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Tyler Wisniewski


BBH 496


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Its difficult to comprehend that little over a century ago, an idea invaded the United

States that would physically and emotionally scar thousands of its citizens. At first, the concept

of a eugenic world is quite attractive. Eliminating genetically inherited traits associated with

disease, physical mutations, criminal acts, and mental abnormalities is something the majority of

the population can come to agreement on. The ultimate question remains: which traits are

considered undesirable by societal standards and have potential to negatively impact society?

Accordingly, who decides what traits are such? If only genetics association with social

stratification was that simple. Though the term is now predominately associated with the Nazism

movement of the 1930s-1940s, the ideology played a significant part in immigration influence

near the turn of the 20th century. The unwarranted actions taken against the mentally

handicapped, prisoners, immigrants, and other undesirables doubtfully will be forgotten as

time progresses on.

Prior to Sir Francis Galtons creation of eugenics, the concept of genetics itself had to be

established in the world. Since the beginning of time, humans were aware of the benefits

associated with superior offspring. Whether it meant cultivating certain plant species or breeding

specific types of animals, the traits for a healthier and more plentiful offspring helped sustain

human survival. As creationism lost its luster over time, many turned to science for answers

regarding the human body. Hippocrates brick and mortar theory hypothesized that the body

produces a physical substance derived from the various parts of the body. This is contained in the

male semen and assembled into an embryo inside the womb. This physical substance is the

underlying cause to the characters inherited (Sturtevant 1). Certain elements of this theory would

be used in Charles Darwins idea of pangenesis. Another belief of the great physician was

acquired inheritance. For example, an Olympic gold medalist skier would pass on lateral
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movement skill and exceptional balance parts onto their offspring (Foley, 2013). Challenging

Hippocrates, Aristotle argued that humans missing limbs could produce perfectly normal

offspring. If Hippocrates theory were true, the children of such individuals would be physically

impaired as well. He also noted that certain characteristics inherited were not displayed until late

adulthood. Essentially, Aristotle concluded that what is inherited is not the characters

themselves in any sense but only the potentiality of producing them (Sturtevant 2).

While previous philosophers and botanists had recognized hereditary mechanisms and the

importance of hybrids, Gregor Johann Mendel was the first to define a biological model that

explained such scientific findings. Born in 1822 in a small village then part of Austria, Mendel

came from an impoverished neighborhood. After being ordained a priest in 1847, he spent two

years at the University of Vienna studying botany, chemistry, physics, mathematics, zoology,

entomology, and paleontology (Sturtevant 9). Such education no doubt led him to utilize

quantitative and experimental methodologies. Upon his return to the Augustinian monastery in

Brnn, Mendel began conducting his pea plant experiments that displayed distinctively different

dominant and recessive hybrids. Published in 1866, Experiments on Plant Hybridization explains

how the genetic offspring ratio is due to random union (in fertilization) of gametes half of

which are pure for one and half for the other of each pair of alternatives, such as A or a (Dunn

9). The 1:2:1 genotypic ratio and 3:1 phenotypic ratios produced were slightly due to luck. The

pea is a self-fertilizing plant that is simple to cultivate, isolate and cross. He simplified

experimental conditions by selecting hereditary processes of distinctive characteristics. Thus

removing every source of error since closely related varieties were being crossed and not species

(Stubbe 129). Independent assortment and segregation too were vital in solidifying these

assertions by helping to explain why progeny sometime differ from their parents. While the
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worlds understanding of genetics has enhanced with the discovery of penetrance and linkage,

the core of Mendels principles continue to live on. Due to his descriptive statistics and orderly

experimenting, Mendel was the first to solidly prove the number of different forms in which the

offspring of hybrids appear, certain classification of these forms according to their separate

generations, and the statistical relations among them (Stubbe 126). It is of great importance that

Mendels theories reemerged simultaneously with the rise of the eugenics movement near the

turn of the 20th century. There was now a solid scientific foundation one could rely on when

rationalizing the removal of unwanted stock from the world.

Charles Darwins Origin of the Species and Descent of Man were absolutely vital in

helping Mendels notions become universally accepted among the scientific community. While

natural selection advocated for the survival of the fittest, the elimination of the unfit and their

genetic material would virtually be impossible due to the extreme amount of time required. Then

again, the removal of negative alleles may be impossible due to mutations and heterozygote

advantage (The bad gene, 2016). In 1868, Darwin coined pangenesis to describe units of

inheritance between parents and children. As human cells shed minute particles, called

gemmules, they flow throughout the body and eventually settle in the gonads. Gemmules were

heritable and could be influenced by the environment. Ultimately, they were believed to be the

mode of transmission of characteristics to offspring (Zou, 2014). Galton put these beliefs to the

test by performing blood transfusions in rabbits with various pigmentations. He found no

evidence to support the claims and many abandoned pangenesis altogether (Liu, 2008).

