American Experience


The Eugenics Crusade

The Eugenics Crusade tells the story of the unlikely –– and largely unknown –– campaign to breed a “better” American race, tracing the rise of the movement that turned the fledgling science of heredity into a powerful instrument of social control.

AIRED: October 16, 2018 | 1:53:12

NARRATOR: On August 18, 1934, 20-year-old Ann Cooper Hewitt,

heiress to one of the largest fortunes

in the United States,

was admitted to a San Francisco hospital

for an emergency appendectomy.

She later learned

the surgeons not only had removed her appendix,

but also a length of her fallopian tubes -

rendering her incapable of ever becoming pregnant.

The story of the "sterilized heiress"

hit the papers just after the New Year in 1936,

when Ann filed a half- million-dollar damage claim

against the surgeons and her own mother

for sterilizing her

without her knowledge or consent.

Ann's mother denied any wrongdoing.

She'd done what she'd done for "society's sake,"

she insisted,

because her daughter was "feebleminded."

It was the sort of bizarre, high-society scandal

that would have captured the national imagination

under any circumstances.

But that one word, "feebleminded,"

struck a familiar chord for Americans

and linked Ann's plight to a decades-old campaign

to control human reproduction,

known as eugenics.

MAN (on newsreel): What is the bearing of the laws of heredity

upon human affairs?

Eugenics provides the answer.

PAUL LOMBARDO: Eugenics was proposed as the scientific solution

for social problems.

It was a combination of hope and aspiration on one side

and on the other side, it was about fear,

and in some cases about hate.

MAN 2 (on newsreel): They are identified early,

categorized feebleminded, imbecile, idiot.

MAN (on newsreel): It would have been better by far if they had never been born.

(crowd pledging in German)

DANIEL KEVLES: People tend to think

that eugenics was a doctrine that originated with the Nazis,

that it was grounded in wild claims

that were far outside the scientific mainstream.

Both of those impressions are fundamentally not true.

ADAM COHEN: It was almost a mania

that sort of swept through the country.

And there was that kind of naiïve,

optimistic vision of eugenics,

like, "Hey, let's all get together

and make better people."

ALEXANDRA STERN: The eugenics movement was about having healthy children,

about having a stronger society.

There's nothing wrong with that.

You have to look at the underbelly

of what was implemented in the name of eugenics

to see what was so problematic about it.

(ship horn blaring)

(horses whinnying, hooves clomping)

(ship horn blaring)

NARRATOR: In the fall of 1902,

an American biologist named Charles Benedict Davenport

arrived in London on a sort of pilgrimage.

He was 36, Harvard-educated,

and like many biologists of his generation,

absorbed with the study of evolution.

He'd been traveling in Europe with his wife,

collecting seashells for research on species variation,

but this was to be the highlight of the trip:

a meeting with the world- renowned gentleman scientist

Sir Francis Galton.

A pioneering statistician,

Galton had lived his 80 years by a single motto:

"Whenever you can, count."

His obsession with measurements and patterns

had led him to create the world's first weather maps,

establish fingerprinting as a means of identification,

and set data-backed parameters

for the perfect cup of tea.

Charles Davenport had come to discuss another matter:

Galton's work on heredity.

SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Francis Galton was a great quantifier.

He liked to quantify height, hair color.

You know, what is the chest size of an average man?

What is the thigh length of an average man?

Even things like intelligence.

JONATHAN SPIRO: Galton had a theory that talent, as he called it--

what we would call intelligence--

seemed to run in families.

And so it quickly occurred to him,

"If we can get people with high talent

"to mate with each other,

"prevent people with low talent from mating with each other,

"we will, within a few generations,

create this race of supermen."

NATHANIEL COMFORT: Francis Galton was borrowing ideas

and kind of riffing off of the work

of his half-cousin, Charles Darwin.

KEITH WAILOO: Darwin believed that evolution was this natural process

that was inevitably leading towards what they called

the "survival of the fittest."

Galton really turns that idea on its head

and says,

"You know, natural selection isn't working very well.

"We need to do a form of selection.

We need to intervene."

NARRATOR: To name the effort,

Galton had coined the term "eugenics" -

a hybrid derived from two Greek words

meaning "well" and "born."

Charles Davenport believed, as Galton did,

that selective breeding could transform the human race.

What was needed was a scientific understanding

of how heredity actually worked--

and over dinner at Galton's home,

Davenport declared his intention to get to the bottom of it.

COMFORT: Davenport said,

"I'm going to create a new kind of institution,

"a station for experimental evolution,

"not Darwinian natural selection

"that you just go out and observe,

"but can we figure out how inheritance works,

"can we do experiments

and find the patterns of heredity?"

(ship horn blaring)

NARRATOR: When Davenport sailed for home in December 1902,

he carried with him not only a letter of recommendation

signed by Galton,

but also, he later wrote,

"a renewed courage for the study of evolution."

THOMAS LEONARD: Davenport and Galton really did imagine

that the idea of improving human heredity

was of almost religious significance,

of profound moral importance.

They also believed they were qualified

to breed a better race,

because they believed

that they were the best and the brightest.


NARRATOR: Scarcely more than a year later,

with funding from the Carnegie Institution,

Davenport opened his research station

on the north shore of Long Island,

at Cold Spring Harbor.

Situated on ten acres along Oyster Bay,

the place had been purpose-built

for the breeding and analyzing of plants and animals--

complete with sprawling garden plots,

an aviary, and a half-dozen tidy enclosures

housing chickens, goats, and sheep.

By mating organisms with unusual characteristics--

a tailless Manx cat or a rooster with a black comb--

and then studying their offspring,

generation after generation,

Davenport hoped to unlock the mystery of evolution.

COMFORT: Davenport wasn't yet thinking much about humans.

He was just absorbing all these different theories of heredity

and trying to figure out which ones applied when

and under what conditions.

NARRATOR: After scores of experiments,

one theory seemed to stand out from the rest:

the recently discovered work

of an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel,

who'd spent a decade in the mid-19th century

experimenting with peas.

LOMBARDO: Mendel learned that there was a pattern

to how pea plants passed down certain traits.

And you could come up with certain ratios

to predict how likely it was

that a pea plant would look one way or another.

SPIRO: Davenport took that and ran with it.

He goes about breeding all kinds of animals,

looking for the Mendelian ratio,

and in trait after trait,

he seems to find the Mendelian ratio.

COHEN: Suddenly,

they're beginning to see

a mathematical, scientific explanation

for things that had been merely conjectural before.

It's becoming obvious that in fact

there are these things called genes.

These units are being transmitted

from parents to their offspring,

and they're giving rise to physical traits.

NARRATOR: By 1906, the work at Cold Spring Harbor

had caught the attention of the press--

and established Charles Davenport

as a rising star in the new science of genetics.

Thanks to Mendel's laws of heredity,

Davenport told one reporter,

agricultural breeders could now precisely select

for desirable traits--

to develop a strain of protein-rich wheat

or a chicken that laid more eggs.

The same methods would one day lead, he predicted,

to a "rapid and thoroughgoing improvement

of the human race."

KEVLES: Davenport was tantalized by the possibility

that you could take charge of human evolution.

And then along comes Mendelian genetics,

which seems to offer a very powerful tool.

So extrapolating from the work

that the breeders were doing in animals

to the breeding of better human beings

was a natural step.

NARRATOR: In 1909, Davenport informed his funder,

the Carnegie Institution,

that he'd shifted his focus

from the breeding of cats and roosters

to an investigation of human traits.

Having already found the Mendelian ratio

in early studies of eye color and hair color--

and convinced he was on the right track--

he now began to collect data

on a wide range of other human characteristics.

He sent out a family history questionnaire

to hundreds of individuals

and solicited prisons, hospitals,

and educational institutions for their records.

SPIRO: You can't really do breeding experiments

with human beings.

Aside from the ethics, you just can't live long enough

to see generations and generations.

So it was Davenport's genius to realize

if he could collect family pedigrees,

he could trace family inheritances

and try to prove that evolution works for human beings

the way it works for animals.

NARRATOR: Davenport's plan was to analyze the pedigree charts

for Mendelian patterns--

and to identify the desirable traits

human beings might encourage through careful breeding--

and the undesirable ones they could breed out.

(horse whinnying)

LOMBARDO: "Wouldn't it be a better world

"if we could wipe out poverty?

"Wouldn't it be a better world if we didn't have criminals?

"Wouldn't it be a better world

"if everyone behaved themselves?

"And if the reason we have poverty and crime

"is something that's determined by our genes,

"if we can change that and make it

"so that the people who have those bad traits

"don't pass them down,

wouldn't that be a better world?"

(whistle blowing)

(machinery clanking)

NARRATOR: Among Americans

of Charles Davenport's class and generation,

there was perhaps no word that had more currency

at the turn of the century

than improvement.

They had come of age in the midst of a revolution--

a seismic shift that had made the United States

the most prosperous and powerful nation on Earth--

and, in the eyes of many,

had simultaneously plunged it into chaos.

