The Eugenics Movement in Retrospect

Despite warnings by biologists and geneticists, eminent individuals and venerable institutions helped promote a false theory that led to sterilizations and genocide.

A group picture of 151 of the attendees at the Second International Eugenics Conference at the American Museum of Natural History, September 22-28, 1921


One hundred years ago, the Second International Congress of Eugenics was held from September 22-28, 1921, at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. The assembly opened to enthusiastic fanfare and positive media attention. Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) was the honorary president. On the first evening, paleontologist and museum president, Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935), opened the scientific portion of the Congress with a welcoming address that set a hopeful tone for the meeting—one of discovery and high-quality scientific presentations. Science magazine printed the address in its entirety. In a paper published in The Eugenics Review, Clarence Cook Little (1888-1971), then at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, summarized the goals of the meeting and the speaking schedules.

The Second Congress had four sections entitled “Human and Comparative Heredity,” “Eugenics and the Family,” “Human Racial Differences,” and “Eugenics and the State.” AMNH mounted an exhibition for the event, called the “Exhibition of Eugenics.” Henry Hamilton Laughlin (1880-1943), superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, NY, edited a book-size account of the 131 exhibits presented at the meeting. Laughlin was also the expert eugenic agent for the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization for the U.S. House of Representatives from 1921-31. This congressional committee was responsible for, among other things, the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which set immigration quotas and had the net effect of limiting the number of Jews who could immigrate to the United States in the 1930s from Nazi-controlled Germany.
    Natural History covered the Second Congress in the September-October 1921 issue in an article entitled “Personnel of the Second International Congress of Eugenics.” The magazine reported that the event “was exceptionally well attended by scientists from all parts of the world. Many foreign societies and universities were represented by delegates especially designated and, in addition, no less than sixteen governments appointed representatives…Four delegates were sent by the United States Public Health Service and eleven…states had present delegates who had been appointed for the purpose by the respective governors of those states.”

1921 exhibition handbook

As participants to the eugenics congress entered AMNH, admission was through the southern entrance on 77th Street. Registration was in what is now known as the museum’s Grand Gallery. The old Forestry Hall, to the right of this gallery, was where many of the exhibits submitted for the meeting were displayed. On the fourth floor was the main eugenics exhibition where most of the talks were given—in the Hall of the Age of Man (opened in 1911 and closed in 1965). With its description of early man and fossil evidence about early humans, this hall set the evolutionary context for the forum. Two of the Charles Knight (1874-1953) murals that were installed in the Hall of the Age of Man can still be seen in the stairway that participants traversed. These murals were part of the science of paleontological reconstruction demonstrated in the Hall of the Age of Man.

Two of the three Charles Knight murals that hung in the Hall of the Age of Man and now hang in the stairways at the American Museum of Natural History


    Osborn’s address was followed by a talk by Major Leonard Darwin (1850-1943)—son of Charles Darwin. The evening was completed by an address by the founder of the Eugenics Record Office, biologist Charles B. Davenport (1866-1944)—an eminent supporter of Mendelian genetics and of eugenics. Davenport also edited a volume published in 1923 that bundled fifty-three of the major addresses at the meeting, including the opening evening’s three addresses. Darwin’s address: “The Aims and Methods of Eugenical Societies” was also published in Science in 1921. The Little, Laughlin, and Davenport accounts provide an overarching view of the proceedings of the forum.
    C. C. Little reported the reasoning for the Second Congress’s existence, and some goals that were established to offset resistance from opponents of eugenics. He mentioned three kinds of criticism of eugenics lodged prior to this second international meeting. Criticism from scientists studying biology and genetics had vociferously pointed out that “eugenists knew too little of the foundation of their science”—eugenicists were creating an endeavor without a scientific base, despite the earlier work of polymath Francis Galton (1822-1911) and mathematician Karl Pearson (1857-1936), who had attempted to infuse statistics and numerical examples into the inferences made by eugenics. The second criticism concerned the extreme recommendations that eugenicists were making that flew in the face of tradition, not only in the context of society, but in the way that eugenics approved of non-traditional relationships between the sexes that were “widely divergent from those at present existing.”  The third criticism came from the public, which derided eugenicists as “faddists”—eugenics was a “gigantic joke” best ignored. For eugenics to become a full-fledged discipline, the public perception of eugenics needed to be corrected. And the organizing committee reasoned that AMNH, because of its educational and exhibition prowess, was the perfect place to do it.