However, Darwins idea of pangenesis was an important precursor for eugenics by garnering

interest in inheritance.
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Inspired by his cousin Darwin, Galton expanded upon these ideas and began to consider

how permanent improvements could be made to the human race. If the unfit and unwanted were

to be rationally selected out of the population, would not the cognitively and physically supreme

dominate the earth? This was a new notion to the scientific community. It was previously

believed that biological inferiority was due to environment and not hereditability. Galton

believed intellect, talent, and other characteristics were genetically transferred from generation to

generation (Grigg, 2005). Using a Greek root meaning noble in heredity, the term eugenics

was created. Essentially playing God, rational selection was doing a credited service to society

since the unwanted and unfit would slowly be removed from the population as time progressed.

Though it took until the turn of the century to be widely accepted, many began contemplating of

a future where degenerates ceased to exist.

While England sought selective breeding for positive traits, the United States took a

different approach to eugenics by focusing on the removal of negative, undesirable traits from

the population by sterilization (Bouche and Rivard, 2014). Its atrocious that American eugenic

practitioners sterilized approximately 60,000 individuals, forbid the marriage of thousands,

forcibly segregated thousands into colonies, and victimized many, many more (Bouche and

Rivard, 2014).

Similar to other nations in the late 1800s, the United States was plagued with major

economic and social problems. The Industrial Revolution was just beginning and the economic

gap between business owners and workers was beginning to grow. Many worked in unsuitable

conditions for little pay in order to afford rent for poor housing (The Progressive Era Part 1: A

Better Life for Americans). Additionally, competition from foreign immigrants did not help

matters. Between 1877 and 1900, roughly 7,348,000 people immigrated to the United States. As
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a result, the population exploded from 49 million in 1880 to 76 million in 1900 (White). This

enormous influx prompted much hatred and unwarranted discrimination toward immigrants.

Including all of these factors, its not surprising people looked for any type of solution to the

multitude of unbearable problems. In order to justify these sentiments, many cited eugenics as an

excuse to forbid foreigners entry. This unjustifiable labeling of mass populations is disheartening

to say the least. Many individuals were in actuality completely normal human beings with

dreams of finding a new life in America.

Surprisingly, one of the earliest proponents of the movement in the United States was

inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Deeply engrossed with human speech, Bell was alarmed by the

rising numbers of the deaf and mute. He despised sign language and found such forms of

communication other than English being taught in public schools un-American. Immigration was

of great concern, and he did not want undesirable ethnic elements poisoning America and

encouraged Congress to deny them entry in order to encourage the evolution of a higher and

nobler type of man in America (Signing, Alexander Graham Bell and the NAD, 2007).

Though he did not support restrictions on intermarriages between the deaf, he suggested finding

the underlying factors responsible and if possible, eliminate them. Ultimately, he wanted to

prevent the emergence of a deaf race that would be in conflict with Americas way of living.

Having such a prominent figure agree and promote such beliefs had a significant effect on the

thinking of the people.

The true leader of promoting the eugenics movement in the United States would

undoubtedly be biologist Charles Davenport. He received his doctorate in zoological sciences

from Harvard in 1892 and later taught at his alma mater and The University of Chicago.

Intrigued by human heredity, Davenport was very much tied to eugenics argument. His home
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state of Connecticut was one of the first to enact marriage laws that forbade the epileptic,

imbecile or feeble-minded from marrying (Eugenics and Physical Anthropology, 2007). In a

society today where the marriage of same sexes is encouraged, its astonishing to think certain

unions between individuals was forbidden not too long ago. Using his passion for the science of

the improvement of the human race by better breeding, he transformed the Station for

Experimental Evolution into a genetics and eugenics research center (Charles B. Davenport,

2015). Thus, The Eugenics Record Office was created in 1910. The ultimate goal was to

improve the natural, physical, and temperamental qualities of the human family (Bouche and

Rivard, 2014). Davenport received much financial support from university scholars, affluent

individuals, the Carnegie Institute, and even the Rockefeller Foundation (Daniels, 2004-2005).

