show off the massive rebuilding of the city following the 1906 earthquake. There were also the staples of World’s Fairs, pavilions that highlighted recent developments in science and technology, agriculture, architecture and the arts.
Also, the PPIE paid much attention to the settling of the American West. California represented the end of a major Westward expansion of a young nation. The American West exhibits included cultural and racial stereotypes as central themes. The most popular exhibit at the PPIE exhibit was a sculpture called End of the Trail. Seen below, it pictured a pathetic Indian, with his head bowed, seated on an exhausted horse. To many people, it symbolized the forced removal of Native Americans from their tribal homes. Many commentators, particularly those allied with the eugenics movement, saw the decline of the Indian as a prime example of ‘natural selection’ in action, and predicted the future extinction of these aboriginal residents.
The End of the Trail was contrasted with a statue called American Pioneer that depicted a rifle-toting man astride a vigorous horse. Franklin Lane, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, described the pioneer as “very typical of the white man and the victorious march of his civilization.” The PPIE exhibits were arguably good-intentioned but often demeaning. Thus, Indian dances and displays of “primitive” artifacts from Native American and Alaskan native tribes tended to portray indigenous cultures as exotic and backward. There were vehement protests from Chinese officials over displays in the Fair’s “Joy Zone,” an entertainment area. One of the attractions in that area featured an opium den complete with an enslaved Asian prostitute.
One of the most popular exhibits at the PPIE was the Race Betterment Foundation pavilion. This won a bronze medal for “illustrating evidences and causes of race degeneration and methods and agencies of race betterment.” The exterior of the pavilion is shown below. The Race Betterment Pavilion featured a number of educational posters (one of these, the “Fit and Unfit” poster of Fig. II.3, was typical of the naïve pseudo-genetic information provided by eugenics advocates).
J.H. Kellogg decided that with its large crowds, the PPIE would be the ideal site for the Second National Congress on Race Betterment. It was held the first week in August, 1915 at the Race Betterment Pavilion at the PPIE, which designated that period the official Race Betterment Week. That Congress featured a talk by David Starr Jordan, the former President and then Chancellor of Stanford University. Jordan was an ardent advocate of eugenics and a prominent anti-war activist. At the time, he was a leader in efforts to keep the U.S. out of World War I. Jordan based his anti-war sentiments on arguments about racial purity and fitness derived from eugenics, namely that “The 8 million men who are reported as killed, wounded or missing are the flower of their country’s manhood, and that the degenerate and unfit are left behind to repopulate the warring nations.”
The Congress also heard a talk by noted plant biologist Luther Burbank. Burbank proposed that the same techniques should be applied to humans that he used in producing new strains of plants – “selection of the best individuals through a series of generations.” Burbank, a superb technician but rather weak on scientific principles and genetics, assured his audience that heredity was “10,000 times more important” than environment.
We will provide much more detail about claims made by advocates of eugenics. However, the attendees of the Congress on Race Betterment were exposed to several of the best-known scientists and academics. They were assured that the principles of eugenics were buttressed by the laws of science and conformed to (what were assumed to be) the principles of genetics. The Race Betterment Pavilion at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition appeared at what was likely a high point of the American eugenics movement. As we will review in Part IV of this series, the principles behind eugenics subsequently came under attack from a number of independent fronts. First, a deeper understanding of genetics showed that eugenical assumptions about heredity were quite naïve. Second, anthropologists pointed out the deep prejudices behind racist notions on race and culture. Noted journalists published a number of deeply critical articles about eugenics. And finally, various religious groups, most notably the Catholic Church, were forthright in their opposition to eugenical practices such as forced sterilization and euthanasia. The result was that by the early 1930s, eugenics had developed a bad name in the U.S. This was further exacerbated at the end of World War II, when the world learned of the atrocities committed by the Nazi Third Reich, and became aware of the Nazi connection to American policies advocated by eugenicists.
Charles Davenport and the Eugenics Record Office:
Charles Davenport was a prominent American biologist. Born in 1866 in Stamford, Connecticut, Davenport gained a PhD in biology from Harvard and subsequently became a member of the Harvard faculty. Davenport was an early advocate of quantitative methods in biology, which he learned from Francis Galton and Karl Pearson. He made significant strides in putting the theory of evolution on a mathematical and statistical basis. In particular, Davenport carried out quantitative studies of the inheritance of eye color, and then extended this to hair and skin color.