The solution to the first criticism was to strengthen the scientific basis of eugenics. So, some of the very best geneticists and biologists of the time were invited to contribute papers in the first session of the meeting. Osborn was particularly aggressive in asking some of the best genetic and anthropological minds to attend—Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866-1945), then at Columbia University; Hermann Joseph Muller (1890-1967), at the University of Texas; Calvin Bridges (1889-1938), also at Columbia University with Morgan; Sewall Wright (1889-1988), then at the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and R. A. Fisher (1890-1962), at Rothamsted Experimental Station in the UK. All accepted Osborn’s invitation. Osborn had hoped to attract two giants of biology and anthropology, respectively—William Bateson (1861-1926), director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution, in the UK, and Franz Boas (1858-1942). Bateson rejected the invitation because he wanted to keep pure science separate from the applied science of eugenics. Boas had been a curator of anthropology at AMNH before moving to Columbia University in 1905and had remained in contact with Osborn since his departure from the museum. There was probably no chance he would attend, however, as he was a staunch anti-eugenicist. In 1916, five years before the Second
Congress, he published a clear rejection of eugenics. He did not attend the meeting and continued to write disparagingly of eugenics throughout his career. His rationale for rejecting eugenics was that from an anthropological standpoint, humans were incredibly complex and deciphering the genetic basis of their behavior was an impossible task. Boas summarized his rejection of eugenics with the following quote: “How much can be and should be attempted in this field depends upon the results of careful studies of the law of heredity. Eugenics is not a panacea that will cure human ills, it is rather a dangerous sword that may turn its edge against those who rely on its strength.”
    Acceptance to attend the gathering by some of Osborn’s invited scientists is not surprising in retrospect. Ten years after the Second Congress, R. A Fisher made it clear in his book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection that his leanings were eugenical. In an otherwise brilliant treatise on the role of genetics in natural selection, the last five chapters of the book are bold declarations of the inevitability—to Fisher—of eugenical thinking. However, there were several eminent geneticists on the agenda who gave talks that were of interest to geneticists of the day (and to present day geneticists). Muller made clear that he “denounced the American eugenics movement as sexist, racist, and based on spurious elitism.” Morgan

Three denouncers of eugenics: Franz Boas, anthropologist at AMNH and Columbia University (top), Herman J. Muller (middle), and Thomas Hunt Morgan (bottom)

had chastised eugenical thinking in 1915 because of “reckless statements and the unreliability of a good deal that is said” by eugenicists. Nevertheless, both Morgan and Muller attended the Congress.
    The second section of the meeting focused on eugenics and the family. With talks with such titles as “An Ideal Family History,” “Measurement of Family Resemblances in Intellect,” and “Some Families as Factors in Anti-Social Conditions,” the organizers tried to extend the scientific, genetic context of human behavior and morals to explain familial resemblance. This section was essential to expand the reach of science to the study of familial resemblance and was an important cog in validating the pseudoscience that was to emerge from future eugenic studies of familial resemblance. The section on eugenics and the state was essential to the eugenics movement because it emphasized the importance of the state in eugenical solutions to so-called poor racial and familial genetic hygiene. It is in this section that Laughlin presented a paper entitled “Eugenical sterilization in the United States.” Laughlin asserted that states have an “undoubted right to prevent reproduction by persons of proven degenerate stock, “because such reproduction produces children who present a “drag upon the self-supporting portion of the commonwealth.” Unfortunately, sterilization laws were passed in thirty states. The last forced sterilization law in the United States was repealed in North Carolina in 2003, but there have been reported incidences, as recently as 2010, of coerced sterilizations of incarcerated females in state prison systems.


1936 map, showing by state, the number of sterilizations performed under the law (21,538) as of January 1, 1935.


The California Institution for Women, in Corona, was one of two state prisons where female inmates were sterilized from 2006 to 2010 without required state approvals. At least 148 women received tubal ligations in violation of prison rules.


Examples of blatant racism in some of the exhibits at the Second Congress. Racial differences in Fetuses (left top and bottom), The average white soldier (top right) and racial differences in mental fatigue (bottom right).

Perhaps, the most egregious section of the forum was that on human, so-called, racial differences. Some of the more aggressively racist exhibits had such titles as “Personal Beauty and Racial Betterment,” “Racial differences in human fetuses,” “Racial Differences in Mental Fatigue,” “Display of The Rising Tide of Color against White World-Supremacy,” and “Statuette of the Average American White Soldier”—all of which were considered mainstream eugenics at the time. One of the most racist of exhibits was from a trustee of AMNH, Madison Grant (1865-1937), a funder and shaper of the Second Congress and the author of the 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race. Osborn had written an enthusiastic introduction to the book. A fellow AMNH trustee, German-born banker Felix Warburg (1871-1937) was so irate that he demanded an academic investigation into Osborn’s behavior. However, a majority of the trustees decided that “there was no need for anyone to feel offended.”