All of these organizations desired the prosperity of the Nordic Race. Years prior to Davenport,

the castration and sterilization of the feebleminded in mental hospitals and prisoners was already

being committed. Eugenics provided a scientific basis for these thoughts. Thus, such procedures

were expanded to mentally stable, law-abiding citizens. Once such acts became constitutional,

there was not stopping from overtaking America. Figure 1 displays eugenics sterilization

legislations passed through 1913.

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Figure 1: Eugenic Legislations Passed in the United States: 1913

Source: The Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine: An Alliance of the Boston Medical Library and Harvard
Medical School, Eugenics Legislation - Bills and Laws, 2015,
Even more disturbing is that due to Davenports efforts, eugenics became part of public

school and university curriculum. Among the impressionable youth of society, its quite probable

eugenics would play a critical role in contemporary society had not Hitler contaminated this way

of thinking during his movement.

In particular, eugenics was heavily adopted in California. Over 20,000 people were

sterilized (1/3 of the nations total) in this state. Among those sterilized, nearly 60% were seen as

mentally ill and greater than 35% were considered mentally deficient (Kaelber, 2009). How did
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these staggering numbers accrue over the course of time? Eugenic beliefs prospered in California

for numerous reasons. The large arrival of European American settlers beginning in the late

1800s due to new financial opportunities created a sense of duty for one civilize this foreign

land. The culture of these new civilizations prompted the application of heredity and biology.

There was monetary incentives for the fit to produce more offspring (Stern 85). Parents were

encouraged to enter their children in Better Baby contests held at state fairs. Comparable to

judging livestock, a panel of judges would examine both the physical health and intelligence of

the infants. Head size, strength of spine, and the ability to crawl of walk were all evaluated

(Oveyssi, 2015). However, these contests eventually transitioned into Fitter Family contests

where the entire familys fitness was taken into account. This change of focus to hereditary

history is attributable to Davenport. He informed Better Baby contests co-founder Mary T.

Watts to give 50 percent to heredity before you begin to score a baby and that a prize

winner at two may be an epileptic at ten (Oveyssi, 2015). By defending the transition with the

argument that there was truly no better way in determining the superiority of the child other than

looking at the entire family, these contests became commonplace nationwide.

Additionally, a strong affinity existed between the doctrines of Manifest Destiny and

nativism that entered California during and after the Gold Rush and eugenic racism (Stern 85).

Since the United States believed they had the God-given right to expand from Atlantic to Pacific,

it did not want aliens influencing the establishment of new areas. Chinese, Latin Americans, and

American Indians were very much discriminated against during the mid to late 1800s. Being

different and ambitious was a lethal combination for these ethnic groups. Lack of familial

support was another factor. Males composed the majority of these immigrant groups. After

saving up enough money, they would then send the rest of their family to America. Such was
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difficult given the extremely competitive atmosphere. The Chinese Exclusion Acts display the

sentiments of a protective nation.

While the protection of the United States-Mexico border is very much a hot topic in

todays political world, the border control exercised eugenic principles against legal immigrants

gaining entry from Mexico during the beginning of the 20th century. Alexandra Stern excellently

describes the importance of environmentalists, public health officials, and marriage counselors in

regards to forming attitudes about heredity and progress (Bashford and Levine 517). Specifically,

the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) and the Border Patrol shaped the complicated process

of racialization in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands (Stern 80). Entry of Mexicans depended on

health and cleanliness standards. The USPHS performed quarantines, delousing, and fumigation

along the border daily. Such actions negatively affected the publics perception of immigrants. A

strong anti-Mexican sentiment grew from the immigrants association with dirtiness and disease

(Bashford and Levine 517). Though no longer associated with unfitness and disease, one still

hears the utterance of dirty Mexicans in regards to illegal immigration. Such racist remarks can

be attributed to the perceived inequality of immigrants during the early 1900s.

Eugenics is still very much alive in contemporary society today. Between 2006 and 2010,

illegal sterilization took place among at least 148 women in California prisons. At least one of

these women were strong-armed into having the procedure done (Campos, 2013). The tubal

ligations these women endured were not authorized by the state board. Though Californias

prison sterilization laws werent outlawed until 1979, the suffering of these women prisoners

proves that the state of California will most likely never escape its eugenics past (Campos,

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Many consider pre-natal testing a form of eugenics since one can select certain traits

while discarding unwanted ones. The uniqueness of this procedure is that its non-invasive.