Next, Davenport proposed to extend his work on inherited characteristics to a wide variety of human traits. In 1904, he convinced the Carnegie Institution of Washington to provide him with funds to open a laboratory dedicated to the experimental study of evolution. This lab was set up in Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, and Davenport became the lab’s founding director.
Davenport turned out to be outstanding at both fund-raising and administration. He hired a staff that carried out a large number of experimental studies. On the positive side, the laboratory undertook several projects in biometry and genetics. They made advances in areas such as natural selection, hybridization, and in the variation of traits among populations.
Davenport realized that, to extend his quantitative genetic studies to many human traits, he would need much more data than existed at the time. So he founded the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor. This office provided forms where people would fill in information about their family history and mail it to the ERO. Soon his records office would have a vast archive of data over several generations, which scientists used to study correlations and genealogical histories over a significant period of time.
Data from the ERO showed intriguing family correlations “for such abnormalities as brachydactyly, polydactyly and albinism, and for such diseases as hemophilia, otosclerosis, and Huntington’s chorea.” Our initial understanding of recurrence patterns for hereditary diseases owes much to the detailed records kept by the ERO. Below we show a family tree collected by the ERO that tracks the incidence of Huntington’s chorea.
Unfortunately, when it came to the study of human traits, Davenport was led astray by both his intuition and his prejudices. Davenport tended to assume that any correlated traits must be hereditary, and must also be transmitted in a Mendelian fashion. Davenport coined the term “unit character” to refer to such correlated traits. Thus, Davenport maintained that traits such as insanity and epilepsy were inherited. He then extended this argument to claim that alcoholism, pauperism, criminality and ‘feeble-mindedness’ were hereditary traits (later we will discuss the incredibly vague term ‘feeble-minded’).
Davenport also maintained strong racist views regarding culture and behavior. For example, Davenport claimed that “the Poles, the Irish, the Italians and other national groups were all biologically different races [and so] were the ‘Hebrews.’” Charles Davenport became a recognized leader of the American advocates of eugenics. He combined an encyclopedic knowledge of cutting-edge biology and genetics with overconfident assertions about the nature of heredity, which arose from his deeply biased prejudices regarding racial characteristics (together with unfounded assumptions about what constituted a ‘race’).
Because of his standing in the field of biology, together with the impressive archives of the ERO and his ability to communicate scientific ideas to the general public, Davenport commanded great respect. He used his position to advance eugenical arguments for the improvement of the human race. First, he argued that race betterment (or even maintaining the current standard of racial fitness) would only be possible if the most qualified males and females married and produced as many offspring as possible (later, we will review the assumed qualities for the `most fit’ humans). Accomplishing this would require an organized campaign to identify the most desirable candidates and encourage them to reproduce. One of the goals of the ERO was to produce lists of the most ‘eugenically fit’ individuals.
A second goal of eugenics advocates was to prevent ‘unfit’ individuals from mating, either with each other or with more desirable specimens. This was one aspect of ‘negative eugenics.’ Davenport argued that this goal could be met in various ways. The first was to identify ‘defective’ individuals and prevent them from reproducing. This objective could be accomplished in several different ways. The approach advocated by Davenport was to confine these individuals to institutions. An alternative would be to sterilize such individuals, either on a voluntary or involuntary basis. A third method would be to euthanize them. Below we show a propaganda poster promoting the goals of the eugenics movement.
Despite his extreme racial biases, Davenport tended to support relatively benign measures in the ‘negative eugenics’ arena. Although he promoted the confinement of ‘defective’ individuals in institutions, he argued that such people should be treated humanely and neither be imprisoned nor, worse, euthanized. Since he believed that ‘defective’ traits were ‘unit characters’ that were directly inherited in a Mendelian fashion, once these individuals were prevented from reproducing, this would dramatically reduce the number of ‘unfit’ individuals in the population. Thus, Davenport believed that institutions for the feeble-minded would represent a temporary step in the improvement of the race, and that such asylums could be closed in a relatively short time.
However, some of his colleagues did not share Davenport’s relatively benevolent attitudes towards the eugenically undesirable elements in society. These people were in favor of significantly more drastic and coercive measures against the ‘unfit.’ The most prominent member of this group was Harry H. Laughlin. Laughlin was initially a professor at a state college in Missouri, when he attended a summer course taught by Charles Davenport at the just-opened Eugenics Record Office. Inspired by the promise of the eugenics movement, Laughlin went on to obtain a doctoral degree in biology from Princeton University.
