Mehler, Barry Alan - A History of the American Eugenics Society, 1921-1940, University of Illinois Ph.D. Dissertation (Urbana 1988)

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BARRY ALAN MEHLER B.A., Yeshiva University, 1970 M.A., City College o f New York, 1973

THESIS Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in History in the Graduate College of the University o f Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1988

Urbana, Illinois

Copyright 1988 by Barry Allan Mehler

& History of the American Eugenics Society, 1421-1940

Barry Alan Mehler, Ph.D. Department of History University o f Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1 8 98 Richard Burkhardt, Jr. Advisor

A history of the American Eugenics Society from its
oriqins as ths Eugenics Committee of the United States o f America to World War 11, this monograph represents the first in-depth study of an American eugenic institution.

s It i

critical of the widely held thesis that American eugenics underwent a major transformation between 1915 and 1930. author disputes the claim that a "new" eugenics emerged after 1930. The AES i viewed in the context of the s The notion that 6ngloThe

international eugenics movement.

American eugenics developed independently of other European eugenics movements is disputed, and specific examples of foi-eiqn influence on American eugenics are documented. The

dissertation includes a detailed prosopographical analysis

the 153 members o f the Society's board of directors and

advisory council between 1923 and 1935 a s well as a 135 page appendix containing the bioqraphies o f 1 0 leading members 7 of the Society between 1921 and 1940. There i a detailed s

comparison of American and Nazi sterilization programs

demonstrating the ideological unity o f the two programs in the prewar years. There is a n examination of AES efforts to The author

restrict immigration between 1921 and 1940.

shows that a vigorous campaign to restrict immigration o f

non-whites, a n d 1940.

M e x i c a n s , and o t h e r s wa.s p u r s u e d between 1925 This campaign paralleled the earlier campaign The study concludes

a g a i n s t E a s t e r n and S o u t h e r n Europeans.

w i t h a d e t a i l e d a n a l y s i s of the t h e o r y and p o l i c y o f t h e S o c i e t y b e t w e e n 1938 and 1940.

In t h e m e m o r y o f m y m o t h e r


This dissertation would not have been possible without the support and encouragement of numerous colleagues, friends, and institutions.

I am especially indebted


Professor Garland E. Allen of Washington University who
9 6 first suggested this study in 1 7 .

Between 1 7 and 1980, 9 6

I worked with Professor Allen as his Research Associate.
Our work was sponsored b y National Science Foundation Grant

SOC 75-21902. His generosity, good humor, integrity, and
During this

intellectual clarity are much appreciated.

period I also met Allen Chase, whose encouragement was iinflagqing and invaluable.

A grant from the Rockefellei- Archive Center in the
Summer o f

1977 a l l o ~ e dm e to travel to Tarrytown, N e w Y o r k

to examine the papers of

Population Council of Frnerica These papers have b e e n

and the Bureau of Social Hygiene.

extremely important in forming my perspective o n the eugenics movement of the thirties and forties. This

material will play an increasingly important role in my work

as I begin the exploration of the period 1940 to 1960. In 1 9 8 1 , Jerry Hirsch invited me to join the
Institutional Racism Program at the University of Illinois.
A s a Trainee in the Institutional Racism Program,

I received

four years of fellowship support from the National Institute of Mental Health CNIMH grant MH 15173-051. Dr. Hirsch also

vii brought me into his behavior genetics laboratory, insisting that a historian of eugenics not only understand the fundamentals of genetics, but have actual laboratory experience in behavior genetic analysis. Professor Hirsch has been a constant source of materials and information and has given freely o f h i s personal time to discuss the issues of this dissertation and the broader issues of ethics in science.

I was a also

privileged to work with Professor Hirsch's graduate students: Mark Vargo, Mark Halliday, Stephen Zawistowski,

and Jeff Ricker.

I am particularly indebted to Jeff Ricker?

who read many of my manuscripts over the years of our association. My advisor, Richard W. Burkhardt Jr.,
a source of


constant good humored support and encouragement.

He read

through draft after draft of this dissertation and helped to hone the work into its final form. Through the entire

process Professor Burkhardt kept m e on track.

is, more

than any other person, to be thanked for the completion of
this manuscript.

Orville Vernon Burton has been my mentor in the area of American social history, historical methodology? and computer analysis. There are very few historians who can

match his extraordinary skills in demographic and quantitative analysis. invaluable. Professor Burton's support has been

viii All the members o f my committee, Professors Burkhardt, Burton, Hirsch, and Melhado proved to be extremely supportive o f my efforts. Professor Melhado was especially

helpful in reorganizing several chapters.

I also wish to acknowledge the help and support of
Frederic C. Jaher. a friend and mentor. Throughout my graduate work, h e has been In this context, I also wish to

mention James Anderson, Professor of History o f American Education, in the Educational Policy Studies Program and codirector of the Program for Training in the Study of Institutional Racism. In the final stages o f preparing the manuscript for deposit, Kelly Mickey, owner o f the YMC6 Used Book Store, read the manuscript and offered very helpful suggestions. Kenneth Wodke, Professor o f Psychology, at the University of Wisconsin also read the entire manuscript and offered many helpful suggestions. The history department at the University of Illinois h a s been a congenial place to work.

