The History of Eugenics in America, Part I:

“They Breed Horses, Don’t They?”

Francis Galton and the Origins of Eugenics.

There are several useful books that review the history of the eugenics movement, particularly in the U.S. One book that served as a goldmine for our survey of the history of eugenics was the 1985 history In the Name of Eugenics, by Daniel Kevles. A second book was Stephen Jay Gould’s attack on the field of intelligence testing, The Mismeasure of Man. We have taken several quotes from those two books. Another essential source of information for both articles and pictures is the Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement.  In this series, pictures labeled “Image Archive” will be from this source.

Another provocative work is Eugenic Nation: Faults & Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America, by Alexandra Minna Stern. This presents a history of the eugenics movement with a focus on the American West, through a feminist lens. We were also intrigued (and at the same time repelled) by the racist history of Madison Grant as set forth in his book, The Passing of the Great Race: A Racial History of Europe. Apart from these works, we made considerable use of Wikipedia articles on Eugenics, Nordicism, and individual entries on people who were prominent in the eugenics movement.

The field of eugenics began in Britain but soon migrated to the United States. After that, the principles and methods of eugenics spread to a number of countries in Europe and Asia. In this review we will concentrate on the history of eugenics in the U.S. But first we need to consider the situation in Britain, where the eugenics movement was born.

Francis Galton: The Birth of Eugenics

The eugenics movement began in the latter half of the 19th century, and to understand the motivations we need to review ideas and theories that were current at that period of history. One of the prime motivating factors was the notion of progress, and in particular the idea that progress could best be accomplished through the application of scientific principles. The industrial revolution had transformed the economies of Western nations. Medical techniques leading to the diagnosis and cure of disease were becoming more scientific, as the germ theory of disease gained acceptance. Darwin’s pathbreaking book On The Origin of Species had been published in 1859, and had generated great interest and controversy. Intellectuals from both progressive and conservative movements were actively discussing new avenues for the application of scientific methods. In the field of psychology, the new area of ‘psychometrics’ was developing. It represented a movement to attack problems in this field using numerical and statistical methods; indeed, the entire field of modern statistics was under development, and many new techniques would be applied to the area of eugenics. These statistical techniques were part of an effort to emphasize the “science” in “social science.”

Improvement of the human condition was an obvious area where scientific methods and quantitative techniques could be brought to bear. After all, great success had been achieved by the process of selectively breeding animals and plants to produce hybrids that possessed superior characteristics. As examples, one could point to successes in producing numerous breeds of dogs, and the creation of new varieties of flowers. Agricultural revolutions had been accomplished by careful selection and crossing of plants, such as the conversion of maize into corn and the cultivation of edible strains of potatoes. Some progressive thinkers argued that 19th century science could surely be employed to affect similar improvements in humans. In the beginning of the 20th century, American biologist Charles Davenport would remark 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.’”

Fig. I.1: Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), the father of eugenics.

But before progress could be made, one had to collect and analyze data regarding human traits. And this field was pioneered by Francis Galton. Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, first made his mark as a noted explorer. He became fluent in Arabic and traveled up the Nile from Egypt to Khartoum, continuing on areas that now constitute Israel, Lebanon and Syria. He was known for the detailed maps he made of his travels – later in life, Galton became interested in meteorology and produced the first weather map.

Galton had a passion for measurement and quantification: his motto was “Whenever you can, count.” This was one of his greatest strengths. While attending meetings at the Royal Geographical Society, he counted the number of “fidgets” among members of the audience, in order to calculate their attention span. Walking down the street, Galton would evaluate women passersby on a scale of “attractive, indifferent, or repellent;” and he used the data that he obtained to construct a “beauty map” of the British Isles. Galton also possessed a vivid imagination: this led him to initiate studies in a wide variety of different subjects, ranging from human heredity to weather prediction to criminology (he was the first to publish articles describing how to identify individuals by their fingerprints).

Fig. I.2: A set of cards collected by Galton that registered the fingerprints of various men. Source: Image Archive.

Galton was also a prodigious writer, with a gift for analyzing large data sets, and for summarizing scientific ideas to the general public. During his lifetime he produced over 340 articles and books. Galton made several advances in statistics; among these he created the concept of statistical correlation, and he used the concept “regression towards the mean” to great effect in his works; in fact, Galton coined the term “coefficient of regression” in studying these properties.

Despite his many gifts, Galton was also prone to over-generalization and could be sloppy in his methods; as a result, many of what were considered his most influential results are now seen as seriously flawed. In addition, Galton’s mathematical abilities were limited. He often needed to appeal to fellow mathematicians to prove his hypotheses.