Harry Laughlin served as the Superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office from its opening in 1910 until his retirement in 1939. In 1920, Laughlin prepared a set of petitions for policy measures supported by eugenics arguments. After presenting these petitions to various politicians, Laughlin was hired by Congressman Albert Johnson as the “Expert Eugenical Agent” for the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. Laughlin shared Charles Davenport’s notions that recent immigrants to the U.S. from Southern and Eastern Europe were compromising the eugenical fitness of the nation. Later, we will discuss Harry Laughlin’s career in more detail.
Henry Goddard and the Menace of the Feeble-Minded:
At the turn of the 20th century, Henry Goddard was one of the most prominent American psychologists and a proponent of eugenics. From 1906 to 1918, Goddard was the director of research at the Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys in Vineland, New Jersey. In 1929 he published a book called The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness. This book would have a dramatic effect on American public policy for the next 50 years.
The 19th century saw a great emphasis placed on “scientific” studies of the effects of heredity and environment upon intelligence. This movement began in the early part of the century, and picked up steam in the latter part of the century, particularly following Darwin’s theory of evolution. An early consequence of studies of intelligence was that people with mental disabilities were classified into categories, according to their ability to function in society. This classification scheme first originated in 1876 with the British civil servant Sir Charles Trevelyan. The beginning of the 20th century saw the advent of quantitative intelligence tests. The pioneer in this area was the French psychologist Alfred Binet, the director of the psychology laboratory at the Sorbonne.
In 1904, acting on the request of the French government, Binet drew up a series of short-answer tests for school-age children that were designed to measure abilities such as memory, reasoning and verbalization (we will later provide more details on Binet’s tests). Working with his colleague Theodore Simon, Binet developed a classification scheme where the children were assigned a mental age. The mental age was a measure of the intellectual capacities of a person, compared to the average intellectual performance for a person of that chronological age. Thus a 6-year-old whose test scores were equal to those of the average 10-year-old in Binet’s study was assigned a mental age of 10; conversely, a 12-year-old whose test scores equaled those of the average 5-year-old would be assigned a mental age of 5.
Binet’s concept of mental age was used to classify various types of mental retardation. The most severe form of mental retardation was referred to as idiocy. Idiots had mental ages lower than three, and they could not develop normal speech. Less severe cases were classified as imbeciles, who had mental ages between three and seven. Imbeciles were incapable of reading and writing. And the least severe level of disability was classified as feeble-minded. This category included people who today would be described as having a high-functioning mental deficiency, and who had mental ages between eight and twelve. Henry Goddard coined the term moron (from the Greek word for ‘stupid’) to refer to the feeble-minded.
The term ‘feeble-minded’ was sufficiently elastic that it included many qualities. In addition to people with Down Syndrome or others with inherited conditions, institutes for the feeble-minded could include among their population poor people, people whose development was stunted because of poor nutrition, and people afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome. It would also include petty criminals or substance abusers. At the time, it was widely believed that immorality resulted from an individual’s inability to control their base instincts; thus immoral behavior would serve as an indication of feeble-mindedness. The following headline shows the conventional thinking of the time, which is consistent with the argument that human reproduction should proceed in the same manner as animal breeding.
At this time, there was general agreement that women “were sources of debauchery, licentiousness and illegitimacy. In the 1880s, the trustees of the New York State Custodial Asylum for Feeble-Minded Women had argued, typically, that women required special care as they were ‘easily yielding to lust.’“ As a result, institutes such as Goddard’s would frequently include a preponderance of young women, many of whom were institutionalized because of allegations of prostitution or promiscuity, from having a baby out of wedlock, or even from allegations of truancy or rebellious behavior.
The idea of removing the unfit from the general population originated with the 19th century English explorer, statistician and scientist Francis Galton. Galton was one of the first to make ‘scientific’ studies of intelligence and heredity – indeed, he coined the term eugenics. Galton advocated for segregating people of low intelligence and morals by placing them in monasteries or convents where they would be cared for (as discussed in Part I of this series).
Goddard had a particular interest in identifying and studying feeble-minded individuals. He noted that idiots and imbeciles were incapable of functioning independently; therefore, these groups did not represent a significant threat to normal society. Goddard wrote: “The idiot is not our greatest problem. He is indeed loathsome … Nevertheless, he lives his life and is done. He does not continue the race with a line of children like himself.”