I received constant

support from the department in the form o f steady employment a 5 a graduate assistant from 1982 to the present.

I was

also awarded the departments Babcock Fellowship in 1986 which gave me a year of uninterrupted time to write the first draft of this manuscript.

I would especially l i k e to

thank Sandy Colclasure, the departments Administrative

Secretary, for her assistance in winding my way through the University bureaucracy

Everyone who has gone through this process, knows how difficult dissertation writing can b e o n a spouse. Jennifer, endured i t all with great resilience.

My wife,

Her love

and support were the foundation upon which this work was
completed. Finally, my son Isaac, helped me put the whole

project into perspective when he pointed out that the dissertation w a s not nearly so important a s a Care Bear movie.



Introductian....... The Origins o f

Three: T h e A m e r i c a n

............................ 1 t h e A m e r i c a n E u g e n i c s S o c i e t y ..... 34 E u g e n i c s Society, 1926-1940. ...... 81

T h e American E u g e n i c s Society: a Prosopography..


T h e American E u g e n i c s S o c i e t y a n d I m m i g r a t i o n R e s t r i c t i o n , 1921-1939



Six: A C o m p a r i s o n o f A m e r i c a n and Nazi Steri1i;:ation..
Seven: T h e Eugenic I-iypothesis, 1938-1940



.............. C o n c l u s i o n ..................................
AES Advisory Council and Board, 1 9 2 3 - 1 9 4 0 . .



Bibliography Vita



................................................. 477

Chapter One Introduction Part I: Historiography

This is the first monographic study of a n American eugenic institution.
s It i unique in several respects.

First, this is an in-depth look at eugenics between the years 1921 and 1 9 4 0 , a period during which eugenics in America underwent considerable growth and c:hange. here a new inttit-pt-etat ~ i
t.hE cancei7Eu5 iFi
tftE t 3 nf

T offer

that: chat-[ye wh i ~ ~ h a ~ j - q e s h li Second, this study

1 ~ k ~ r ~ i t to i date. ~ - e

examines American eugenics in the context of the international eugenics movement.

I show, for the first

time, how American eugenics w a s influenced by eugenics in France. Norway, and Sweden.

I also take a close laok at the

relationship between American and Nazi eugenics during the thirties. Third, this dissertation contains the first
s This i

prosopographical study of American eugenic leaders.

the first systematic analysis o f the leadership o f American eugenics.

A l l previous studies of eugenics in America deal

with the leadership in a haphazard fashion, which has clouded our understanding of the influence of eugenics o n American culture.

The historical interest and importance o f the eugenics movement i less well appreciated than it should be. s

eugenics mavement had a significant impact o n American society. Eugenics was an integral part o f the Progressive

movement, and the study of eugenics i inseparable from the s study of genetics, public health, criminal justice, and the welfare state in general. and pro-found impact legislation. The eugenics movement played an important role in the passage of the 1924 immigration restriction act which established the "national origins" principle in U.S. immigration pol icy. This principle w a s not abandoned until Thus from 1924 to Furthermore, it has had a lasting social attitudes and

0 - American 1 1

1965 with the passage o f the Celler Act.

1965 American immigration policy was self-consciously based

o n ethnicity and national origins.

T h e policy w a s

disastrous from the very beginning, pitting ethnic Americans against o n e another and causing serious foreign relations pr~blerns.~ Eugenicists also had a significant impact on the American judicial system. They helped convince legislators This undermined

that crime was t h e product o f bad heredity.

a fundamental principle of American jurisprudence - the idea that everyone should b e equal under the law. As Charles

Davenport protested, "nothing could b e more stupid, cruel,
ab7d u n j u st



l?.a.tu!x 9 . . t.!x ~.e.r..s~o..n.u 1d ....... ....... sh0

be 9i

10 3

less consideratian in determining treatment than the nature

of the deed done. " 2

The view that s ~ n t e n c i n gshould b e

regulated by the nature of the criminal rather than the nature of the crime led to the widespread acceptance o f the ii-tdeterrninate s e n t ~ n c e . ~ The eugenicists in America were also successful in carrying the cause of eugenic sterilization to the Supreme

Court and successfully defending the Constitutionality of
eugenic sterilization. In 1927, Supreme Court Justice

Oliver Wendell Holmes? declared that "three generations of imbeciles are enough." It was Holmes opinion that

sterilization of biological degenerates was in the best interest of the patient and ~ o c i e t y . ~ The eugenics movemerit made deep inroads in educating Americans to accept sterilization as a solution to social problems. Less clearly understood has been the impact of the euqenics movement on social welfare legislation and the administration of such programs established during the New Deal. From 1937 to 1 9 3 9 the American Eugenics Society

either organized or participated in some twenty-two conferences on such diverse subjects as housing? recreation,


Charles B. Davenport ta John R. Fiockefeller Jr., ( 1 February 1912) Charles B. Davenport Papers, hrnerican Philosophical Society.