In the 1860s, Galton developed a serious interest in human heredity, and in the general field of race improvement. His first project was in craniometry. This involved the measurement of the size of a person’s head or the volume of their skull, in an effort to prove a direct relationship between intelligence and the size of the brain [we will provide more details on craniometry in Part III of this series, as part of our review of Madison Grant]. After the craniometry project failed to yield definitive results, Galton was inspired by the first chapter of Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species, that dealt with production of variation through animal breeding. Galton subsequently undertook the first ‘scientific’ study of the origins of “natural ability.”

His first major contribution on this score was his 1869 book Hereditary Genius. For this work, Galton used publications such as Dictionary of Men of the Time and similar encyclopedias, as a means of identifying outstanding “leaders of opinion.” Galton found that a large fraction of these leaders were blood relatives. Galton then examined the personal histories of more distant relatives of outstanding leaders. He found that the closer the blood relation, the greater the probability that the men would be leaders. Thus, Galton claimed to have demonstrated that “ability” was passed down through families. This was a striking assertion – it was believed (and would soon be proved) that physical features such as hair or eye color were inherited characteristics, but Galton claimed to have shown that talent and character were also hereditary. Note that Galton implicitly assumed that reputation (more precisely, inclusion in a biographical encyclopedia) was an accurate indicator of ability; conversely, failure to appear in such publications was evidence of a lack of ability.

In the process of this work, Galton introduced the term “nature and nurture;” some years later, he would also coin the term “eugenics.” He maintained that his study of ability demonstrated that it “would be quite practicable to produce a highly gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations.” Galton made several suggestions that might accomplish this goal. First, he urged that the state should sponsor examinations of hereditary merit. Couples who scored highest on such tests would be honored in ceremonies, and awarded grants when they gave birth to a child.

Fig. I.3: A handwritten page by Galton suggesting certificates to be awarded for eugenical breeding. Source: Image Archive.

The actions suggested by Galton are examples of what are called “positive eugenics;” that is, incentives by the state to encourage voluntary behavior that would lead to desirable results (i.e., encouragement for “fitter” citizens to have more children). However, as time went on Galton’s advice took a different turn. He later suggested that “the state rank people by ability and authorize more children to the higher- than to the lower-ranking unions. The unworthy, Galton hoped, would be comfortably segregated in monasteries and convents, where they would be unable to propagate their kind.” This is an example of so-called “negative eugenics.” In such cases the state would undertake action that would require certain behaviors and/or prohibit others – in particular, preventing the “unfit” from breeding.

Galton was also prone to the virulent racism that pervaded much intellectual thought of his time.  As an example, here are comments made by Galton in an 1873 letter to the Times of London (as quoted by Steve Jones, a biologist at University College London). The title of Galton’s letter was “Africa for the Chinese.”  “My proposal is the encouragement of the Chinese settlements at one or more suitable places on the East Coast of Africa as part of our national policy, in the belief that the Chinese immigrants would not only maintain their position, but that they would multiply and their descendants supplant the inferior Negro race. I should expect that large part of the African seaboard, now sparsely occupied by lazy, palavering savages living under the nominal sovereignty of the Zanzibar, or Portugal, might in a few years be tenanted by industrious, order-loving Chinese … Average negroes possess too little intellect, self-reliance, and self-control to make it possible for them to sustain the burden of any respectable form of civilization without a large measure of external guidance and support … The Hindoo cannot fulfil the required conditions nearly as well as the Chinaman, for he is inferior to him in strength, industry, aptitude for savings, business habits, and prolific power. The Arab is little more than an eater up of other men’s produce; he is a destroyer rather than a creator, and he is unprolific.”

In the 1880s, Galton undertook to gather data that might shed light on issues of human heredity. Here he demonstrated another of his strengths, in creating and managing large organizations. In 1884 London’s South Kensington Science Museum opened an International Health Exhibition. Galton organized an Anthropometric Laboratory at that exhibit, and the laboratory eventually measured the physical characteristics of over 9,000 visitors. Galton was particularly interested in measurements of family members. Simultaneously, he published a questionnaire on heredity that offered prizes of up to five hundred pounds for the most detailed set of family data.

In 1889 Galton published the data that he had collected in the work Natural Inheritance. This was a treasure trove of statistical data on a wide range of traits. Galton also subjected the data to statistical analysis, using measures of correlations and regressions. This work set new standards for data archives; it also provided mathematical analyses of many individual and family-history traits. Galton’s fellow British statistician Karl Pearson commented on the impact of Galton’s book, “This has not only enormously widened the field to which quantitative and therefore mathematical methods can be applied, but it has at the same time modified our philosophy of science and even of life itself.”