With mental ages in the range 8-12 years, feeble-minded individuals might be able to function in society, albeit with some difficulty. In particular, the feeble-minded are capable of reproducing. An important question was whether a tendency toward feeble-mindedness was passed along to future generations. If it could be shown that feeble-mindedness was heritable (if so, it would be assumed to have a genetic component), then morons would represent a threat to normal society, because the offspring of morons would have a greater tendency to be feeble-minded.
This is the issue that Goddard set out to study. He researched the family history of various women in his institution. Goddard purported to study several generations of one family. He used the pseudonym Kallikak for this family, a name he concocted from the Greek roots kallos (good) and kakos (bad). [In a later section, we point out that it has been proved that Goddard’s ‘Kallikak genealogy’ was completely false]
Goddard researched the genealogy of one young woman from the Vineland Training School. He gave her the pseudonym “Deborah Kallikak,” and published her family history in his book The Kallikak Family. Goddard alleged that Deborah’s great-great-great grandfather was Martin Kallikak Sr., a Revolutionary War hero married to a Quaker. He fathered a family with his wife. However, he also had a one-night stand with a “feeble-minded barmaid,” which produced an illegitimate son, “Martin Kallikak, Jr.” The result of Kallikak senior’s dalliance led to two separate families: the offspring of Martin Kallikak and his wife; and the offspring of Martin Jr. Goddard claimed to have traced those two families for many generations, and he produced the family tree shown in Fig. II.20.
In Fig. II.20, males are represented by squares and females by circles; N stands for “normal” and F (in black) for “feeble-minded.” The fourth row of Fig. II.20 shows Martin Kallikak Sr., his lawful wife and the “feeble-minded” barmaid. The illegitimate son Martin, Jr. was also feeble-minded; he married a “normal” wife and produced a feeble-minded son. The resulting generations of offspring of Kallikak Jr. all turned out “poor, mentally ill, delinquent and intellectually disabled.” In contrast, the descendants of Kallikak Sr. and his Quaker wife were all intelligent, wholesome and prosperous.
From this study Goddard drew the apparently obvious conclusion that “feeble-mindedness” and its accompanying problems were a direct result of the transmission of recessive genes (note: despite Goddard’s belief that feeble-mindedness involved a recessive gene, the chart of Fig. II.20 appears to show hereditary history for a dominant gene). Since at the time genetics was a relatively new field (Goddard’s study took place only a decade after Gregor Mendel’s experiments with plants had been re-discovered), the striking family history of the Kallikaks appeared to demonstrate the heritability of “feeble-mindedness.” Goddard stated: “Normal intelligence seems to be a unit characteristic and transmitted in true Mendelian fashion.” It was thus assumed that characteristics such as feeble-mindedness (and traits linked to feeble-mindedness, such as immorality and poverty) was quite likely determined by a single gene.
Those afflicted with the “feeble-minded” gene would be doomed to be mentally disabled, a condition that would likely lead them to poverty and crime. Furthermore, they would pass these traits down to all their descendants. In some cases they might produce otherwise normal offspring, but those would be “carriers” who would pass along their defective genes to later generations. To make matters worse, the feeble-minded were incapable of controlling their sexual appetites. While normal adults were in control of their sex drive, the feeble-minded were unable to exercise restraint. Thus if allowed to mix with normal society, they would breed like rabbits, infesting ‘normal’ society with increasing numbers of mental defectives. As shown by Goddard’s genealogy of the Kallikak family, feeble-minded individuals were a source of poverty, moral depravity and crime. Goddard emphasized that society would be forced to bear the costs of caring for the feeble-minded. Upstanding citizens would suffer from the criminal tendencies of this group, or they would have to pay the costs of welfare.
Goddard concluded: “If both parents are feeble-minded all the children will be feeble-minded. It is obvious that such matings should not be allowed. It is perfectly clear that no feeble-minded person should ever be allowed to marry or to become a parent. It is obvious that if this rule is to be carried out the intelligent part of society must enforce it.” Goddard’s recommended solution was that feeble-minded people be institutionalized, where they would be removed from the general population and cared for by the state. Here, Goddard had a clear motive to increase funding for institutions such as his Vineland Training School.
Goddard’s book The Kallikak Family was extremely successful. It was reprinted several times and his results were widely disseminated. Goddard’s apparent “proof” that feeble-mindedness was an inherited characteristic was considered a slam-dunk demonstration of applied genetics. Fig. II.21 shows a psychology textbook from the 1950s that presents a cartoon summary of Goddard’s results.