SPIRO: It's the beginning of the 20th century,

and we have rampant urbanization,

rampant industrialization, rampant immigration.

The old order is passing,

and wherever you look,

society seems to be deteriorating.

NARRATOR: More and more farms were giving way to factories,

and the cities were overrun with newcomers,

many from the countryside,

many hundreds of thousands more from abroad.

COMFORT: There was impure water, and the schools were awful,

and the disease was rampant,

and immigrants were pouring in.

KEVLES: People were apprehensive about rapid change,

about the kinds of people you saw on the streets--

slums, crime, alcoholism, prostitution.

Native white Protestants felt

that they were losing control of American society.

NARRATOR: Determined not only to meet the new challenges,

but to master them,

a veritable army of educated,

middle- and upper-middle-class Americans

had launched a crusade to remake society--

to eliminate corruption, stamp out disease and vice,

assimilate the immigrant, and uplift the poor--

all in the name of progress.

LEONARD: The world had never seen invention

as powerful and remarkable and as influential

as the last three decades of the 19th century.

This fueled an already existing American optimism

about what can be improved

and it directed it into a particular track,

which was scientific improvement.

COMFORT: There was a great belief in science.

There was a great belief in government,

in bureaucracy as a tool for solving social problems,

and also a belief in collectivism,

that the population needs to work together

to improve society.

CHRISTINE ROSEN: The progressive movement said,

"We can use state power and expert advice and knowledge

"to solve things like poverty,

to solve things like alcoholism."

So that was an incredibly hopeful and optimistic idea.

Eugenics was part of that.

(birds crowing)

NARRATOR: When the letter from Charles Davenport arrived in 1909

at New Jersey's Vineland Training School

for the Feebleminded,

the staff hadn't known quite what to make of it--

a mere two-line note requesting hereditary information,

one of hundreds Davenport had sent.

COMFORT: Davenport investigated any and all traits--

eye color, weight, mood, habit,

temperament, diseases-- anything.

And then he finds this psychologist in New Jersey,

and he begins to zero in on low intelligence,

something known as feeblemindedness.

NARRATOR: Psychologist Henry Goddard, Vineland's director of research,

had no family histories to share.

But what he lacked in data,

he more than made up for with enthusiasm.

Not only was Goddard interested in the new science of heredity,

he asked Davenport to guide him

in making his own study of feeblemindedness.

LOMBARDO: Like lots of people who are working in institutions,

doctors or social workers,

Henry Goddard was interested

in identifying the kinds of conditions

that were passed down in heredity

and preventing them.

NARRATOR: Henry Goddard was 42

and a one-time teacher in Quaker schools.

It was, in part, an interest in education

that had brought him to Vineland in 1906.

He'd spent the three years since

trying to parse the many varieties of feeblemindedness,

an all-too-common mental deficiency

associated with anti-social behavior.

Some of Vineland's 300 inmates were violent or deranged,

others unruly,

still others merely slow.

Hoping to improve their individual care and training,

Goddard had pioneered the use of an "intelligence test,"

which purported to measure a person's mental abilities

in relation to that of so-called normal people

of the same age.

The scores enabled him to sort his charges

into categories.

To the existing classifications of "idiot" and "imbecile,"

which long had been used

to describe debilitating mental impairment,

Goddard had added a third -

a higher-functioning group he called "morons."

WENDY KLINE: That was actually a diagnostic term

and not just an insult.

Henry Goddard argued the high-grade moron

is high-functioning enough to act normal,

but they're kind of stuck in this evolutionary phase,

and they don't emerge as true adults.

What's missing is moral judgment.

So Goddard constructs that term, "moron,"

and "mental deficiency" and "immorality"

become basically interchangeable.

NARRATOR: Now, with Davenport's tutoring,

Goddard began to survey the family histories

of 35 of his students at Vineland.

What he found made him an instant believer in eugenics.

Not only did morons seem clearly

to pass on their feeblemindedness

to their offspring,

their family trees often were rife

with alcoholics, prostitutes, criminals, and paupers.

As Goddard put it to the New Jersey State Conference

of Charities and Corrections

in 1910,

"Feeblemindedness is at the root

"of probably two-thirds of the problems

that you have before you."

The cause was "defective ancestry."

COMFORT: Henry Goddard puts forward this idea

that if you got rid of feeblemindedness,

you would get rid of all of these problems,

or at least greatly reduce them.

And we love explanations like that.

It's so simple.

"Oh, it's just feeblemindedness

so let's, you know, that's the fix."

NARRATOR: Goddard reasoned that if the test he'd devised

to better care for the feebleminded

instead were used to identify them,

the contagion could be halted--

and future generations spared the scourges

of mental deficiency.

ROSEN: Henry Goddard said,

"You know, it takes an expert

"to identify the true menace of feeblemindedness.

"So someone you're sitting next to

"at a restaurant or in a theater

"could look perfectly normal to you,

"and it only takes one feebleminded person

"marrying another one,

"even someone who's not feebleminded,

to create generations of feeblemindedness."

What it did is up the stakes of feeblemindedness

by claiming that it was a hidden menace

that was more difficult to pinpoint

than people might think.

NARRATOR: By early 1910, Charles Davenport was convinced

that certain human traits were passed down

in a predictable way

and that American society could be dramatically improved

if only reproduction were controlled.

Anxious to spread the word,

he began to lay plans for a new institution

dedicated to eugenic research and education.

(carriages rattling, trolley bells ringing)

In February, in search of a patron,

Davenport traveled to New York

to lunch with Mrs. E.H. Harriman,

widow of a recently deceased railroad magnate.

ROSEN: Davenport's pitch to Mrs. Harriman

was to say, "Right now you give your money

"to all kinds of good organizations.

"They feed the poor, they clothe the poor.

"They do many wonderful things, but it's never-ending.

"With eugenics,

"we eventually won't need your philanthropy and charity,

"because we'll solve the problems

that right now you're just throwing money at."

He persuaded Mrs. Harriman

that the future of the country was at stake

and that only a eugenic project could save it.

SPIRO: Charles Davenport says,

"All you people who think that if we just educate the poor,

"if we just give them charity,

"if we just reform their environment,

"even the poor can rise to our level,

"forget about it.

"That's just sentimental hogwash.

"It's not the environment that makes you what you are.

"It's your genetic inheritance from your parents.

"So now, yes, let's regulate the matings of human beings,

"eliminate the bad genes from the population,

and keep the fittest genes in the gene pool."

WAILOO: By limiting the birth of people who were deemed to be unfit,

you were by definition enhancing the stock of human society.

And so there was this social mission

of really fighting dependency,

fighting crime,

through eugenics.

The idea was that eugenics would solve

all of these broader social problems

if enacted in a robust way.

NARRATOR: Mrs. Harriman was a great believer

in the importance of proper matings.

She credited her late husband's interest

in horse-breeding for that,

and she enthusiastically pledged

to finance Davenport's eugenic enterprise.

It was, Davenport later wrote in his journal,

"a red letter day for humanity."

MUKHERJEE: The impulse to perfect humanity is an ancient aspiration.

The idea that, somehow or the other,

that you can get the best humans

by selectively breeding the best, most fit,

hardiest, most beautiful--

it's an ancient desire.

You find it in Sanskrit texts.

You find it in Greek texts.

The trouble is that only some human beings can dictate

or decide what those...

what the correct features might be.

Who decides?

SPIRO: Charles Davenport thought,

"By breeding a superior race of people,

we can bring about the millennial kingdom on Earth."

COMFORT: The problem with utopias

is that they set a set of aspirations

that then blind you

to a certain set of consequences.

And that can be dangerous.

(birds chirping)

NARRATOR: In October 1910, on a 80-acre plot adjacent

to the Cold Spring Harbor campus,

Charles Davenport opened the doors

of his new institute.

It was a modest structure built for a grand purpose:

to house hereditary information on American families

and use it to guide the reproductive choices

of the nation.

He called it the Eugenics Record Office.

COMFORT: Eugenic ideas were very much floating around

as early as 1880.

But Davenport gave eugenics teeth.

He was institutionalizing eugenics.

He was marshaling people around a research program.

NARRATOR: Davenport already had assembled

a prestigious board of scientific directors,

among them prominent scientists, physicians,

and famed inventor Alexander Graham Bell.

Day-to-day operations, meanwhile,

would be overseen by Harry Laughlin,

a high school superintendent from the Midwest

with a lifelong passion for poultry breeding.

ROSEN: Laughlin was

a very zealous proponent of eugenics,

and in that sense, he got along well

with Davenport.

They both believed in the mission,

they believed in the cause.

COHEN: For Davenport, a lot of it was about

what you could do in the laboratory

and how you can analyze the data.

For Laughlin, a lot of it was about,

"Well, how are we going to get out there in the world

and change the direction of history?"

NARRATOR: To gather new disciples to the cause--

and to aid in the collection of data--

Laughlin and Davenport launched an academic program,

which offered training

in eugenic field-research techniques.