However, Galton’s work on heredity and ability eventually reached an impasse. At this time, Mendel’s experiments on transmission of characteristics in varieties of plants had yet to be re-discovered. As a result, the role of natural selection to optimize a species’ survivability and fertility in their local environment was but one of several competing theories advanced to explain the process of evolution. At this time, it was not known what mechanisms would produce permanent changes in hereditary traits. From his work in statistics, Galton knew that inherited characteristics tended to regress towards the mean. So if one mated an unusually tall male and female, the height of the offspring would generally be closer to the mean height of that population. Thus it appeared to Galton that the only way one could reliably produce taller offspring would be to select for height in every generation; presumably, this held for any inherited trait. This presented a challenge to Galton’s eugenics program. In 1892, Galton reviewed the prospects of eugenics by selective breeding: “We may not be able to originate, but we can guide. The processes of evolution are in constant and spontaneous activity, some towards the bad, some towards the good. Our part is to watch for opportunities to intervene by checking the former and giving free play to the latter.”

Fig. I.4: Eugenics as the culmination of all scientific and quantitative descriptions of human development; this was the logo of the Second International Eugenics Congress, 1921. Source: Image Archive.

Early Examples of Race Theory

In the U.S., the ‘scientific’ basis of eugenics, and its proposed applications to social policy, depended upon the identification and classification of different races. A first question was to determine the number of races. In a later section we will review the career of American biologist Charles Davenport. He maintained that individual nations constituted separate races – for Davenport the Poles, the Irish, the Italians, and other national groups were all biologically different species; so, in his lexicon, were the ‘Hebrews.’ While others did not share Davenport’s extreme views regarding races, there was general agreement among proponents of eugenics (who were predominantly white, upper-class, and Protestant) that Europeans (‘Caucasians’) occupied the top of a racial pyramid, with other racial types radiating out below.

Fig. I.5 is from J.F. Blumenbach’s 1795 work, On The Natural Variety of Mankind. Blumenbach, a German physician who coined the term ‘Caucasian’ for the people of Europe and surrounding areas, named that group after what he guessed was the source of the original humans. The Caucasians occupied the highest rung in Blumenbach’s ranking of mankind. In the second tier were American Indian and Malay, while the Orientals were ranked below the Indians and Africans below the Malays.

Fig. I.5: The ‘racial pyramid’ of human races by Blumenbach, with ‘Caucasian’ at the top, and two separate descending lines of inferior types. Source: Gould Mismeasure.

Blumenbach slightly expanded the racial classification used by his predecessor Linnaeus (Blumenbach added the group ‘Malay’ to the four groups categorized by the Swedish scientist). Linnaeus also provided character traits (color, temperature or humor, and posture) for each of his four human groups: for example, Europeans were “white, sanguine and muscular;” Indians “red, choleric and upright;” Asians “pale-yellow, melancholy and stiff;” and Africans “black, phlegmatic and relaxed.” Apart from the ‘color’ trait, these were of course nothing more than crass stereotypes of each group.

Although he declaimed at length about the characteristics of his five racial types, Blumenbach was adamant that all of his phenotypes (i.e., traits) varied continuously from one group to another. He stated that “you might easily take the inhabitants of the Cape of Good Hope, the Greenlanders and the Circassians for so many different species of man, yet when the matter is thoroughly considered you see that …. one variety of man does so sensibly pass into the other, that you cannot mark out the limits between them.”

Blumenbach’s categorization scheme falls into the class called monogeny. In this Biblically-inspired view, all human races can be traced back to a single act of creation of Adam and Eve. After their expulsion from the perfection of the Garden of Eden, all human races have declined. From the monogenic viewpoint, present-day racial differences stem from differential rates of decline among the races, with Caucasians having declined the least and Africans the most. Scientists of this era differed as to whether inferior races could catch up to the Caucasians, if their environment and training were improved. Since virtually all eugenics advocates in the late 19th century were white Europeans (and predominantly Protestant), there was more or less universal agreement amongst them that the Caucasians represented the highest form of humanity. For example, the Comte de Buffon was an outspoken believer that all races could display marked improvement if they were placed in appropriate environments; nevertheless he claimed that “The most temperate climate lies between the 40th and 50th degree of latitude, and it produces the most handsome and beautiful men. It is from this climate that the ideas of the genuine color of mankind, and of the various degrees of beauty ought to be derived.”