Humans are now able to partially determine the fitness of their offspring by disposing or aborting

fetuses that contain genetic predispositions for life-threatening traits. The unfit are essentially

never brought into existence to eventually die off. Its a bit alarming that the same eugenic

ideology inspires what happened then and the techniques that are being developed now

(Hubbard 236). Again, it prompts the question of who has the right to decide if a human being

should or should not inhabitant this world. One could validly argue that the parents have the

ultimate choice since they indeed are the ones uniting to create said human. While mothers are

given the choice to decide the future of the child theyre carrying, its almost as though the

decision has been made for them before they even hear the genetic test results. Choosing to carry

and deliver a baby who exhibits a particular disability may bring about feeling of extreme guilt in

the future. The child and family members may hold the mother responsible for causing the

physical pain and social turmoil that accompanies living in a world where people with

disabilities are not exactly welcomed with open arms (Hubbard 237). Both partners must weigh

the benefits and disadvantages of bringing such a child into the world. Then again, is life with a

disability better than no life at all? Had the mapping of the human genome existed a century ago,

eugenicists and German Nazis wouldve utilized it for their causes (Entine, 2013). As more

diseases and traits become linked to specific genes, one has to ponder if society will ever reach

the point where it can ultimately determine every facet of offspring. Given that certain

characteristics are controlled by multiple genes, it seems researchers are being asked the

impossible. One also cannot neglect environmental influence. More importantly, is the world

ready to handle such power appropriately?

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Works Cited

Bashford, Alison and Philippa Levine, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics.

Oxford University Press, 2010.

Bouche, Teryn and Laura Rivard. Americas Hidden History: The Eugenics Movement.

Scitable. Nature Education, 18 September 2014. Web. 25 September 2016.



Campos, Paul. Eugenics Are Alive and Well In the United States. Time. Time, Inc., 10 July

2013. Web. 31 August 2016. <


Daniels, Rodney. War Against the Weak: Eugenics and Americas Campaign to Create a

Master Race Review. Northern Kentucky University: Perspectives in History Vol. XX,

2004-2005. Web. 31 August 2016.



Dunn, L.C. A Short History of Genetics. McGraw-Hill, 1965.

Entine, Jon. DNA screening is part of the new eugenicsand thats okay. Genetic Literacy

Project. The Genetic Literacy Project, 8 July 2013. Web. 1 October 2016.

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Foley, Mackenzie. Genetics: Past, Present, and Future. Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of

Science. Dartmouth College, 29 May 2013. Web. 1 October 2016.


*Gillham, Nicholas Wright. A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth

Of Eugenics. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Grigg, Russell. "Eugenics death of the defenceless: The legacy of Darwins cousin

Galton." Creation 28.1 (2005): 18-22.

Hubbard, Ruth. "Eugenics and prenatal testing." International Journal of Health Services 16.2

(1986): 227-242. Web. 10 September 2016.


Kaelber, Lutz. Eugenics: Compulsory Sterilization in 50 American States. UVM Today. The

University of Vermont. 4 March 2009. Web. 25 September 2016.


Liu, Yongsheng. "A new perspective on Darwins Pangenesis." Biological Reviews 83.2 (2008):

141-149. Web. 18 August 2016. <>

Oveyssi, Natalie. Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age #1: How Better Babies became Fitter

Families. Biopolitical Times. Center for Genetics and Society, 7 July 2015. Web. 5

October 2016. <>

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Stern, Alexandra Minna. Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern

America. University of California, 2005.

Stubbe, Hans. History of Genetics. The MIT Press, 1972.

Sturtevant, A.H. A History of Genetics. Harper & Row, 1965.

Van Duyne. The Progressive Era Part 1: A Better Life for Americans. Web. 4 August 2016.


White, Richard. The Rise of Industrial America, 1877-1900. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of

American History. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, n.d. Web. 25

August 2016. <


Zou, Yawen. Charles Darwins Theory of Pangenesis. The Embryo Project Encyclopedia.

The Embryo Project at Arizona State University, 20 July 2014. Web. 25 August 2016.


The bad gene. Understanding Evolution. University of California Museum of Technology,

2016. Web. 10 September 2016.


Charles B. Davenport. The Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. The President and

Trustees of Harvard University, 2016. Web. 14 September 2016.

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Eugenics and Physical Anthropology. American Anthropological Association, 2007. Web. 1

October 2016.


Signing, Alexander Graham Bell and the NAD. PBS, March 2007. Web. 6 September 2016.

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