Over the course of six weeks each summer,

recent college graduates-- from Vassar, Harvard, Oberlin--

were taught how to investigate family histories;

how to conduct interviews

and make eugenically useful measurements;

and how to chart family pedigrees

and analyze them.

Then, at a salary of $75 a month,

came a year's work in the field.

Armed with the official Tr ait Book,

which assigned numerical codes

to a broad spectrum of human characteristics,

the newly minted researchers fanned out:

to study delinquents

in the Juvenile Psychopathic Institute of Chicago;

the insane at the New Jersey State Hospital

at Matawan;

albinos in Massachusetts;

circus families at Coney Island;

the Amish in Pennsylvania.

COHEN: They would go into some holler in Virginia

and find some family

that seemed to have a lot of alcoholics and criminals,

and, you know, other ne'er-do-wells,

and they would go, "Aha.

We've found a family with terrible genes."

And they'd interview someone, and they'd say,

"Oh, yeah, you know,

"John seems a little slow,

but I knew his uncle, and his uncle was a big drunk."

And they'd write that down, "Uncle a big drunk."

So they would come back with all this evidence

of the way in which human traits were inherited.

KEVLES: Of course the reliability of the data

was not questioned,

even though it was based on interpretation, impression,

recollection by the living members

of the family with whom they spoke.

No checking.

NARRATOR: Year by year--

as trainees rotated out of the summer program

and into positions

at universities, hospitals, and mental institutions--

Davenport's assumptions and methods of fieldwork

gained currency all across the country.

And year by year, the data accumulated.

Stored in fireproof cabinets and intricately indexed,

it comprised, as "Scientific American" noted,

"A sort of inventory of the blood of the community"

and supplied grist for a multitude

of books, pamphlets, lectures, and press releases

regarding the danger of so-called "inferior germ-plasm."

SPIRO: They're using the family records

that are stored in the fireproof vault

to prove that all these traits,

not just physical but mental traits, moral traits,

are caused by genes.

There's nothing you can do about it.

This is cold, hard, pure science.

NARRATOR: "Just as we have strains of scholars, of military men,"

Davenport told "The New York Times,"

"we have strains of paupers, of sex offenders...

"strains with strong tendencies toward larceny,

"assault, lying, running away...

The cost to society of these strains is enormous."

WAILOO: Davenport took this basic idea,

applied it far more widely than it had ever been before,

and really promoted this probabilistic idea

as if it were a deterministic one.

That is to say, it's not just likelihoods,

but in some ways, we're dealing with certainties.

And that idea really sold.

NARRATOR: By the time the Eugenics Record Office

issued its first official report in 1913,

many Americans had begun to see the wisdom in eugenics.

"I agree with you that society has no business

to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind,"

former president Theodore Roosevelt

wrote Davenport that year.

"It is really extraordinary that our people refuse

"to apply to human beings such knowledge

"as every successful farmer is obliged to apply

to his own stock breeding."

LEONARD: If you're going to be in the business of breeding,

you're going to have to convince thought leaders and politicians,

most especially the government,

to begin a kind of unprecedented program.

So they understood from the beginning

that they needed to persuade those

who were in a position to do something about it

that it was possible, indeed, desirable.

COMFORT: The eugenicists thought that people's base interests

are just self-serving, selfish, right?

And if you just leave them to themselves,

they're going to evolve

in all these random, dumb directions.

NARRATOR: The Eugenics Record Office recommended

both widespread eugenic education

and aggressive government intervention:

laws that would keep defectives out of the country,

prohibit them from marrying,

and prevent them from becoming parents

by segregating them in asylums

throughout their reproductive years.

Also recommended was a new

and somewhat controversial surgical procedure

known as sterilization.

By cutting and sealing organs involved in reproduction,

both men and women could be made infertile.

So far, the technique had been used primarily on criminals--

particularly sex offenders--

and it was thought to have a curative effect.

Harry Laughlin envisioned a broader application:

as a eugenic tool that would eliminate defective germ-plasm

once and for all.

COHEN: Harry Laughlin really has this political vision

of what we can do with eugenics.

And he said,

"In order for eugenic sterilization

"to really do what had to be done,

15 million Americans would have to go under the knife."

The idea was that eugenics was for the common good

and by implementing the science of heredity,

they could protect America and strengthen America.

KEVLES: They thought of it as the beginning of a revolution,

of a religious movement.

You have to start with a few converts,

and then you try to grow it into a bigger movement.

All that seemed exciting and full of possibility,

and they were going to create a new world.

NARRATOR: The eugenics movement

that Charles Davenport had launched

rested on Mendel's laws of inheritance,

which assumed each trait was governed by one gene

and was passed down in predictable patterns.

But for all of Davenport's certainty about the gene,

there remained open questions--

about the gene's physical properties

and its location within the cell,

and the means by which it accomplished its function.

All over the world,

scientists looked to fast-breeding organisms

in search of clues.

Some focused their experiments on the sea urchin,

which turned out a new generation each year;

others on the even speedier meal worm,

with its larva-to-larva cycle of four months.

For zoologist Thomas Hunt Morgan,

the organism of choice was the fruit fly,

which was capable of reproducing in just ten days.

MUKHERJEE: The organism breeds so quickly

that Morgan is able to see things

that the eugenicists cannot,

because he's watching mutations move

across multiple generations.

NARRATOR: By 1913,

Morgan had been studying fruit flies for so long

that his laboratory at Columbia University

was known simply as "the Fly Room,"

and his assistants "the Fly Boys."

For nearly a decade, they'd been holed up there,

on the sixth floor of Schermerhorn Hall,

breeding flies in half-pint milk bottles

pilfered from the campus cafeteria.

Thousands upon thousands of mutants were crossed

and the results meticulously recorded:

white-eyed, bristled, red-eyed, short-winged.

When the data was collated,

Morgan made a startling discovery:

the mechanism of heredity in flies

was far more complex than in Mendel's peas.

MUKHERJEE: Gregor Mendel thought that every gene

was its own unique, discrete entity.

Morgan showed that, in fact, that's not the case.

That, in fact, genes live, genes have a physical entity.

They live in chromosomes.

Because they live in chromosomes,

often they travel in packs.

Morgan's work complicates the idea of simple eugenics,

because you don't just pick one thing out of one drawer,

a second thing out of another drawer,

until you get your ideal child.

It's not so easy to pick and choose

what your next generation might be.

ALONDRA NELSON: It makes sense in pea plants, it makes sense in cattle,

it should make sense in humans,

but there were no experiments

that really could support Davenport's theory.

NARRATOR: Thomas Hunt Morgan was a believer

in the transformative power of eugenics.

He had served on the board at the Eugenics Record Office

since it opened.

But based on the lessons he'd learned in the Fly Room,

it seemed clear that eugenic science, such as it was,

had no business informing American laws.

"If the eugenicists want to do this sort of thing,

well and good," Morgan wrote a friend,

"but I think it is just as well

"for some of us to set a better standard

and not appear as participators in the show."

LOMBARDO: Morgan writes a letter saying,

"I'm going to ask to be taken off this letterhead.

"I study fruit flies,

"and I can't figure out how their eyes work.

"I can't figure out which one's going

"to inherit certain kinds of wings,

"and you seem to be saying you can understand

"who's going to inherit something as vague

as criminality or pauperism."

So he backed away, but privately.

NARRATOR: Morgan's withdrawal from the Record Office was regrettable;

but Davenport was undeterred.

At this point,

the eugenics movement would not be stalled

by the minutiae of science.

MUKHERJEE: What genes are

is a great biological and biochemical question.

But there's kind of a Yankee practicality

about eugenics:

"Let's get this job done."

And so they move right along.

(marching band playing, crowd cheering)

NARRATOR: When the Panama-Pacific International Exposition

opened in San Francisco

on the morning of February 20, 1915,

100,000 people streamed through its turnstiles.

Over the next nine months,

the number would reach more than 18 million.

Billed as "an encyclopedia of modern achievement,"

the fair offered a dizzying array

of diversions and curiosities:

a 23-minute ride over a functioning replica

of the recently completed Panama Canal;

an assembly line that turned out 18 Model Ts a day;

a 57-tier tower built entirely of Heinz condiment products.

STERN: The Panama-Pacific Expo

was a celebration of science,

efficiency, engineering.

It was an opportunity for the United States

to demonstrate the power of science and technology,

and also a utopian vision looking towards the future.

NARRATOR: Nowhere did the future look brighter

than from the Race Betterment Exhibit.

Housed in the Palace of Education,

the display featured imposing plaster casts

of Atlas, Venus, and Apollo;

a collection of medical instruments

used to gauge human biological capacity;

and a welter of charts, graphs, and lists

that outlined the way eugenics would better the human race.

All of it was the work of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg,

a fierce proponent of what he called, "biologic living."

COMFORT: John Harvey Kellogg was an incredibly energetic man.

He was a health reformer, and a physician,

and an amazing entrepreneur.

And he developed all these regimens

and invented different medical instruments,

had a whole dietary plan.

SPIRO: He was obsessed with cleanliness, with purity,

and he believed that the key to reforming society

is to cleanse our bowels on a regular basis.

