The History of Eugenics in

the United States


It is important to understand the cultural background of the era that created this field of science.”  After the Civil War, there was turbulent economy and an influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.  The economy of the US had rapid fluctuations and remained in this tenuous manner until WWI.  As the economy became more uncertain, the social inequalities between different segments of society became more visible.

            In the same era, the idea of Social Darwinism became popular and was used to explain these social inequalities.  Social Darwinism utilizes the concept of natural selection from Charles Darwin and applies it to society.  Social Darwinism explains survival of the fittest in terms of the capability of an individual to survive within a competitive environment.  This explains social inequalities by explaining that the wealthy are better individuals and therefore better suited to survive in the uncertain economy.  In terms of survival of the fittest the wealthy are more likely to survive and produce more offspring than the poor.     

            However, this was not occurring.  The birthrate of the elite was declining while the birthrate of the poor was increasing.  Meanwhile governmental social programs and aid were doing little help the increasing poverty.  The government utilized the idea of scientific management, known as progressivism.  Progressive reformers relied on science to control both nature and human society.  This view of science as a method of reform and the newly rediscovered science of genetics gave rise to social engineering---EUGENICS.


Early Eugenicists

            Eugenicists believed genetics were the cause of problems for the human gene pool. Eugenics stated that society already had paid enough to support these degenerates and the use of sterilization would save money.  The eugenicists used quantitative facts to produce scientific evidence.  They believed that charity and welfare only treated the symptoms, eugenic sought to eliminate the disease. The following traits were seen as degenerative to the human gene pool to which the eugenicists were determined to eliminate: poverty, feeble-mindedness-including manic depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism, rebelliousness, criminality, nomadness, prostitution.

 The accuracy of eugenicist methods was severely overrated.  Although based on genetics, the eugenic scientists did not document any genetic relationship to some qualities that they studied, such as politeness, bluntness, etc.  It is especially amazing that the scientists made such brilliant relationships between genes and behavior at a time when they did not even know that DNA carried genes, causing the researchers to treat complex behavior as though it had a single cause.  Other flaw in research included the researchers did not did not take into account the impact that the environment plays into a person’s phenotype.  They also used culturally based IQ tests on immigrants to determine IQ.  Finally, the early eugenicists made up results to give scientific results.

Many of the eugenicist's ideas came from studies of the supposed deterioration of a genetic stock over time. For example, the sociologist Richard Dugdale based his study on “The Jukes,” which is a clan of 700 criminals, prostitutes, and paupers.  Dugdale believed that bad environment caused their degeneracy and could be reversed over time. A.H. Estabrook resurveyed the Jukes in 1915 but saw little improvement in the family. He concluded that several traits associated with inadequacy were inherited.  However, since the eugenicists did not understand genetics and the methods of inheritance, they formed their method of inheritance.  The meant that desired traits could only be spread to children through marriage between two “worthy” families.  Undesired traits were always spread between “shiftless” families.  A child between a worthy family and a shiftless family would be mostly shiftless…but a little desirable.

Before eugenics became internationally recognized in WWII, it was a very popular movement in the United States.  In fact the American Eugenics Society set up pavilions and "Fitter Families Contest" to popularize eugenics at state fairs.  The average family advocated for the utilization of eugenics while educational systems embraced eugenics, which was presented as science fact by the majority biology texts.  In fact, eugenics became so popular that eighteen solutions were explored in a Carnegie-supported study in 1911, to report the best practical means for eliminating defective genes in the Human Population.  Although the eighth of the 18 solutions was euthanasia, the researchers believed it was too early to implement this solution. The most commonly suggested method of eugenicide in America was a lethal chamber, or gas chamber.  Instead, the main solution was the rapid expansion of forced segregation and sterilization, as well as increased marriage restrictions. However, not everybody was in favor of eugenics, Punnett at the first international congress for Eugenics in 1911 stated, “Except in very few cases, our knowledge of heredity in man at present is far to slight and far too uncertain to base legislation upon.”