A competing theory of man’s origin was called polygeny. This hypothesis postulated that the human races were distinct. In this theory, each race could be traced back to an originating pair – a separate Adam and Eve for each race, if you like. Polygeny ran into trouble on several counts. First, the notion of multiple creations contradicted the Biblical assertion that God had created humans only once. However, an advantage of polygeny was that it was then believed that the Universe was roughly 6,000 years old. Many scientists could not explain how the strong differences between races could have occurred in such a short time period. Another problem with polygeny was that it conflicted with Buffon’s definition of race. Under Buffon’s criterion, members of a species could breed with each other, but not with representatives of another species. The interfertility of all human ‘races’ ran counter to the notion of different races as distinct species.

The notion of polygeny was widely adopted in America. Before the Civil War, there were many attempts to justify the practice of slavery, and following 1865 the U.S. was dealing with large numbers of freed slaves. Furthermore, during this period Native Americans were being killed and displaced in great numbers. And beginning in 1864, a large influx of Chinese immigrants began to work on laying tracks for the Transcontinental Railroad. Soon, several large California cities saw the development of ‘Chinatown’ ghettoes. It is not surprising, then, that a theory would be popular if it appeared to justify cruel and inhumane treatment of blacks, Indians and ‘Mongolians’ (Chinese and other Asians) because of their sub-human status. Below is a figure that appeared in Types of Mankind, by Nott and Gliddon, in 1854. The figure, deliberately distorted to suggest similarities between Africans and apes, had the caption “The palpable analogies and dissimilarities between an inferior type of mankind and a superior type of monkey require no comment.” In his book The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould points out that the book by Nott and Gliddon was not an unusual example of racism, but was the leading American text of its day on human races.

Fig. I.6: From Nott & Gliddon, Types of Mankind. Comparison of features of Negroes and gorillas. Source: Gould Mismeasure.

In their 1868 book, Indigenous Races of the Earth, Nott and Gliddon published a figure comparing a Caucasian (in this case the Apollo Belvidere [sic]) with an African and a chimpanzee. Note that the chimp skull in Fig. I.7 below is falsely inflated, while the Negro jaw is grossly extended, for reasons that ‘require no comment.’

Figure I.7: Nott & Gliddon, 1868; comparison of skulls of ‘Apollo’, Negro and chimpanzee. Source: Gould Mismeasure.

The scientist and physician Samuel George Morton amassed a large collection of skulls in the early 19th century, and made detailed measurements of the cranial volume. This marked an early foray into the field of psychometry or ‘scientific racism.’ Morton, a zealous polygenist, measured the cranial volume for several different ‘racial types’ (using Blumenbach’s categories). The mean results (in cubic inches) for cranial capacity were: Caucasians 87; Mongolians 83; American 82; Malay 81; Ethiopian 78. Although Morton’s results do not exactly follow the order of Blumenbach’s racial pyramid of Fig. I.5, they nevertheless satisfy his initial prejudice that the Caucasians should come out on top and the Africans on the bottom.

Fig. I.8: American scientist and physician Samuel George Morton (1799-1851).

Morton’s methods have been criticized by Stephen Jay Gould in his book, The Mismeasure of Man. Gould claimed that while Morton took great pains to insure that his measurements of cranial volume were precise and reproducible, he unconsciously made selections that biased his results. For example, he would include female skulls for non-Caucasian samples (females tend to be shorter and have less body mass than males, and have correspondingly smaller skulls), but not for Caucasians; and he included several Hottentot and Australian aboriginal skulls in his African sample (individuals in those groups tend to be smaller in stature). Also, in his first major study of skulls, the 1839 Crania Americana, Morton included comments about the personal characteristics of different races. He described Eskimo from Greenland as “crafty, sensual, ungrateful, obstinate and unfeeling … they seem to have no ideas beyond providing for the present moment … in gluttony, selfishness and ingratitude, they are perhaps unequalled by any other nation of people.” As to the Hottentots, “they are the nearest approximation to the lower animals … their complexion is a yellowish brown, compared by travelers to the peculiar hue of Europeans in the last stages of jaundice … the women are represented as even more repulsive in appearance than the men.”