He invents something called Corn Flakes

to help cleanse your bowels.

And he had a spa in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Lots of eugenicists came to the Battle Creek Sanatorium

to have their bowels cleansed

and to talk about eugenics.

ROSEN: For Kellogg, eugenics made perfect sense.

It was about health.

He linked these views about heredity,

which were difficult to change,

with these ideas about what human beings can do

to improve themselves.

LEONARD: John Harvey Kellogg believed

that the environment can affect the gene,

that consuming alcohol or consuming meat could lead

to genetic inferiority in offspring.

So there was more than one way to improve heredity.

NARRATOR: At the Expo,

Kellogg sought to usher his brand of eugenics

onto the national stage.

With assistance from Charles Davenport--

who had supplied him with both data and contacts--

Kellogg had organized not only the Race Betterment Exhibit,

but also a major eugenics conference at the fair.


The turnout exceeded expectation,

drawing reform-minded medical professionals,

university presidents, conservationists,

and business leaders from all over the country

and across the political spectrum.

LOMBARDO: Eugenics had a little bit of something for everyone.

So if you're a social hygienist,

you're interested in wiping out prostitution,

eugenics is interested in that, too.

If you're a prohibitionist,

and you want to get rid of alcohol,

because alcohol breaks up families,

it makes men unemployable--

eugenics wants to get rid of all those things, too.

So it manages to match up with the concerns

of many other different kinds of reforms.

WAILOO: What led people to get behind the eugenics campaign

wasn't just their ardent belief in the science or in heredity.

It was a fundamentally broad and sweeping

social and political agenda

to try to recreate society, one might say,

in their own image.

KEVLES: They're almost all white, they're almost all Protestant,

middle-to-upper-middle class,

and they tended to equate human worth

with the qualities that they themselves possessed.

NARRATOR: Over five days in August,

the 60-odd conference delegates delivered talks

on everything from proper toothbrushing

to eugenic sterilization.

"Unless we weed out the weaklings,"

one speaker warned,

"we will reach a point

"where many of those born and helped to survive

will be a burden to the race."

All told, the Race Betterment Conference

drew an estimated 10,000 people

and generated more than a million lines of press.

"Your efforts on behalf of eugenics

are certainly beginning to bear fruit,"

Kellogg told Charles Davenport.

"The public is beginning to understand better

and appreciate more."

The Panama-Pacific Expo was really a defining moment

for the American eugenics movement.

The eugenics movement was coalescing.

It was solidifying.

COHEN: These elites are all saying,

"Yes, you know, we believe in progress,

and this is progress."

Eugenics gave them a way to view the world

and to say, "Okay, you know,

"all these vague anxieties I have about the present

and particularly the future,

this is what the problem is.

Well, let's get to work on solving that."

NARRATOR: In May 1917, as new converts spread the eugenic creed

in cities and towns across America,

a half-dozen psychologists gathered

at the Vineland Training School for the Feebleminded

to meet with Henry Goddard,

by now considered the nation's leading expert

on mental deficiency.

His groundbreaking 1912 study, "The Kallikak Family,"

had awakened the public to the menace of the feebleminded,

with its true-life tale of an old-stock American,

a feebleminded tavern girl,

and a fateful tryst that over several generations

had spawned more than a hundred mental defectives,

among them one of Goddard's own patients at Vineland,

a girl he'd diagnosed as a moron.

SPIRO: "The Kallikak Family" was a huge best seller

for many, many years.

References to the Kallikaks were in the speeches of politicians,

books, scholarly journals, popular magazines.

Everyone knew what the Kallikaks meant.

"You have to watch out who you mate with

"or your descendants could turn out

to be feebleminded, criminals, alcoholics, and so forth."

NARRATOR: Goddard was eager

to demonstrate the value of intelligence testing

as a diagnostic tool--

and he'd spent the years since his book's publication

administering tests to scores of institutional inmates,

immigrants, school children.

Now, with his colleagues, he designed a program

to carry out intelligence testing

on a mass scale.

Just seven weeks earlier,

the United States had plunged into the First World War--

and the draft ultimately would swell the Army's ranks

by nearly three million men.

The aim of the testing program

was to classify them for service

and to identify the mental defectives

lurking among them.

They began in late September 1917

at Camp Lee and Camp Taylor,

Camp Devens, and Camp Dix.

First, new recruits were sorted

according to their level of literacy

and then administered one of two tests.

KEVLES: They had one test called the Alpha Test

for draftees who were literate in English

and another called the Beta Test

for draftees who were not literate in English

or illiterate completely.

One of the questions on the Alpha Test was,

"The Knight engine is used

in the Ford, the Pierce-Arrow, or the Lozier car?"

Now, tell me, is that known to you?

NARRATOR: While the literate testers puzzled

over multiple-choice questions,

the others attempted

to draw their way out of mazes

and sketch in the missing bits of simple pictures.

One Sicilian recruit, a Catholic,

considered an image of a house

and drew a crucifix where a chimney might be.

He was marked wrong.

"It was touching

to see the intense effort put into answering the questions,"

an Army examiner later recalled,

"often by men who never before

had held a pencil in their hands."

KEVLES: The tests were

by no means measures of intelligence,

whatever that may mean.

How well you did on them

depended upon your degree of education,

how many years you'd been in school,

and also how attuned you were with middle-class culture.

NARRATOR: Administered to 1.7 million Army personnel

over the course of the conflict--

officers and enlisted men,

black soldiers as well as white--

the tests led to a shocking conclusion.

Roughly half of the draftees were considered to be morons.

LOMBARDO: The Army's experience became a headline,

"America is degenerating.

We have to somehow interrupt this swamp of defect."

COHEN: There was a movement

to institutionalize more people at this time,

driven by eugenics.

You can see how an IQ test can really grease the wheels.

If you're going to start moving people into institutions,

if you're going to start sterilizing them and all that,

you need some numbers, and the IQ test provided that.

NARRATOR: By 1919, intelligence testing was a full-fledged craze.

An adapted version of the Army test,

the National Intelligence Test,

sold half a million copies in one year.

Businesses administered mental tests

to prospective employees;

schools and universities evaluated their students;

and ever more paupers, prostitutes,

drunkards, and delinquents

found themselves suddenly with pencil in hand.

COHEN: Feeblemindedness was a big fear in that era.

There was a thought

that there were a lot of these people out there

who were deficient,

who were morons,

and they were not only out there,

they were reproducing much more rapidly than other people.

MUKHERJEE: The trouble is that in practice

the word "moron" could be anyone

who was not part of the, you know,

the so-called social norm.

So the word "moron" begins as a scientific attempt

to classify intelligence,

but very soon becomes usable

as a means of social control.

NARRATOR: By 1920,

the vast majority of those committed

to institutions for the feebleminded

were classified as morons.

COHEN: To some extent,

humanity's always been about othering

and about, you know,

"There's us, and there's the other."

The eugenics movement really gave

this scientific, you know, punch to this idea that,

"There are us, and there are the others,

"and we're the right people.

"We're the people that it's important

"not only to favor now,

but we're the people who have to own the future."

Suddenly eugenics comes along

and gives them a scientific basis

for believing that.

LEONARD: Eugenics is easy to accept,

because it preserves existing hierarchies.

It doesn't seek to overturn them.

What it did was lend new weight to established hierarchies.

LOMBARDO: I don't think there has ever been a time

when people didn't think

that some people simply better than others.

The eugenics movement, like a chameleon,

took on the colors of those attitudes

which existed before the word "eugenics" was coined

and certainly exist today.

(whistle blowing)

NARRATOR: They'd been swarming the ports of entry since 1890--

as many as a million of them a year,

in flight from poverty and oppression,

lured by the promise of equality and opportunity.

The Great War had staunched the flow;

but with the armistice,

the tap had been opened once more.

By 1920, some 75,000 new immigrants

were landing at Ellis Island each month.

That May, at Cold Spring Harbor,

Charles Davenport penned a letter to a friend:

"Can we build a wall high enough around this country,"

he wondered,

"so as to keep out these cheaper races?"

COHEN: Charles Davenport was born into a very fancy,

old-stock family.

So he was someone brought up to believe that family mattered

and that, you know,

good qualities ran in good families like his.

ROSEN: Charles Davenport was very focused

on wanting to maintain the traditional American stock.

And he wasn't alone in that.

There was this fear that the right sort of American

wasn't having enough children.

And the race as it existed

was being diluted and polluted by incoming waves of immigrants.

SPIRO: Most immigrants used to come

from Northern and Western Europe,

from the British Isles, from Germany.

And then all of a sudden in the 1890s,

immigrants started coming here from Eastern Europe,

from Southern Europe.

These are Catholics, these are Jews,

these are peasants.

And Davenport feels correctly

that his race is losing the demographic game.

NARRATOR: On the receiving end of Davenport's letter

was Madison Grant,

a zealous convert to the eugenics cause

with a sterling American pedigree

and an abiding preoccupation with endangered species.

SPIRO: Madison Grant was a very wealthy lawyer.