Sterilization and Marriage Laws

Carrie Buck, and her mother Emma, had been committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded in Lynchburg, Virginia. Carrie and Emma were both judged to be “feebleminded” and promiscuous, because they had both had children out of wedlock. Carrie’s child, Vivian, was judged to be “feebleminded” at seven months of age. Hence, three generations of “imbeciles” became the “perfect” family for Virginia officials to use as a test case in favor of the eugenic sterilization law enacted in 1924. Upon reviewing the case, the Supreme Court concurred “that Carrie Buck is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization.”   It is impossible to judge whether or not Carrie was “feebleminded”, but she was not promiscuous.  Vivian’s was the result of Carrie’s rape by the nephew of her foster parents. She was probably institutionalized to prevent further shame to the family. Just as clearly, Vivian was no imbecile. Vivian’s first grade report card from the Venable School in Charlottesville showed that this daughter of a supposed social degenerate got straight “As” in deportment (conduct) and even made the honor role in April 1931. She died a year later of an intestinal disorder.

Although in 1942 the Supreme Court made a law allowing the involuntary sterilization of criminals, it never reversed the general concept of eugenic sterilization.  In 2001, the Virginia General Assembly acknowledged that the sterilization law was based on faulty science and expressed its "profound regret over the Commonwealth's role in the eugenics movement in this country and over the damage done in the name of eugenics.”  On May 2, 2002 a marker was erected to honor Carrie Buck in her hometown of Charlottesville.

Laws against interracial marriage had existed in some states since colonial times, but the number increased after the Civil War.  In 1913, 29 states had laws forbidding mixed-race marriages. Twenty-two states had stiff penalties -- fines of up to $2,000 and/or prison terms of up to 10 years.  Eugenicists actively supported the old laws and the making of new ones. The eugenicist-inspired Virginia Integrity Act of 1924 prohibited marriage between a white person and anyone with a trace of blood other than Caucasian. The Act was struck down, along with all other anti-miscegenation laws, in 1967.


This information was taken from


Hitler and Eugenics

The world thought Hitler was mad, but the concept of a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed master Nordic race was not Adolf Hitler’s. The idea was created in the United States at least two decades before Hitler came to power. In fact, in 1924, when Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, he frequently quoted American eugenics and displayed a thorough knowledge.  “There is today one state, Hitler wrote, in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of immigration] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States."  Hitler told his fellow Nazis that he closely followed American eugenic legislation. “I have studied with great interest the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock.”

During the beginning of the third Reich, eugenicists across America welcomed Hitler’s plans as the logical implementation of their own research. Ten years after Virginia passed its 1924 sterilization act, Joseph DeJarnette, superintendent of Virginias Western State Hospital, complained in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “The Germans are beating us at our own game.”

 In 1934, the number of sterilizations in Germany was accelerating beyond 5,000 per month.  Beginning in 1940, thousands of Germans were taken from homes for the elderly, mental institutions and other state ran institutions and was systematically gassed. In all, between 50,000 and 100,000 were killed.

Number of sterilized from each condition

      Hereditary feeble-mindedness: 200,000

      Schizophrenia: 80,000

      Epilepsy: 60,000

      Manic-depressive psychosis: 20,000

      Serious physical deformities: 20,000

      Hereditary deafness: 16,000

      Hereditary alcoholism: 10,000

      Hereditary blindness: 4,000

      Huntington's chorea: 600

      TOTAL: 410,600


Hitler’s believed that Jewish were racially inferior.  They played a decisive role in social degeneracy, such as prostitution, pornography, modern art, financial crimes, and the narcotics trade.  Jewish people possessed no ethics or morality and that they had been engaged in a 4,000-year-old conspiracy to dominate the world pursuant to their view of themselves as the chosen people. Just like other eugenicists, Hitler believe that these characteristics and values were in the genes of the Jewish people, and therefore are able to be eradicated from the general population (cf. generally Mein Kampf).  Hitler's made his threat to exterminate European Jewry was made to the Reichstag on January 30, 1939: “In the course of my life I have often been a prophet, and have usually been ridiculed for it . . . If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevisation of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation [Vernichtung] of the Jewish race in Europe”

Hitler attempted to succeed in this goal by annihilating hundreds of thousands of the Jewish population in concentration camps using the American favored method of extermination of the gas chambers.  There were also rumors that Hitler made Lebensborn a "stud farms" where SS men and suitable young women were mated to breed a master race.  However this is nothing more than a myth.  Lebensborn was in fact a conservative institution with a conservative sexual code, attempting to maintain middle-class respectability.

The connection between the American Eugenics movement and the Nazi eugenic movement was further solidified in the Nuremburg trials that judged the crimes committed by the Nazis during the war.  In their defense the Nazis quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes from the infamous 1927 Buck v. Bell trial. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”


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Reflection Questions:

Do you think that the government should ever have the right to sterilize citizens?

      …mentally insane?


      …repeated sex offenders?