Morton’s comments are perfectly typical of the results of eugenic science where precise quantitative methods were combined with subconscious selection bias. The entire effort is undergirded by a set of shockingly prejudiced and wholly unscientific cultural biases. A few years later, Morton measured one hundred skulls unearthed from Egyptian tombs. In a few cases he had an entire mummified body, which allowed him to determine the gender. For all other skulls Morton used subjective criteria to guess the ethnicity and gender. By careful measurements of skull volume, Morton ‘demonstrated’ that Caucasians had larger skull volumes, and therefore greater intelligence, than the Negroid skulls. Morton then invoked a creationist timeline. He estimated that Noah’s flood had occurred roughly 4,000 years earlier; and the Egyptian skulls were known to be about 3,000 years old. If his measured racial differences in ‘intelligence’ had existed 3,000 years earlier, then surely the various races must have been created with different degrees of intelligence, since there was no known natural mechanism that could produce such differences only 1,000 years after Noah.

Morton’s efforts did not go unnoticed by residents of Southern slaveholding states. Upon his death in 1851, an obituary in the Charleston Medical Journal stated “We of the South should consider him as our benefactor, for aiding most materially in giving to the negro his true position as an inferior race.” A New York Tribune obit provided an indicator of Morton’s stature, saying that “probably no scientific man in America enjoyed a higher reputation among scholars throughout the world, than Dr. Morton.”

In an 1850 article in the Christian Examiner, the prominent American biologist Louis Agassiz fleshed out his arguments in favor of polygeny. “The indomitable, courageous, proud Indian – in how very different a light he stands by the side of the submissive, obsequious, imitative Negro, or by the side of the tricky, cunning and cowardly Mongolian!” In the middle of the Civil War, Agassiz was asked his opinion about the role of blacks in a reunited post-war nation. Agassiz wrote: “Consider for a moment the difference it would make in future ages … if the United States should hereafter be inhabited by the effeminate progeny of mixed races, half Indian, half Negro, sprinkled with white blood … I shudder from the consequences … How shall we eradicate the stigma of a lower race when its blood has once been allowed to flow freely into that of our children?”

Later in 1890 E.D. Cope, the most prominent paleontologist of his time, made similar racist remarks: “The highest race of man cannot afford to lose or even to compromise the advantages it has acquired by hundreds of centuries of toil and hardship, by mingling its blood with the lowest … We cannot cloud or extinguish the fine nervous susceptibility, and the mental force, which cultivation develops in the constitution of the Indo-European, by the fleshly instincts and dark mind of the African.” Agassiz advocated for the strict segregation of the races after the Civil War. Blacks could be moved to the Southern lowlands, “a natural climate for the black species, created for hot and humid conditions.” In Agassiz’s view, this would require the creation of a few Negro states. Whites would then rule over the seashore and higher ground. Cope, on the other hand, proposed shipping all blacks back to Africa.

The focus on Race Theory came at a convenient time. This field thrived during the age of European and then American imperialism. The notion that the Caucasians existed at the top of a racial pyramid was used to justify colonialist expansion, particularly if the colonized peoples were seen as incapable of managing their own affairs. The classic ode to colonial expansion is the poem Take Up the White Man’s Burden: the United States & the Philippine Islands, 1899, by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling wrote the poem to induce the U.S. to colonize the Philippines and to put down a native insurrection. Imperialists such as Kipling argued that the U.S. had a moral duty to colonize and develop Cuba and the Philippines, in order to lead these backwards inhabitants to civilization.

Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go send your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

Take up the White Man’s burden
In patience to abide
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit
And work another’s gain

Take up the White Man’s burden—
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard—
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah slowly) to the light:
“Why brought ye us from bondage,
“Our loved Egyptian night?”

Take up the White Man’s burden-
Have done with childish days-
The lightly proffered laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!

Kipling’s praise of colonial dominance was bolstered by the ‘scientific racism’ embodied in eugenical dogma. The cartoon below, by Victor Gillam from Judge magazine in 1899, depicts British figure John Bull carrying a basket full of colonial peoples, followed by Uncle Sam shouldering his lot of natives (who represent Filipinos, Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Hawaiians). Both are dutifully leading their inferior charges towards their destiny, “Civilization.”

Fig. I.9: Cartoon “The White Man’s Burden” by Victor Gillam.

Although Kipling’s viewpoint was a popular one for its time, it certainly did not represent a unanimous opinion. As a rejoinder to Kipling, Mark Twain wrote a 1901 essay titled “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” that catalogued the brutal treatment of the Chinese by the Western military during the Boxer Rebellion. Below is a cartoon by William Henry Walker from Life magazine in 1899. This completely reverses the sentiment of Gillam’s celebration of colonialism. In Walker’s picture the “white (?) man’s burden” is represented by figures such as Uncle Sam, John Bull and other imperialists being carried on the backs of their colonial subjects.

Fig. 1.10: Cartoon by William Henry Walker from Life magazine, 1899.

Continued in Part II