His ancestors are traced back

to the original Puritan founders of the United States.

Some of his ancestors signed the Declaration of Independence.

He was a committed conservationist.

He saved the redwoods from extinction.

At some point he realized,

"I'm spending all my time and effort

"trying to save our nation's flora and fauna

while my own race is dying out."

When Madison Grant walks out the door

of his Wall Street law office,

he is accosted by thousands of foreign-speaking peasants.

They don't know and they don't care

that Madison Grant's ancestors

signed the Declaration of Independence,

and he is offended.

NARRATOR: Grant had sounded the alarm for old-stock Americans in 1916

with "The Passing of the Great Race,"

a 476-page elegy for what he called

"The white man par excellence."

STERN: His vision is one

of America as a country wrought by great men

who ventured from Europe,

and an America that is facing an onslaught

from the undesirable hordes

from most of the rest of the world.

SPIRO: He invents this race called the Nordics,

this tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed race.

According to Grant,

the Nordics are the most recently evolved

of all the races.

That means their genetic traits are still fragile.

They're not fully formed.

And so if a blond-haired, blue-eyed Nordic

mates with a more primitive race--

a Mediterranean, a Jew, certainly a Negro

or an Asiatic--

the more primitive genes of the inferior race

will actually overwhelm

the superior but not yet stable genes

of the Nordics.

COHEN: So this is a threat,

and a threat not just, you know,

"Hey, I look around the city,

and it looks a little different."

This is a genetic invasion.

NARRATOR: As Grant saw it,

the threat from the Negro race was mostly neutralized

by laws already on the books in many states

that forbid marriage between blacks and whites.

The threat posed by the foreign-born, however,

was at once more insidious and more pressing.

"We Americans must realize

"that the altruistic ideals and the maudlin sentimentalism

"that has made America 'an asylum for the oppressed'

are sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss,"

Grant declared.

"This generation must completely repudiate

"the proud boast of our fathers

"that they acknowledged no distinction

"in 'race, creed, or color,'

"or else turn the page of history

and write,'Finis Americae.'"

SPIRO: Madison Grant takes eugenics,

which had hitherto been concerned

only with survival of the fittest individual,

and he says, "We need to be concerned

"with the survival of the fittest race.

We need to preserve the Nordic race."

NARRATOR: Grant's mission in 1920 was to rally his fellow eugenicists

and convince the federal government

to drastically reduce immigration.

He began with a charm offensive directed

at Congressman Albert Johnson,

the chairman of the House Committee

on Immigration and Naturalization,

inviting Johnson to New York,

plying him with whiskey and cigars,

and gradually persuading him of the urgent need for eugenics.

Once Johnson was in the fold,

Grant suggested he bring Harry Laughlin,

the superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office,

to Washington, DC,

to testify on the so-called

"biological aspects of immigration."

Johnson was so impressed with the presentation,

he named Laughlin "expert eugenics agent"

and commissioned him to make a study of the foreign-born.

In the meantime--

amid a rising anti-immigrant clamor

from labor unions, social workers, conservationists--

Congress curbed the influx

with the Emergency Quota Act of 1921.

SPIRO: This was supposedly a one-year temporary measure.

But in 1922, the bill is renewed for another two years,

and that gave Madison Grant and the eugenicists time

to launch a massive propaganda campaign

convincing Americans

that immigration restriction must be permanent.

NARRATOR: In September 1921,

at New York's American Museum of Natural History,

Grant convened an international eugenics congress

to whip up support for the cause.

Organized in tandem with Charles Davenport,

the weeklong event drew some 300 delegates

from 28 foreign countries.

Numerous members of the Senate and House immigration committees

were in attendance,

as was actress Lillian Russell--

who now informed her legions of fans

that the American melting pot was a catastrophe.

"If we don't put up the bars

and make them higher and stronger," she warned,

"there no longer will be an America for Americans."

SPIRO: There are all kinds of exhibits at the Congress

showing that Negro fetuses have smaller skulls,

Italians have a higher level of criminality

than other people.

And at the end of the Congress,

the exhibits are packed up and shipped to Washington, DC,

where they are prominently displayed

in the committee rooms

so that congressmen could not help

but, consciously or not,

imbibe all the latest scientific findings of eugenics.

NARRATOR: But it was Harry Laughlin's return to Capitol Hill--

and the reports on his study--

that convinced many on the House committee

of the perils of unchecked immigration.

COHEN: He had numbers that purported to show

that rates of insanity were different

among immigrants from different countries,

that certain nationalities were much more likely

to have their immigrants become prison inmates.

And he also argued that just biologically,

because we were largely a Nordic,

Northern European country,

it was harder to assimilate immigrants

from other parts of the world.

NARRATOR: Citing data from the Army intelligence tests,

Laughlin claimed that foreign-born whites--

and in particular Jews--

were intellectually inferior to native-born Americans

and therefore likely, over time,

to diminish the intelligence of the nation.

SPIRO: The Jews on the immigration committee object.

They claim correctly

that the eugenicists have first come up with their theory

that Jews are inferior

and then found the data to back it up.

But Congress is converted to the cause of eugenics.

The "Congressional Record" is filled

with congressmen reading excerpts

from "The Passing of the Great Race,"

Madison Grant's book,

on the floor of Congress.

And so the restrictionists win the day,

and Congress passes immigration restriction legislation.

NARRATOR: On May 26, 1924,

President Calvin Coolidge signed the restriction act into law.

Madison Grant hailed it

as "one of the greatest steps forward

in the history of this country."

LEONARD: They shut the door

and reduced immigration to the United States by 97%.

The door was shut,

and it didn't open again for 40 years.

And in a very real sense,

this was a political, policy victory for eugenics.

NARRATOR: The new policy would help the nation to remain,

as one congressman said on the House floor,

"The home of a great people:

"English-speaking, a white race with great ideals,

"the Christian religion.

One race, one country, one destiny."

STERN: It was really a reversal of, you know,

"Give us your tired and your huddled masses,"

and it sends a message that the open arms of Ellis Island

are now closed.

NARRATOR: For many of those across the Atlantic

who would pin their hopes on America in the years to come,

the consequences would be dire.

COHEN: Congress passed this law and closed the door

on Jews in Eastern Europe and Germany

who were trying to flee the Nazis.

Otto Frank wrote to the U.S. State Department,

trying to get visas for his family.

And he wrote repeatedly, and he had connections,

and he was turned down, because of this law.

We think about Anne Frank dying in a concentration camp

because the Germans thought the Jews were genetically inferior,

but to some extent,

Anne Frank died in a concentration camp

because the U.S. Congress believed that, as well.

We believe that married people

who have transmissible diseases

should not have children.

No couple who has the disease of feeblemindedness

or insanity or epilepsy

should have children.

Babies should not be brought into the world

when the father's income is obviously inadequate

to provide for its food, clothing, or shelter.

NARRATOR: On August 5, 1926,

a crowd gathered at Vassar College

to hear a lecture given by Margaret Sanger,

the controversial founder

of the American Birth Control League.

Sanger's reputation preceded her.

In her dozen years as a crusader

for contraception and family planning,

she'd been denounced, jeered, and jailed repeatedly.

Now, she'd undertaken a cross-country speaking tour

intended to bolster her cause by linking it to eugenics.

LEONARD: Margaret Sanger was laser-beam-focused

on promoting birth control,

which she saw as a liberatory agent for women.

It was a hard push,

reproductive rights, contraception.

Her embrace of the eugenicists

was a way of getting some influential and powerful allies

behind her cause.

NARRATOR: "The question of race betterment,"

Sanger told the Vassar audience,

"is one of immediate concern.

"And I am glad to say

"that the government has already taken certain steps

"to control the quality of our population

"through the drastic immigration laws.

"But while we close our gates

"to the so-called 'undesirables' from other countries,

"we make no attempt

"to discourage or cut down the rapid multiplication

of the unfit and undesirable at home."

WAILOO: Margaret Sanger is struggling to open a conversation

at a time

when public discussion of birth control,

let alone access to birth control, was illegal.

But her views are fairly persistent

with regard to issues of biological inferiority.

You could argue that they're strategic,

but the difference is not that significant

from the standpoint of those listening to her words.

KLINE: Once birth control is packaged

as a way of improving the human race,

it seems more manageable.

And there are a lot of people that were on the fence

that she convinced to embrace birth control,

because of its eugenic potential.

It was being labeled a birth-control activist

that was truly controversial.

Being a eugenicist was far more acceptable.

NARRATOR: Amid the many American enthusiasms

of the 1920s--

skimpy dresses, dance marathons, mahjong--

breeding a better human race was perhaps the most unlikely.

But by the middle years of the decade,

the notion was everywhere.

Included in the curriculum

at more than 350 American colleges and universities--

among them Harvard, Northwestern,

and the University of California at Berkeley--

eugenics also was preached from pulpits,

promoted on lecture circuits,

and appropriated to sell everything

from newfangled beauty treatments

to children's toys.