Despite his dire view of the danger posed by the feeble-minded, Goddard had a genuine interest in their well-being. He wanted to segregate them from normal society, but he wished to see them cared for in a humane fashion. “Treat them as children according to their mental age, constantly encourage and praise, never discourage or scold, and keep them happy.” Goddard’s recommendation to house the feeble-minded in institutions was seconded by British physicist W.C.D. Whetham and his wife in their 1909 book The Family and the Nation. The Whethams stated “By legislative reform, we may segregate the worst types of the feeble-minded, the habitual criminal, and the hopeless pauper, and thus weed out of our race the contaminating streams of worthless blood.” The recommendation was that the institutionalized be segregated by gender, to make it difficult or impossible for them to reproduce.
Robert Yerkes and Intelligence Testing:
As we mentioned earlier, tests of intelligence had begun around 1900 with Alfred Binet. Binet initially began studies of intelligence by attempting to replicate Paul Broca’s measurements of the sizes of skulls. Binet stated “I began with the idea, impressed upon me by so many other scientists, that intellectual superiority is tied to superiority of cerebral volume.” Binet, however, being a diligent and scrupulously honest scientist, was dismayed at the results he obtained. Average differences in skull volume between highly intelligent subjects and inhabitants of insane asylums were of the order of a few millimeters, and Binet suspected that experimenters might be unconsciously biasing their measurements.
Binet then turned toward construction of exams to be administered to school children. He was commissioned to produce a study that could be applied to “slow learners” in school. The purpose of the tests was to identify the form of special education that would be of most benefit to those children. Binet’s exam consisted of a series of short tasks (for example, counting coins) that would illuminate the child’s mastery of concepts such as “ordering, comprehension, invention and correction.” Binet then assigned an age level to each task, defined as the youngest age at which a child of normal intelligence would be able to complete the task successfully. A child began the Binet test with tasks for the youngest age, and proceeded in sequence until he/she could no longer complete the tasks. The age corresponding to the last tasks the child could perform was defined as the “mental age” of the student. In a few years, psychologists recommended that the “mental age” of the student be divided by the student’s chronological age; after multiplication by 100, this became the “intelligence quotient” or “IQ” of the child.
Binet refused to claim that his exam measured innate intelligence. He insisted that his tests were valid only for the purpose for which they were intended – as a rough empirical guide for identifying “special needs” children, and for prescribing the most effective special training methods that could improve their learning abilities. Binet feared that his exams might be used to label children with lower IQ as inherently inferior. He emphasized that his tests should not be assigned to “rank” normal children. Binet stated, “Some recent thinkers seem to have given their moral support to these deplorable verdicts by affirming that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity that cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism.”
Binet’s testing methods were subsequently taken up by American psychologists. Unfortunately, they disregarded all the caveats Binet attached to his tests. H.H. Goddard, whom we have encountered earlier, brought the Binet test to the U.S. Goddard translated Binet’s test into English, and began administering it to large groups of subjects. As Goddard was director of research at the Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys, he had plenty of subjects for his exams. As we have seen, Goddard claimed that “normal intelligence seems to be a unit character and transmitted in true Mendelian fashion. [It is] … conditioned by a nervous mechanism which is inborn [and] … is but little affected by any later influences.” Goddard maintained that Nature would elevate those with higher intelligence and punish those with limited IQ. “We have come to suspect all persons who are incapable of adapting themselves to their environment and living up to the conventions of society or acting sensibly, of being feeble-minded.”
Goddard first applied his testing methods to patients in his Vineland Training School. In 1912, Goddard began to expand his tests to immigrants to America. He visited Ellis Island and offered to “observe conditions and offer any suggestions as to what might be done to secure a more thorough examination of immigrants for the purpose of detecting mental defectives.” In spring 1913, two of Goddard’s associates were sent to Ellis Island. There they administered Goddard’s version of the Binet test to 35 Jews, 22 Hungarians, 50 Italians and 45 Russians.
The methods of testing were extremely subjective. First, the only immigrants tested were those who traveled in steerage class – people arriving in the upper classes were assumed to be normal! The immigrants were quite likely confused, or fearful at being tested immediately after they got off the boat. Furthermore, some of the tasks in the test involved being shown a picture, and then having to draw the picture from memory. However, some of these passengers were illiterate and had never before held a pencil; this might explain their inability to produce a decent drawing.
