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Eugenics in the United States

Updated on November 5, 2014

Eugenics is the study of or belief in improving the human species though selective reproduction. The goal is to encourage certain groups to breed while discouraging other groups from doing the same thing. Unfortunately, when put into practice, this resulted in forced sterilization of groups of people, many of whom were minorities. People were mainly targeted in mental institutions, though hospitals and prisons also saw their share of sterilizations. It is estimated that over 65,000 people have been forcefully sterilized, though the true number will probably never be know.

Sir Francis Galton


Origins of Eugenics

The notion of eugenics has been around for thousands of years, some of the larger city-states of Ancient Greece had tests that infants were put through to deem if the were worthy of living. Plato was also a believer in state controlled reproduction, though he knew it would not be readily accepted. Rome had laws that stated if a baby was born deformed in some way it should be killed. Roman patriarchs were also given the right to discard infants at their discretion.

Sir Francis Galton is the one who made eugenics what we know today. Citing his cousin, Charles Darwin, he believed that human civilization thwarted natural selection. Since many societies had functions in place to protect the underprivileged and weak, they were not allowing the process of "only the strongest survive" to take place. He coined the phrase "reversion towards mediocrity" to describe what would happen if the undesirables of all societies weren't allowed to die out.

Galton first sketched out his theory in an article in 1865 called Hereditary Talent and Character, then explained further in his 1869 book Hereditary Genius. He began by studying which intellectual, moral, and personality traits tended to run in families. Galton's basic argument was genius and talent were hereditary traits. He concluded since someone could use artificial selection to promote traits in other animals, someone could expect similar results with humans. He also believed that the less intelligent were more fertile, which explained the difference in the number of children people from desirable groups had to undesirable groups.



Though the eugenics believe in the "betterment of human kind", the reality is it was used as a tool for racism, discrimination against lower classes and sexism. The only people who supposedly held the desirable genes were those of Northern Europeans and those of Anglo Saxon descent. Of those only the wealthy, successful and those they considered intelligent were deemed acceptable. Women were largely held at fault for the prevalence of "bad genes", and were sterilized more than men. Since women bore children, eugenicists held women more accountable for reproduction and by 1961 61% of those sterilized were female.

The way that the United States dealt with their undesirables was sterilization. Reasons such as criminal activity, epilepsy, promiscuity, dept and feeble mindedness could result in sterilization. Feeble mindedness was an umbrella term used to describe low intelligence, mental disorders and poor decision making. In some states anyone could report someone to Eugenics Boards who they thought were lacking in some way and if the claim was deemed credible the person would be investigated.

Euthanasia also played a role, but on a much smaller scale. A 1911 Carnegie Institute report actually mentioned euthanasia as one of its recommended "solutions". The most common suggested method of euthanasia were gas chambers. However, many supporters of eugenics didn't believe Americans were ready to start a large-scale euthanasia program. Because of this many doctors had to find ways to subtly practice eugenic euthanasia. A mental institution in Lincoln, Illinois fed its incoming patients milk infected with tuberculosis, believing genetically fit individuals would be resistant. Other doctors practiced euthanasia through lethal forms of neglect.

This trend coupled with Social Darwinism and the over institutionalization of people resulted in tens of thousands being coerced and forcefully sterilized. Many other were subject to testing, imprisonment, long term isolation and death. Socially much more damage was done in the name of eugenics, many people bought into the basic premiss, adding to an already volatile social structure.

Who Were
The Blind
Those with Epilepsy
The "Feeble Minded"
Those on Walfare
Those labeled Insane
The Poor
The Disabled
Click thumbnail to view full-size


Big money played an prominent role in funding and pushing different eugenics programs. The result was 33 States having eugenics laws. The Rockefeller Foundation, Carnegie Institution and J.H. Kellogg along with many others were all supporters and financiers. With their support The Eugenics Record Office, Race Betterment Foundation and The American Breeder’s Association were all started.

The Eugenics Record Office was founded in 1910 closed in 1944, it was located at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. It was a center for eugenics and human heredity research, who's goals were worked on by various committees. The Committee on Inheritance of Mental Traits, the Committee on Heredity of Deafmutism (which included Alexander Graham Bell), the Committee on Sterilization, and the Committee on the Heredity of the Feeble Minded were all various groups within the ERO.

The American Breeders Association, founded in 1903, was the first "scientific" organization in the U.S. to recognize and to support eugenic research. It's name was later changed to the American Genetic Association in 1914. With a membership of about 1,000 established scientists and agricultural breeders, the ABA played a major role in legitimizing the American eugenics movement.

Race Betterment Foundation, quite frankly the name speaks for itself, I will add that it was started by John H. Kellogg in 1911 at Battle Creek, Michigan. It worked closely with the The Galton Society, a very racist group involved in the eugenics movement.

These organizations were the leading voice for eugenics and successfully lobbied for the passage of laws. They were also instrumental in swaying public opinion in their favor, using feminist groups, church groups, health groups and even courses in major universities. Eugenics offered a convenient "solution" to those who feared immigrants, minorities and the poor in general. There were many other groups, but these were the most influential and successful.

Eugenics Today

In the United States there are very few people who openly support eugenics today and many believe it is a dieing trend. There are others however, who believe it has just taken a different form and name. Those who believe it may have taken another form wonder if genetic screening, genetic counseling, and birth control are all just another type of eugenics. Some even take so far as to say planned parenthood organizations are actually state sanctioned eugenics. Citing the groups focus in minority and low income areas.

Whatever your belief in the matter, the fact remains that this is a horrible chapter in human history. No one can adequately say what genes a person carries or the potential of any offspring they may have. Geniuses, whether of the mind or body, have been born in every group humans have formed themselves in and they come from a wide range of parents and backgrounds. No one is mediocre, we all have something to offer. Never allow anyone to make you think otherwise.

© 2014 Katrina


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    • Katrina Speights profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Texas

      Glad you like it. That fact is eugenics really started here in the states. The Nazi's may have taken it to the extreme, but they learned from us and did what many people in the eugenics community were calling for here.

    • Jason R. Manning profile image

      Jason R. Manning 

      4 years ago from Sacramento, California

      Greetings, this is a well written and documented hub. I am so glad you mention Planned Parenthood because the founder Margaret Sanger was indeed a huge proponent of Eugenics. Many would agree that Eugenics has changed strategies in the form of abortion clinics clustered near poorer communities. The reason why the original versions of eugenics didn’t take off in America was due mostly to WWII and the research uncovered by Nazi scientists. All that bad publicity put pressure on American scientist to shy away from human testing. It is interesting to see what is deemed acceptable in the name of science as long as it benefits the elite. Social engineering is a frightening thought the Aldous Huxley could see long before the advent of DNA mapping and cloning. I really enjoyed reading your hub. Cheers.


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