Disseminated by a host of popularizers,

and at times diluted, distorted, or both,

the eugenic creed filtered down to the masses

through magazine articles, advice manuals,

even a movie called "Are You Fit to Marry?"

COHEN: This was really something that permeated the culture.

It was really a craze.

It was something people were excited about.

ROSEN: Eugenics starts to trickle into mainstream popular culture

in the 1920s.

And it says to individual Americans,

"If you want your society to improve,

"you have to marry the right person.

"You have to have healthy children.

"You have obligations to the human race

and to your country."

NARRATOR: As one newlywed confessed

in a letter to his local eugenics society:

"My wife and I are both extremely tall,

"and this worries us,

"as we do not wish to bring abnormally tall children

into the world."


At state and county fairs

across the country-- in Massachusetts,

Kansas, Georgia, Texas--

a human stock contest

known as "Fitter Families for Future Firesides"

drew throngs.

Sponsored by the American Eugenics Society,

a propaganda organization run by the movement's evangelists,

Harry Laughlin and Madison Grant,

the competition offered a primer on eugenics,

disguised as wholesome family entertainment.

ROSEN: What the American Eugenics Society realized

is that if you're going to spread a message

about eugenics,

you have to get people involved in more

than just reading something in a popular magazine.

SPIRO: Eugenics is an all-encompassing creed.

It's a faith, it's a religion.

Harry Laughlin and Madison Grant understood,

"We need the people to be converted to this religion,

"so that everyone will understand,

"'If I am eugenically superior I cannot date

"'and certainly cannot mate

with a eugenically unfit person.'"

NARRATOR: Fitter Families contestants came from miles around,

often dressed in their Sunday best,

and submitted themselves

to a rigorous three-hour inspection.

Straight, healthy teeth earned them high marks,

as did musical talent

or a family history of longevity.

Disease or disability--

even a lame grandmother or an epileptic uncle--

was a demerit.

"While the stock judges are testing the Holsteins,

Jerseys, and Whitefaces in the stock pavilion,"

one contest organizer said,

"we are judging the Joneses, Smiths, and the Johnsons."

SPIRO: Just as they would have a contest

who had bred the best cows,

who had bred the best sheep,

who had bred the best children.

And at the end of the state fair,

the eugenic winning family, the fitter family,

would be driven down the midway

and wave to the people and show off their ribbons.

LOMBARDO: By the 1920s, eugenics was a household word.

A generation of people grows up

thinking of this word

as a aspiration, healthy babies,

and as a warning.

They've read it in school, they've heard it at church,

it has become part of the consciousness

of the country.

NARRATOR: So pervasive was the impulse to human improvement,

even prominent African-Americans took up the theme.

W.E.B. Du Bois,

one of the founders of the National Association

for the Advancement of Colored People,

maintained that the "best" of the black race--

what he called "the Talented Tenth"--

was the hope for the future.

"The Negro," Du Bois declared,

"must begin to breed for brains,

for efficiency, for beauty."

WAILOO: Du Bois's ideas are fundamentally

about combating prejudice,

but at the same time,

he talked about and embraced the notion

that not all blacks were equally gifted

and equally talented,

and that the future of African-Americans

should hinge

on the future procreation of the talented.

Those ideas really are resonant with eugenic ideals of the time.

KLINE: Eugenics became a really powerful ideology,

because it made sense to a lot of different groups

who were concerned about disparate things.

Part of the draw is how science can make us better human beings,

that we can engineer ourselves

into being even better than we are.

And viewing that as a source of progress.

NELSON: The eugenics movement of the early 20th century

got traction because the slogans were simple,

things like, "Better babies and happy families."

On the face of it,

you know, better babies, healthier babies,

what's not to like?

It would have taken considerable effort

to demonstrate to people

what that simple slogan was actually hiding.

NARRATOR: In September 1924,

at the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded,

the colony's board of directors met to discuss the case

of patient 1692,

a 17-year-old named Carrie Buck.

She'd been admitted to the colony several months before,

at the request of her foster parents,

who claimed that they could no longer

"control or care for her."

COHEN: Carrie Buck had been raised by a foster family,

not a nice family.

She is rented out to other people in the community

to do house cleaning,

and she's pulled out of school after fifth grade,

even though she's doing very well

and is a perfectly good student.

Then, a nephew of her foster mother rapes her,

and she gets pregnant, and they want to get rid of her.

NARRATOR: By the time her daughter was born,

the state had labeled Buck "morally delinquent"

for having given birth out of wedlock,

diagnosed her a "middle-grade moron,"

and confined her to the colony.

KLINE: Sexual delinquent, sexually immoral.

These terms are intentionally vague.

Immoral tendency could be that a woman had been sexually abused.

It could mean she was going out late at night.

It could mean she's a prostitute.

If you're morally deficient,

that's evidence that you're mentally deficient

and vice versa.

So the state needs to intervene.

NARRATOR: The question before the colony's board of directors now

was whether or not to sterilize Carrie Buck.

COHEN: She lands at the Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded

right when Virginia has passed a eugenic sterilization law,

and the lawyer for the state hospitals

really wants there to be a test before sterilizations occur.

So the superintendent of the colony

basically needs an inmate that he can say,

"I'm going to sterilize you,"

have that person challenge the law,

and then hopefully prevail against her.

So he's looking for someone,

and Carrie Buck checks a lot of boxes.

NARRATOR: From the board's perspective,

the menace posed by Buck's own feeblemindedness

was doubled by her lineage.

Her mother, who was alleged to have engaged in prostitution,

was likewise an inmate at the colony.

"By the laws of heredity," the board concluded,

"Carrie Buck is the probable potential parent

of socially inadequate offspring."

It was recommended she be sterilized

for both her own welfare and the good of society.

(gavel bangs)

Then Buck was assigned an attorney

friendly to the eugenic cause,

who would appeal her sterilization--

ideally, all the way

to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Across the country, eugenicists would be watching--

to see if the Virginia test case

could create a national consensus

on sterilization.

LOMBARDO: Sterilization was a radical procedure.

Between 1915 and the mid-1920s,

you have a dozen or more states that pass laws

that allowed for mandatory sterilization

of people in institutions.

Some of them were used actively.

Many of them were just on the books,

but nobody was being operated on.

Some of them had been struck down

by state courts.

So it wasn't at all clear

what was going to happen to eugenic sterilization.

COHEN: There was a hope among eugenicists,

"If we could just get a case

"that goes up to the Supreme Court,

"one ruling from the Supreme Court,

"and suddenly we've got a national legal standard

that eugenic sterilization is acceptable."

So that became high on the wish list

of the eugenics movement.

NARRATOR: No one was more interested in the Virginia test case

than Harry Laughlin,

who had spent much of the previous decade

promoting sterilization

as a cheap, effective way

to rid the nation of what he called

"the socially inadequate classes."

COHEN: Harry Laughlin believes that to really move the needle

on the national genetic pool and really improve things,

sterilization was the answer.

LOMBARDO: Eugenical sterilization was Laughlin's life work.

He published a book in 1922,

a compendium of every law that had been passed,

of every case that had been brought,

excruciating detail

about the history of eugenical sterilization.

And it became the bible

for people who wanted to pass sterilization laws.

NARRATOR: It was only a matter of time

before Laughlin was asked to serve as an expert witness

in the case against Carrie Buck--

and though he was unable to appear in person,

he was more than happy to help.

LOMBARDO: Laughlin never met Carrie Buck.

Laughlin never traveled to Virginia to see her.

His testimony was read into the record

of the Carrie Buck case

as a deposition.

NARRATOR: The Buck family, Laughlin argued,

was "mentally defective"--

members of what he described

as the "shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class

of anti-social whites of the South."

As such, Carrie was certainly likely

to give birth to defective children.

No doubt, with her infant daughter Vivian,

she already had.

Laughlin's testimony proved persuasive.

As the eugenicists hoped, first the county judge,

then the State Supreme Court

upheld Virginia's sterilization law.

(gavel banging)

The next-- and final-- ruling would come

from the Supreme Court of the United States.

COHEN: Poor Carrie Buck,

there's no weaker person perhaps

who's ever come before the Supreme Court.

She is poor, and she is alone,

and her mother is an inmate,

and she has a lawyer that's been chosen by her enemies

to not represent her.

And she's asking the font of justice in our society,

"Don't let them forcibly operate on me

so I can't have children."

And they say, "Go ahead, sterilize her."

NARRATOR: In May 1927,

the court's majority opinion was rendered

by the venerable Oliver Wendell Holmes,

who, at 86, was widely regarded

as America's most brilliant legal mind.

"It is better for all the world,"

Holmes wrote, "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."

KEVLES: Justice Holmes says,

"If she is allowed to reproduce,

"or if the Carrie Bucks of the world in general

"are allowed to reproduce,

"this will be deleterious to American society.

"And so therefore the government has the authority

"to step in and, in pursuit of the greater public good,

to suppress her individual right to reproduce."

NARRATOR: Carrie Buck was sterilized on October 19, 1927.

Less than a month afterward,

she was paroled from the colony.