In any case, Goddard’s test “demonstrated” that 83% of the Jews, 80% of the Hungarians, 79% of the Italians and 87% of the Russians were feeble-minded. Goddard and his associates believed that they could identify the feeble-minded at first glance. Upon seeing the painting Man With a Hoe by Millet, Goddard stated “Man With A Hoe is a man of arrested development – the painting is a perfect picture of an imbecile.” Here, Goddard was repeating similar arguments made by David Starr Jordan in 1901 (Jordan stated, “Man of the Hoe is primitive, aboriginal. His lineage has always been that of the clown and swineherd … The skulls of Neanderthal were typical men of the hoe.”). Today we realize that the early IQ tests were extremely subjective, and that they certainly did not reveal innate intelligence. However, as we will see, the results of Goddard’s tests on immigrants would have a great impact on the U.S. Immigration Restriction Act of 1924.
The study of intelligence testing was then taken up by scientists such as Lewis Terman and Robert Yerkes. Terman, a psychologist at Stanford, made major revisions in Binet’s tests. He organized the tests into two parts. Part A included sections on arithmetical reasoning, sentence completion, logics, a synonym-antonym section, and a symbol-digit test. Part B included sections involving sentence completion, vocabulary, analogies, comparisons, and general information. Terman and associates tried out their tests on numerous cohorts of school children. Their aim was to determine the average performance of children in each grade from 3 to 8, and to administer the test to as many students as possible. They also performed numerous statistical tests, and arranged the grading to achieve an average of 100 for every grade, with a standard deviation of 15. The resulting “Stanford-Binet” test fairly rapidly became the standard in the field.
Terman was quite candid about his motives for universal testing. “It is safe to predict that in the near future intelligence tests will bring tens of thousands of those high-grade defectives under the surveillance and protection of society. This will ultimately result in curtailing the reproduction of feeble-mindedness and in the elimination of an enormous amount of crime, pauperism, and industrial inefficiency.” So, while Binet had insisted that his tests be administered only to provide assistance in improving the skills of slow learners, Terman and his hereditarian brethren were determined to identify, isolate and stigmatize precisely this group of children. Terman had no doubt that his tests represented measurements of innate intelligence, and that intelligence was almost entirely determined by heredity. “The children of successful and cultured parents test higher than children from wretched and ignorant homes for the simple reason that their heredity is better.”
Terman also recommended that businesses use IQ tests in hiring decisions. He argued that “substantial success” as a leader required an IQ of at least 115 to 120. Furthermore, people with IQs below 100 should not be hired for demanding or high-paying jobs. Terman was even more specific: people with IQ below 75 should only be qualified for menial tasks, and the 75-85 level for semi-skilled labor. People with an IQ of 85 or lower should be tracked into vocational schools, so that they would not leave school and “drift easily into the ranks of the anti-social or join the army of Bolshevik discontents.”
Robert Yerkes was an American psychologist and primatologist. Born in 1876, Yerkes graduated from Ursinus College in 1897 and accepted a graduate position at Harvard, where he completed a PhD in comparative psychology in 1902 and was hired by Harvard as an assistant professor in Comparative Psychology.
Yerkes would later carry out seminal work in primatology. He studied the behavior of primates, particularly chimpanzees and gorillas. He established a colony of primates at Yale University and later the Anthropoid Breeding and Experiment Station in Florida. That center has since been moved to Emory University, where it is now called the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.
Yerkes became president of the American Psychological Association in 1917. He was interested in intelligence testing, and worked with a group of American psychometric professionals at Henry Goddard’s Vineland Training School. The group of researchers allied with Goddard, Terman and Yerkes were diehard hereditarians. They firmly believed that the genetic component in “intelligence” was much more important than cultural influences, and they were convinced that the “scientific” tests they devised would prove that hypothesis. It is interesting that, while the eugenics movement was born in Britain, and the ‘intelligence tests’ began with the French psychologist Binet, the subsequent development of IQ tests and the near-universal application of such tests was predominantly an American phenomenon.
To be sure, there were British scientists who were strong hereditarians, but their work was more focused on collections of family data such as was carried out by Karl Pearson and collaborators, or studies of identical twins who were separated and brought up in different environments, as in the work of Cyril Burt. (Burt claimed to have carried out detailed studies on 53 pairs of separated identical twins. Burt’s twin studies have been shown to be fraudulent: investigators who attempted to replicate Burt’s work were unable to locate more than a handful of such twins; virtually no records have been found of Burt’s studies; and the correlations of Burt’s ‘data’ for different pairs of twins are impossibly similar).