I V F ~ Wendell Holmes, B u c k v . Bell, Sqpr-erne Court Reporter 4 ? ( S t . Paul 1 4 2 8 ) pp. 584-555.

health care, education, medicine, and other public welfare projects. For example, in 1938 eugenic leaders called a conference o n eugenics in relation to housing shortly after the passage of the Wagner-Steagall Act which set aside federal funds for the construction o f public h ~ u s i n g . ~ t I

i clear that eugenic leaders believed public housing s
projects could contribute to the dysgenic trend in births which they believed was prevalent in the United States at the time. During the debate in Congress Senator B y r d and

other opponents o f the bill attached an amendment which was derisively referred to as the "race suicide amendment" since it limited the size of public housing units to an average of four rooms per unit. It was hoped that this limitation

would prevent the Federal Government from subsidizing large families among the dysgenic elements.& It is clear that the leaders o f the eugenics movement were able to convey their perspective to legislators and administrators of federal projects. It is still not clear


in Ccrngress 3 F e b r u a r y 1938. held 1 April 1938.

The conference


S e e the debate o n this point during the Conference o n The Eugenic Aspect of Housing of the American Eugenics Society at the Town Hall Club in N e w York City, Friday 1 April 1938. 4ES Papers. Specific reference to the "race suicide amendment" can b e found in the presentation by Edith Elmer Wood, "The Scope and Methods af Modern Housing," p . 4. S e e also, the remarks by Warren Thompson, "Housing and Population." I comment further o n t h i s in the conclusion to this dissertation.

to what extent eugenics leaders were able to influence either the legislation or the administration o f public welfare projects passed during the New Deal. But there is

certainly enough evidence now available to warrant a close examination of this issue. Allan Chase has presented clear

evidence that eugenic concerns influenced the operation o f federally funded family planning programs in the early seventies.
A 5 Judge Gerhard Gesell noted in Waters


Walker, "there is uncontroverted evidence in the record" that "poor people have been improperly coerced into accepting a sterilization operation" under federally subsidized programs. Judge Gesell went o n to observe, "the

s dividing line between family planning and eugenics i murky."7 Despite the profound impact that eugenics h a s had o n American society, important aspects of its history remain to b e explored. In the past decade, several scholars have Yet, no American history text deals

taken up the subject.

with eugenics in anything more than a cursory fashion. have surveyed general undergraduate history texts, texts that focus on the twentieth century, and many general


monographs specifically dealing with the Progressive era. These t e x t s , a s well as monographs on the hist~i-yo f medicine, psychology, social hygiene, and other areas

generally ignore eugenics.

That a movement a s broadly based

and widely influential should have been largely disregarded s by historians for so long i certainly worth some thought. With regard to textbooks the reason may be that textbooks sometimes lag a generation or more behind the leading edge of ~ c h o l a r s h i p , ~ may take time before it discussion of eugenics works its way into general college textbooks. It i certainly to be hoped that the present s

interest in eugenics will attract the interest of textbook writers. With regard to the monographic literature the answer is less clear.
s For the period from 1940 to 1970 there i very

little work treating eugenics as an important and serious topic. Certainly, the leaders of the eugenics movement in

the United States did not seek attention in this period. The post-war eugenic leadership felt that "the time was not right for aggressive eugenic propaganda campaign for increased membership."

any aggressive

Instead, the period

called for "thinking out the problems of eugenics with the help of a well-informed audience."?

For examples of problems with text books see James D. Anderson, "Secondary School History Textbooks and the Treatment of Black Hi story 9 " in Lhe S.tate 9-f .....H..% a!? P.asL.7 aan.F!E.uuttu.rr.eBa t0n Ro U F ...! F ! ( 1986) pp. 2 5 3 - 2 7 4 ; Diane Paul, "Genetics Textbooks and the Genetics of Intel 1 igence," unpubl ished manuscript , date 1 9 8 4 .

Q ~

F r ~ d ~ i - lOsborn, " 4 History of the American Eugenics ~ k Society," Social Biology 21 # 2 ( 1 9 7 4 ) pp. 1 2 1 .

Researchers interested in the Holocaust ignored eugenics because there were more pressing historical issues that needed clarification. Holocaust research focused o n

the extermination process itself and on the magnitude and complexity o f the death camp system. More recently.

Holocaust historians have taken a serious interest in the role of academic disciplines in the Holocaust. They have

also turned their attention to the euthanasia program and eugenics movement as aspects ~f the Holocaust.li1 Historians of science did not turn their attention to eugenics until after the publication of Kenneth Ludmerer's history

American eugenics in 1972.

Since the history of

genetics was still in its infancy in the early seventies, it is not difficult to understand why euge

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