Thanks to Carrie Buck, a jubilant Laughlin declared,

eugenical sterilization's "experimental period,"

had come to an end.

Over the two decades that preceded the Carrie Buck case,

only about 6,000 sterilizations had been performed nationwide.

In the six years that followed it,

as states across the country

rushed to enact sterilization laws,

that number would more than double.

LOMBARDO: If you look back at all the sterilization laws passed,

the easiest way to sum up who their targets were is,

"Round up the usual suspects."

You are generally going to be dealing

with poor people,

people who are part of a disfavored minority,

people who were on private charity

or public welfare,

people who had disabilities,

mental or physical,

and people who were generally considered

somehow on the margins of society.

WAILOO: The conceit of eugenics

was that scientists understood what traits were associated

with health and well-being over the long term.

But hereditary science in the early 20th century

was still emerging.

Eugenics led the public discussion,

promoted the science of human heredity

in a time when hereditarian scientists

were themselves developing their craft.

And I think for a period of time they saw this

as a positive development,

society taking interest

in the kind of science that they were doing.

And then I think by the '20s there's a problem.

NARRATOR: It was the fall of 1926,

and geneticist Hermann J. Muller,

a former Columbia University Fly Boy,

was looking for ways to speed his experiment along.

He was still working with flies,

though now on his own,

at the University of Texas in Austin.

So far, he'd been using the technique he'd learned

in the Fly Room from Thomas Hunt Morgan:

hunt for naturally arising mutations,

then track across them across generations.

Breed a generation,

peer at its members one by one through a jeweler's loupe,


But at this point, Muller had lost patience.

MUKHERJEE: It took an enormous amount of time

to generate these mutants.

You had to wait until you basically found one.

It was a process of, of discovery.

So Muller began to wonder whether he could

actually create mutants de novo, from scratch,

by doing something to the genes.

NARRATOR: One night, on a whim,

Muller switched on the X-ray machine

and began irradiating male fruit flies.

Once they'd been exposed, he slid them into glass bottles

with a roughly equal number of female flies.

Then he waited.

When the larvae began to appear on day five,

it was clear the whim had worked.


by using the exact right dosage of X-rays,

finds that he can make dozens of mutations,

mutations that would have taken months or years to find.

He becomes a mutant maker.

He can't do it in a predictable way.

But the principle that human gene material

was malleable,

was changeable,

is an idea that Muller understands and embraces.

NARRATOR: If an insect's genes could be altered

by a blast of radiation, Muller realized,

human genes one day might be manipulated, as well--

and heredity would no longer be the prerogative, he said,

of "an unreachable God playing pranks on us."

The idea of controlling human heredity

had captivated Muller since his earliest days

in Morgan's lab.

He'd been aware of the flaws in so-called "eugenic science"

for nearly as long,

and his doubts about the American eugenics movement

had been steadily mounting.

MUKHERJEE: Muller began to think

that you couldn't have a eugenics movement

without asking questions about equality.

What was the criteria for judging, you know,

a better human being than a worse human being

and thereby sterilizing the, the worse human being

or selectively breeding the better human being?

Who would ensure

that the eugenics movement was selecting the best features,

when the, when the best features were dictated by the elites?

NARRATOR: Concerns about the eugenics movement

had been raised before--

but they'd come mainly from lone voices,

shouting into the wind.

Now, increasingly,

hereditary scientists began to speak as one.

LOMBARDO: More and more, scientists are realizing

that heredity's not something that you can understand

simply like Mendel understood his pea plants,

that some human traits are really complex,

and you can't predict whether they're going to appear,

or reappear,

that some conditions that we think of as hereditary

are really about social issues.

Nobody really discards the idea that heredity is important,

but there is a growing chorus of scientists

who are being more careful

in the way that they talk about heredity.

NARRATOR: Even the father of the intelligence test,

Henry Goddard--

who had done so much to stoke fears

of hereditary feeblemindedness--

disavowed his earlier conclusions.

In particular, he regretted having coined the term "moron."

With proper education, he now believed,

such individuals were perfectly capable

of managing their own affairs.

KEVLES: Eugenic scientists were doing

what they understood to be reliable science,

and it turned out that, in many cases,

their science was mistaken.

Science is a process.

People make claims, they advance evidence for it.

And then others come along

who have a more sophisticated understanding

of the methodological problems.

And they say,

"Hey, prostitution may result

from a woman's having no other choice economically,"

or, "Alcoholism may arise

from all sorts of stresses in one's life."

You don't need genetics at all to explain these things.

NARRATOR: As the 1920s came to a close,

and the Great Depression radically rearranged

American society,

the dogma of the eugenics movement

rang ever more hollow.

COHEN: 25% of the country's unemployed.

People's life savings have been wiped out

by both the stock market crash and the bank failures.

The person who's now on the bread line

might have been a lawyer who graduated from Harvard.

And this was a clear indication that poverty was not biological.


NARRATOR: When, in 1932,

yet another eugenics congress convened in New York,

most in the scientific community declined to attend.

SPIRO: They hold this conference

to propagate the idea of eugenics.

All the same guys are there--

Madison Grant, Charles Benedict Davenport,

Harry Laughlin-- espousing the same ideas.

Their ideas have not changed in 25 years,

and almost nobody comes.

Because among scientists,

eugenics is now viewed as the purview

of a bunch of old, white cranks whom science has passed by.

NARRATOR: Improbably, Hermann Muller did turn up at the congress,

though only to deliver a scathing ten-minute speech.

"There is no scientific basis for the conclusion

"that the socially lower classes

have genetically inferior intellectual equipment,"

he insisted.

"Certain slum districts of our cities

"are veritable factories

"for the production of criminality

"among those who happen to be born in them.

"Under these circumstances, it is society,

"not the individual,

"which is the real criminal

and which stands to be judged."

WAILOO: The problem of eugenic thinking was an utter ignorance

of social causes of social problems,

a tendency to over-biologize,

to think through the biological lens

about everything in society.

NARRATOR: Eugenics might yet perfect the human race,

Muller told the audience,

but only in a society "consciously organized

for the common good."

(crowd chanting in German)

In July 1933, in Germany,

Adolf Hitler came to power...

(Hitler speaking German)

NARRATOR: ...and immediately enshrined eugenics in state policy,

with a law that mandated the sterilization

of men and women suffering from any one

of nine presumably heritable conditions.

It had been based on a model law written by Harry Laughlin.

KEVLES: Before Hitler, there was a German eugenics movement.

But it did not have a sterilization law.

The sterilization law was ultimately enacted

with the inspiration of what American states had been doing.

(man speaking in German)

COHEN: Harry Laughlin is corresponding

with German scientists all along

and encouraging them.

He's proud of the fact

that when the Nazis adopt a eugenic sterilization law,

it's strongly modeled on his own law.

SPIRO: The United States has the reputation

of being on the forefront of scientific endeavor.

When Adolf Hitler was in prison,

he read Madison Grant's "The Passing of the Great Race,"

wrote Madison Grant a fan letter

saying, "This book is my bible,"

and when he wrote "Mein Kampf," his autobiography, he said,

"We Germans must emulate what the Americans are doing."

NARRATOR: Nazi officials estimated

no fewer than 400,000 Germans would be sterilized--

roughly 25 times

the number sterilized in the United States so far.

The more zealous American eugenicists

applauded the Nazi law,

which applied to all people,

whether institutionalized or not.

As one Virginia sterilization advocate put it,

"The Germans are beating us at our own game."

But for many Americans, the news from Germany

was accompanied by an uncomfortable revelation.

"Many interviewed about the Hitler proposal

expressed shock," the "Daily News" reported.

"They were surprised to find out

"that 27 of our 48 American states

"have laws permitting the performance of sterilization

upon the feebleminded."

COMFORT: The 1930s was the peak of eugenic sterilization.

And that was after geneticists--

professional, scientific geneticists--

had largely abandoned the eugenic program.

KEVLES: There was this trend that discredits the doctrine

on which eugenic sterilization is based.

At the same time, paradoxically,

sterilization rates shot up in the United States,

because of the Depression.

It costs money to keep people in homes for the feebleminded.

So if you want to reduce the costs of keeping people,

you sterilize them,

and that's what happened.

I'd like to know just what sterilization is.

So would I.

Just how do they do it?

Well, I'll tell you.

NARRATOR: As public awareness of eugenic sterilization spread,

a controversial Hollywood film opened in theaters,

a cautionary tale about good intentions

gone dangerously wrong.

And do you mean they're going to stop me

from having children ever?


NARRATOR: Released in 1934,

"Tomorrow's Children" told the story

of 17-year-old Alice Mason,

the sole functional member

of an otherwise drunken, crippled, feebleminded family,

who is slated for sterilization

along with her parents and siblings...

Three generations of unfit are enough.

NARRATOR: ...and saved from the scalpel only by the revelation

that she'd been adopted.

Look at me.

Can't you see that I'm well and strong?

And I'll be a good mother, too, judge,

honest, I will.

LOMBARDO: "Tomorrow's Children" raises the question

of whether or not you always get it right

when you sterilize someone.

