The idea of eugenics was first introduced by Sir Francis Galton, who believed that the breeding of two wealthy and successful members of society would produce a child superior to that of two members of the lower class. This assumption was based on the idea that genes for success or particular excellence were present in our DNA, which is passed from parent to child. Despite the blatant lack of research, two men, Georges Vac her de Lapouge and Jon Alfred Moen, played to the white supremacists' desires and claimed that white genes were inherently superior to other races, and with this base formed the first eugenics society. The American Eugenics Movement attempted to unethically obliterate the rising tide of lower classes by immorally mandating organized sterilization and race based experimentation. The first step in its movement to uphold the social status of white supremacists was to create a scientific base on which to build the belief that eugenics was ultimately a good cause. Eugenicists, as the scientists responsible for the genetic "research" at the time liked to be called, had absolutely no proof that traits such as intelligence or strength were hereditary, or how to identify them.
That being the case, they deferred from the science and focused more on a propaganda front for their theories. Calling immediately for sterilization would be too abrupt a change, people would refuse and resistance might rise up, so eugenicists merely stated their theory for the public. The reaction was to be expected; people heard a "scientific theory" and believed it as fact without question. People started to conform to this new idea, and it became almost a requirement for the upper class to have larger families, because it was better for society. Then came the "Fitter Families" contests, which supposedly determined whether or not you had good genes based on a series of tests or challenges (Selden 7). Slowly society began to polarize into separate groups: the ones that knew, or thought they knew, that they were the best, and the ones that were told they never could be.
With these new boundaries formed, eugenicists began their own "testing", classifying people as either superior or inferior based on the size of their pocket book or their social connections. Families across the country rushed to be tested and deemed genetically fit, or otherwise. While all this was going on, eugenics fans blazed across the country toting such propaganda as "Some Americans are born to be a burden on the rest" (Carlson 4), while claiming that it is the duty of the superior to ensure that the "feebleminded" did not over-run them. The hype among the higher upper class was to prove yourself worthy of being especially genetically adept, no matter what background you hailed from (the hypocrisy of this is terrible). Only when eugenicists began to actively sterilize patients did an opposite reaction to eugenics present itself.
Sterilization "on eugenic grounds" (Lombardo 1) was not legalized until 1907 in Indiana, but doctors across the nation practiced the procedure illegally before even then. Generally, the patient didn't know about the sterilization until after the act was done, at which point they were informed of their "feeblemindedness" or other social disorder. Within 17 years of the law being instated, a recorded 3000 people were sterilized, and thousands more suspected off the record. The range of reasons for being sterilized was infinite, ranging from genuine mental disorders such as schizophrenia, to things as pointless as "excessive masturbation" (Selden 13).
It was upon seeing these tests that scientists such as Thomas Hunt Morgan took up arms to challenge eugenicists' basis for these experiments (Allen 2). While doctors continued to enforce sterilization on those they deemed unworthy to reproduce, the government was looking for a way to effectively cut all minorities out of the U.S... The Immigration Restriction League was in charge of defining who could and who couldn't enter the U.S. legally as an immigrant; unlike today, in 1911 it was legal for the I.R.L. to simply turn away anyone from a particular country, given a logical reason. Eugenics was, at the time, a logical reason, and eugenicists had deemed white, specifically Norse, races to be superior to others. Therefore, letting immigrants from countries such as Italy or Spain into the U.S. would be essentially contaminating the gene pool, adding inferior traits to a dominant society (Weismann 37). That is the conclusion the I.R.L. came to, and that is why they set up tests at Ellis Island to determine whether or not each immigrant met the specifications to enter our country.
The traits that constitute denial of entry, as of 1917, were as follows:" all idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded persons, epileptics, insane persons... ,"persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority... , and" "mentally or physically defective... ", (Lombardo 5) These definitions of the "socially inadequate" were presented to the house of representatives by Harry H. Laughlin and agreed upon to set the standard for all incoming immigrants not of Norse descent. These two horrible acts were the trademarks of the American Eugenics Movement, even today the effects of the sterilization of thousands of citizens can be felt. What if one of those men or women, whose future generations were stripped of them, were to have a child like Stephen Hawking? Of the extremely talented lower class artists during the renaissance, how many of their genes were deemed unfit for society? The domestic repercussions were devastating to the lower class.
What is the easiest way to rid yourself of a problem? Nip it at the bud. That is exactly what the American Eugenics Movement did, they saw their problem; the rising of the poor lower class to a social level on par with the rich, and they nipped it. Kill the babies before they are born, when the older generation dies there are no new ones to replace them.
To think that anyone could have funded a movement with such a despicable outcome, but people did. John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and John Harvey Kellogg supported the eugenics movement throughout, providing millions to sway legislature and buy results in congress (Cravens 172). Focusing in, John D. Rockefeller gave his support not only to the American pursuit of genetic superiority, but also to Nazi scientists in Germany, funding research there that promoted gassing the unwanted individuals in society, even after the start of World War 2 (Thorndike 213). This was the direction we were headed, and if it had not been for our involvement in the war, American eugenicists would have quickly taken up the Nazi flag in support of a superior race. With the defeat of the Nazi's and their so-called superior race, the ideals of eugenics simmered down quite a bit, but were not forgotten. American scientists still strive d to find genes that were linked to either genetic strength or weakness, and while sterilization was not as active, it did still occur.
The most common occurrences of eugenic thinking at this time was racism towards blacks and other minorities. Scientists still claimed that because blacks had been picked for their strength, not their intelligence, they were naturally not as smart as whites (Perkins 93). Some studies even went as far as to use blacks as veritable lab rats, testing different drugs to see if the effects differed for a black man. The American Eugenics Movement clearly obtained its goal. Despite equal rights movements and civil rights activists, our society is not equal.
There are still those who believe that they deserve to live and reproduce, and that there are others who shouldn't. Because of the American Eugenics Movement, the U.S. lost almost an entire generation of lower class children, and created laws that blatantly violate a persons rights as a human being. All to conserve the status quo of the nation, to ensure that those in power would stay in power, if only for a little bit longer.
Allen G.E... "Flaws In Eugenics Research". 2001 New York: Cold Spring Harbor Lab.
Archives. Carlson, J... Traits Studied By Eugenicists. 1996 LA: G.
P. Putnam's Sons. Cravens, H... "White America". 1991 Richmond: White American Society.
Perkins, H.F... A Decade of Progress in Eugenics: Scientific Papers of the Third International Congress of Eugenics. 1993 Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins Company.
Lombardo, P... "Eugenic Laws Restricting Immigration". 2003 New York: National Human Genome Institute.
Selden, S... "Popularization of Eugenics". 2001 New York: National Human Genome Institute.
Thorndike, E.L... Funding the Eugenics Movement. 1989 New York: Century Company.
Weismann, A... A Study of American Intelligence. 1994 New York: Howard Fertil Co.