In the summer of 1917, a group headed by Yerkes developed two different intelligence tests. Yerkes then persuaded the U.S. Army to allow him to administer the tests to all Army recruits. The scheme was intended to proceed as follows. Literate recruits would be administered the Army Alpha test. All recruits who failed the Alpha test, plus all illiterate recruits, were to be given the Army Beta test. Those who failed both tests were supposed to receive an individual exam. Every recruit was then assigned a letter grade from A to E.
Yerkes emphasized the ‘scientific’ nature of his intelligence tests. Some efforts were made to standardize the procedures for administering the exams. For example, Yerkes provided detailed instructions that described exactly what the test administrators should do and say for every part of the test. However, the test conditions could differ radically from one location to another. In some cases, candidates who failed the Alpha test were never given the Beta test because of time constraints in training the recruits. Also, the definition of ‘literacy’ differed widely: in one camp, anyone who had completed third grade was considered literate; in another, anyone who claimed to be able to read was given the Alpha test.
The Yerkes intelligence tests had an enormous impact on national policy, educational standards, and immigration law. Yerkes eventually obtained data on 1.75 million Army recruits, and was able to produce massive archives, charts and correlations. For many years Yerkes’ claim that his exams produced quantifiable measures of native intelligence went unchallenged. However, a review of these exams immediately reveals glaring cultural and environmental biases.
The ‘Alpha’ test consisted of eight parts. There was a set of statements followed by four possible answers. Another part required filling in the next number in a sequence. In yet another part, the test-taker had to unscramble a sentence. Imagine that you were an Army recruit and were given the Alpha test. You would be given 10 seconds to complete the following task (the verbal command was not repeated).
Attention! Look at 4. When I say “Go” make a figure 1 in the space which is in the circle but not in the triangle or square, and also make a figure 2 in the space which is in the triangle and circle, but not in the square. Go!
Another example on the Alpha test was the following analogy question: “Washington is to Adams as first is to …”. And here are four of the multiple-choice questions on the Alpha test:
Crisco is a: i) patent medicine; ii) disinfectant; iii) toothpaste; iv) food product.
Christy Mathewson is famous as a: i) writer; ii) artist; iii) baseball player; iv) comedian.
The Knight engine is used in the: i) Packard; ii) Stearns; iii) Lozier; iv) Pierce Arrow.
Velvet Joe appears in advertisements of: i) tooth powder; ii) dry goods; iii) tobacco; iv) soap.
OK, how many of you correctly answered (iv) for Crisco, (iii) for Christy Mathewson, (ii) for the Knight engine, and (iii) for ‘Velvet Joe’? Despite the fact that the multiple-choice questions are dated, remember that this test was administered to every Army trainee who could read and write.
And the Beta test was if anything even worse. Below is part 6 of the Beta test, administered to illiterate Army trainees (and similar to Goddard’s exam that was given to steerage passengers arriving in the U.S. who were often unable to read or write English). An examiner and a demonstrator provided the following instructions to the test-takers (many of these illiterates may have never held a pencil before). “This is test 6 here. Look. A lot of pictures.” A pause while the test-takers find the correct page. “Now watch.” The examiner points to a drawing of a hand that is missing a finger. “Now fix it.” The demonstrator does nothing. The examiner then points to the place where the finger is missing and says, “Fix it. Fix it.” The demonstrator slowly and carefully draws the finger and the examiner says, “That’s right.” The examiner and demonstrator repeat the same process for five more examples of ‘missing’ items. The examiner then says “All right. Go ahead. Hurry up!” Part 6 of the Beta test is shown below.
I urge you to take this test – better yet, imagine that you are an illiterate field-worker who had no education, or had dropped out of school in the third grade. Note that the test-takers may have been totally confused by the instructions from the examiner. As a final insult, the test-takers were rushed through the various parts. Stephen Jay Gould administered the Beta test to his Harvard students, and many of them were unable to finish various sections in the allotted time.
By the way, did you correctly supply the following ‘missing parts’ on part 6 of the Beta test?
No. 5: a chimney is missing (the fireplace must continue through the roof of the house to a chimney).
No. 10: one of the rivets in the pocket knife is missing.
No. 13: there is a missing leg on the left side of the crab.
No. 15: You must add a bowling ball to the right hand of the man, but not the woman (she has already released her ball).