How much can you really know about someone's background?

Without getting into the details

of "How much do we understand about genetics in 1934?",

it simply says,

"Sometimes people make mistakes with these things,

and so maybe we should be more careful."

NARRATOR: "Tomorrow's Children" was still playing

on screens across the country

when, in 1935,

a committee of scientists turned up at Cold Spring Harbor.

They'd been sent by the Carnegie Institution,

which had sponsored the Eugenics Record Office since 1918

and had long been embarrassed by its political activities.

Now, Carnegie's board of directors

had ordered a review of the work being done there.

The visiting committee's report was decidedly unfavorable:

from a scientific vantage, they concluded,

the thousands of heredity records

stored in the famed fireproof vault

were useless for the study of human genetics.

COHEN: They rightly saw that this eugenics fieldwork

was largely ridiculous and was not scientific.

But they also were troubled by the degree to which

clearly Harry Laughlin was acting not as a scientist,

but as a evangelist for eugenics.

And this was a clear indication

that the tide was really turning against eugenics.

NARRATOR: For the movement's faithful, the message was plain:

if they were going to continue to cull the unfit,

they would need a new justification for it.

(car horns honking)

NEWSBOY: Extra! Extra!

NARRATOR: From the moment the case of the "sterilized heiress"

first hit the news, in January 1936,

Americans were enthralled by it.

First, there was the girl, Ann Cooper Hewitt--

a San Francisco socialite who stood to inherit two-thirds

of her late father's vast estate--

and her shocking claim:

that her mother had had her sterilized

to gain control of that inheritance.

KLINE: Ann Cooper Hewitt is sent to the hospital

for an emergency appendectomy,

and she comes out sterilized.

And when she discovers it, she is understandably horrified,

and she sues both her mother and the two surgeons.

She claims that her mother has done it

because her father's will stipulates

that if Ann should die childless,

the inheritance would go to her mother.

NARRATOR: Equally intriguing was the claim of the mother, Maryon,

that her daughter Ann was feebleminded--

a diagnosis based on an intelligence test

she'd been given just hours before her sterilization.

KLINE: Ann says that she's writhing in pain,

and then a woman walks in the room,

and the woman starts asking her all these questions.

"What's the longest river in the United States?"

And "How many years is a presidential term?"

And Ann's reaction is,

"Why are you asking me these asinine questions?

What does this have to do with appendicitis?"

And she doesn't answer most of the questions.

NARRATOR: Although her score identified the girl

as a high-grade moron,

a court-appointed psychiatrist at a preliminary hearing

found her to be well-read, fluent in French and Italian,

and "perfectly normal in every respect."

LOMBARDO: The Cooper Hewitt sterilization case

was one of those cases that people call

"the trial of the century."

Headlines all over the country.

And if you weren't paying attention

to what sterilization was by then,

you would have heard in that story.

KLINE: Ann Cooper Hewitt is not emblematic

of the typical sterilization patient.

And for that very reason, she gets a lot more attention.

NARRATOR: By eugenics standards,

Ann was the very definition of well-born.

She was the scion of the successful:

white, wealthy, seemingly sound in both body and mind.

On what grounds, then,

those following the case may well have wondered,

could her sterilization possibly be justified?

Attorney I.M. Golden,

who represented the surgeons named in the suit,

wondered much the same--

and he decided to solicit the opinion of an expert.

In May 1936, he composed a letter

to one of California's leading eugenicists,

Paul Popenoe,

and laid out for him the details of the case--

among them, the reasons Maryon Cooper Hewitt had given

for wanting her daughter sterilized.

KLINE: Maryon makes three charges about her daughter's behavior

that she sees as indicative

of someone who is mentally defective.

The first is that she becomes infatuated

with a chauffeur.

The second is that she is infatuated

with men in uniform.

And then finally that she has plans

to run off with a Negro porter on a train.

These are not people that probably Maryon believed

her daughter should be associating with.

Not somebody she should have children with.

NARRATOR: "In your opinion," Golden asked Popenoe,

"was it proper to sterilize her

as a matter of medical and scientific procedure?"

Paul Popenoe long had been a proponent

of eugenic sterilization.

But the argument that an immoral, oversexed girl

would pass on those traits genetically

could no longer plausibly be made.

So Popenoe offered another rationale,

one that had been recently formulated

and recommended by the American Eugenics Society.

Heredity, Popenoe told Golden,

is "not particularly the issue in this case.

"But I suppose we should all answer negatively

"the question whether a young woman such as you describe

would be a desirable mother."

STERN: In the '30s,

the eugenic rationale for sterilization

begins to morph into a kind of more generalized understanding

that this person isn't fit to be a parent.

KLINE: That turns the whole argument about eugenics on its head,

because the determining question

was not, "Will she spread her genetic defect?",

but, "Will she make a desirable mother?"

(gavel bangs)

NARRATOR: When the trial of the two surgeons

got underway in San Francisco,

Ann's questionable capacity to mother

was the centerpiece of the defense.

The girl's sexual behavior alone, Golden argued,

cast grave doubt on her ability

to provide good moral and intellectual training

to her offspring.

In the end,

the argument had little effect on the judge,

who, after six days of listening to testimony,

abruptly called a halt to the proceedings

and dismissed the case on the grounds

that sterilization was legal in California.

But in the public mind,

sterilization had been effectively recast

as a preventative measure against inept parenting.

LOMBARDO: This not a story that happens in an institution.

It's a story about a socialite.

Nevertheless, the same themes

of needing to sterilize people for their own good

come up.

"Forget about heredity.

"These people will be unable to take care of their children,

so the humane thing to do is not to let them have any."

WAILOO: Eugenics simply becomes part of the machinery

of how these state institutions function.

Hereditary defect is no longer part of the conversation,

and it's simply a question

of a state attempting to use all the tools available

to limit the number of people

who were seen to be a social and economic burden.

NARRATOR: By the close of the 1930s,

more than 30,000 Americans had been sterilized nationwide.

COHEN: I think eugenics appeals to some real strong elements

in the human psyche.

One part of that, the positive part,

is that there is a desire among people

to perfect things.

The negative side is,

we're also a species that is very prone to tribalism.

We're very prone to believe that, you know,

our people are the right people,

and other people are a threat.

(artillery fires)

NARRATOR: For a time, the enemies within American society

were eclipsed by those without,

and the nation's attention diverted

by a conflict that consumed much of the world.

Then came the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau

and the chilling evidence

of eugenic policies carried to a monstrous extreme.

MUKHERJEE: By the mid-1940s,

the full horror of what happens in Nazi Germany

becomes apparent--

the movement from sterilization to extermination,

the killing of several millions

based on this kind of idea of the betterment of human race.

And it creates a vast embarrassment

for the American eugenics movement.

KEVLES: People were repelled

and began to turn away from eugenics,

and "eugenics" became a dirty word.

WAILOO: The Holocaust, being tied to a wide range of eugenic practices,

is a blemish on humans as a species,

and it undercuts any notion that eugenics was a positive force

in American society.

PROSECUTOR: Surgical sterilization

was thought to be too slow

and too expensive to be used on a mass scale.

COHEN: After the war,

when the Allies put the Nazis on trial at Nuremburg,

one of the charges was eugenic sterilization,

and the lawyer for the Nazi who was charged

said, you know, "How can you charge my client

"with the crime of eugenic sterilization

when your own U.S. Supreme Court said this was okay?"

NARRATOR: By the end of the 1940s,

the eugenics movement had faded

from the mainstream of American life.

But the laws that had been passed

in the name of eugenics

would remain on the books for decades--

barring some people from entering the country

and others from marriage,

and subjecting thousands to forced sterilization

at the hands of the state.

By the time such practices finally came to an end,

in the 1970s,

the total number of sterilized Americans

would exceed 60,000.

And no matter the cost or the casualties,

the scientific betterment of humanity

would remain an irresistible aspiration--

tempting generations to come

with the promise of perfection.

COMFORT: We believe in science.

We want science to solve social problems,

and we want to make ourselves better.

I think everybody wants to do that.

LEONARD: There is this idea

that remains a kind of hope

that if we just get the science right,

if only the right people are put in charge,

that we can engineer our way to a better world.

NELSON: Some of the greatest social changes

that have ever been accomplished

have occurred because people were really willing

to imagine impossible things.

But the future that American eugenicists imagined

was only a future for some.

KEVLES: And so now the debate is,

"Are we going to use technology

"to try to fulfill Galton's dream, if you will,

of taking charge of our own evolution?"

Of course, it was a pipe dream,

but nevertheless it is a dream that persists.

We have reason to be apprehensive about this,

and the test tube bears watching.

ANNOUNCER: Coming soon to "American Experience."

WOMAN: He was an artist.

His medium is electricity.

ANNOUNCER: He powered the modern world.

WOMAN: Many of the things that Nikola Tesla predicted

are being brought to reality.

ANNOUNCER: But his visionary genius would lead to his downfall.

"Tesla," coming soon to "American Experience."

Made possible in part by Liberty Mutual Insurance.


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