The AMNH exhibition hall at the 1921 eugenics congress

One of the unique features of the meeting was the exhibition space on the first floor. Technically not an exhibition with separate themed exhibits, it resembled more a poster session because participants were invited to contribute their own exhibits. Also, the public was invited to view the 131 exhibits—which is rarely done with poster sessions at scientific meetings today. As C. C. Little explained in his description of the Congress, this was an integral part of the eugenics exhibition—to educate the public, and convince them that eugenics should be taken seriously.
    The exhibits came mainly from several governmental and non-governmental agencies, three companies, individuals at nineteen well-respected universities, two museums, and sixteen publishing houses or journals promoting their eugenic writing products and books. Of the seventy-nine exhibits from individuals, or breeding associations, nineteen were on animal or plant breeding. Intelligence was also a major focus with fourteen exhibits—five of which were on human intelligence differences between groups of people and nine were on feeble-mindedness. There were several exhibits that attempted to give museum visitors a basic education on genetics, heredity, and eugenics. The presence of so many exhibits on animal and plant breeding conveyed the notion that selective breeding could be applied to humans.
    Apparently, the goals of the Congress, as outlined by C. C. Little, were attained, because the reach of eugenics expanded after 1921. In 1926, the American Eugenics Society (AES) was established by several of the organizers of the 1921 meeting—Madison Grant, Harry H. Laughlin, and Henry F. Osborn. Members of the AES were either the editors of journals or high-ranking society officers of the Genetical Society of America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Genetics Association (formerly the American Breeders Association), the American Medical Association, and the American Society of Human Genetics.
    Another outcome of the Second Congress was that in 1932 the Third International Congress of Eugenics  was again held at AMNH. A volume of scientific papers from that meeting, entitled A Decade of Progress in Eugenics, was published in 1934 by Williams & Wilkins. Except for a few papers (out of sixty-five) on human genetics, the Third Congress lacked a genetic context. It could be claimed that there was significant spread of eugenic ideas in that decade, but hard to characterize it as progress. Even without the genetic context, eugenics grew in popularity and went on to be the root cause of some of the most heinous atrocities in the twentieth century, if not human history.

Why the talks and exhibits of the Second and Third Congresses did not offend the sensibilities of the participants has been explored by such authors as public health ethicist Michael Yudell, now at Arizona State University; Daniel Okrent, the first public editor at the New York Times; geneticist Elof Axel Carlson, professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Stony Brook; science historian Daniel Kevles, at Yale University; and education professor Steven Seldon, at the University of Maryland, College Park. The conclusion, from the collective findings by these authors, is that well-respected scientists and institutions in the early– and mid-twentieth century were taken in by the lure of eugenics. They were attracted to eugenics because of its peripheral contact with their own academic interests and because eugenics had been mainstreamed by the organizers of the Second Congress.

Organizers and presenters at the First International Congress of Eugenics, July 24-30, 1912, at the University of London, also exhorted the 750 or more attendees from Europe and North America to campaign for eugenic legislation in their home countries. However, many of the speakers sounded a cautionary note. As reported in the August 1, 1912, issue of Nature:

The lead given by Mr. [Arthur] Balfour [1848-1930] in his speech at the inaugural banquet in striking the keynote of diffidence and moderation was followed throughout the meeting. The application to human society of the methods found useful in the breeding pen is not advocated by the modern eugenist, neither does he wish to see permanently confined or castrated all those whom he considers undesirable mentally, morally, or physically. He does not plead for the repeal of all humanitarian legislation or for a return to ‘the good old days of natural selection.’ He only urges that the possible eugenic or dysgenic results of fresh legislation may be seriously considered…Since the idea of practical eugenics was first mooted, its scope has naturally been much increased, so that there is room for a greater variety of views among those who pronounce a sort of general blessing on the eugenic ideal. This variety is expressed, for instance, in differences of opinion as to the relative importance of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture.’ A regrettable result has been to debase the meaning of the word ‘eugenic,’ so that some speakers seemed to regard it as synonymous for ‘hygienic,’ whereas originally the two words were generally used in antithesis. 

By 1921, by the time of the Second Congress, those cautions expressed at that first international meeting were being muted by prevailing attitudes and prejudices. By the Third Congress, on the eve of a world conflict, any warning about “a dangerous sword” were drowned out by the euphoria over the potential ability of eugenics to improve the human species genetically, assuring that undesirable traits and people would not be replicated. For some proponents, eugenics represented the “final solution.”  
    Many scientists who were drawn into eugenics abandoned it after realizing what it was and what it was promulgating. However, formalized eugenics persisted almost to the end of the twentieth century—the AES was not disbanded until the 1990s, and some of its ideas are still with us.
    The American Museum of Natural History and many other institutions recognize the role they played in the eugenics movement, as do Natural History and other science magazines and journals that gave a public forum to the movement. Prejudging diverse peoples and cultures predated eugenics. Accounts by anthropologists and ethnographers often reflected a researcher’s own prejudice. Ironically, the expeditions to unexplored areas of the world and the study of the people who lived there advanced our knowledge and, ultimately, gave us a better understanding of these diverse cultures and of ourselves. --RDe

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