No. 16: The tennis court is missing a net.
No. 18: the ‘horn’ of the phonograph is missing
No. 20: you must add a diamond at the top, to the left of the head of the Jack.
The results of the Army tests were widely publicized, and were later used to determine national policies (see Part IV on Social and Legal Implications of Eugenics). The first conclusion was that the average “mental age” of Army recruits was 13. According to Yerkes, “37% of white recruits and 89% of Negroes” had a mental age below 13. This was widely used by eugenics advocates to argue that the “fitness” of Americans was declining. The eugenicists lobbied for strict measures to identify and segregate the feeble-minded from the general population, and urged the adoption of immigration policies designed to weed out ‘unfit’ immigrants.
Another conclusion was that European immigrants varied greatly in their intelligence according to their country of origin. “Nordics” achieved the highest mental age: whereas the average mental age for those of Russian origin was 11.34; for Italians, it was 11.01; and Poles 10.74. Negroes had an average mental age of 10.41. One can imagine several environmental factors that could have had a significant impact upon the results. For example, there was no established criterion for what constituted ‘literacy,’ and no uniform method of selecting illiterates.
One telling test result was the large number of “zero” scores on parts of the Army exams. The graph below plots the scores for test 5 of an Army Alpha exam, showing the very large number of zeros; in 6 of the 8 Alpha tests, the most common result was zero. An obvious answer was that many people taking the test did not understand the instructions. However, Yerkes and collaborators compared the scores of recruits on different parts of the exam. If the recruit received a zero on one part of the test but scored higher on other sections, his zero result would be “re-calibrated.” In many cases, the re-calibrated score for that part was negative!
Results from 1.75 million Army recruits provided the “IQ testers” Yerkes, Goddard, Terman and their associates, with vast quantities of data. In hindsight, the test results provided ample evidence of significant environmental effects on IQ scores. Although Yerkes closely scrutinized the test results, he managed to explain away all environmental effects. First, there was a strong correlation between the test score and years of education. But Yerkes did not arrive at the obvious conclusion that his measurement of “intelligence” represented the amount of education of his subjects. He concluded that men with greater intelligence spent more time in school!
Furthermore, Yerkes noticed that a very high percentage of black recruits taking the test reported no schooling. But this was strongly affected by region; 25% of blacks from the North had completed primary school, as compared with 7% from the South. Again, he did not conclude that environmental and historical factors were significant, but chalked it up to lack of intelligence among this group.
One of the most glaring results was that the average score on the Alpha test was 39.90 for blacks in 9 Northern states but 21.31 in 13 Southern states. And the average black score for the 4 highest-scoring Northern states, 45.31, exceeded the average white score, 43.94, for 9 Southern states! Faced with what appeared to be a “slam-dunk” demonstration of large environmental effects, the IQ testers concluded that the results showed that the more intelligent blacks had migrated to the North, leaving the less intelligent ones in the South.
Another obvious effect was that IQ test scores for Americans who had immigrated from Europe increased noticeably according to the length of time they had resided in the U.S. The average ‘mental age’ for immigrants in this country for 5 years or less was 11.29, while the mental age for those in residence more than 20 years was 13.74. Yerkes noted this effect, but stated that it was too soon to draw firm conclusions from this result (however, Yerkes reported that much smaller numerical differences between immigrants from different European countries were ‘highly significant’). However, racist historians had a ready answer: earlier immigrants from Europe came predominantly from ‘Nordic’ countries, and were more intelligent than more recent ‘Mediterranean’ and ‘Alpine’ immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.
Yerkes drew the following conclusions from his Alpha and Beta tests on World War I Army recruits. “A moron … is interpreted as meaning anyone with a mental age less than 13 years … Then almost half of the white draft (47.3%) would have been morons. Thus it appears that feeble-mindedness, as at present defined, is of much greater frequency of occurrence than had been originally supposed.” In a later section we will summarize the social and legal implications of the hereditarian and eugenicist interpretations of the IQ tests and the “proofs” that feeble-mindedness was an inherited quality.
In hindsight, it is apparent that the early IQ tests did not measure an innate and unchanging intelligence of its subjects, but instead the test results were highly dependent on environmental factors. The psychologists analyzing the tests noted these factors. However, in every case they rejected the most obvious conclusions, and instead adopted more convoluted arguments that validated their own cultural prejudices.
In Part III of the history of eugenics in Ameriica, we will review Madison Grant and his “racial history” of Europe and the U.S.