Three Generations of Imbeciles are Enough: The History of Eugenics in the United States

Three Generations of Imbeciles are Enough: The History of Eugenics in the United States

Nela Kolčáková

Three Generations of Imbeciles are Enough: The History of Eugenics in the United States
The term eugenics was coined by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, in 1883. Galton himself provides quite a straightforward definition: “Eugenics is the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race.” While calling eugenics a science is a bit of a stretch since the ideas that eugenics was based upon at the time of its creation have since been proven inaccurate, its goals are clear: to make the human race better by breeding desirable individuals and not letting undesirable individuals reproduce. This also leads us to the disambiguation between positive and negative eugenics. Positive eugenics is focused on promoting good, desirable traits (think of two genius doctors producing an offspring who will, in theory, be an even better doctor), whereas negative eugenics seeks to prevent the occurrence of undesirable traits. Methods of both were actively employed throughout the United States, mostly in the first half of the 20th century.

So as not to start on a negative note, let us look at the methods of positive eugenics first. The most prominent way in which positive eugenics manifested was the better baby contests which later developed into fitter family contests. In the better baby contests, as the name suggests, “babies between the ages of 6 and 48 months were judged for their health”. These contests did not yet have a genetic component to them. They simply rewarded the healthiest baby, thus encouraging parents to have healthy children and take care of them well. These contests eventually gained a hereditary factor and grew into fitter family contests, where not only the health of the baby was evaluated, but its family tree as well. Inherited traits, like IQ , were judged across generations and the best family was then rewarded. Imagine the feelings of pride and accomplishment winning such a contest might have delivered. That is why the contests were supposed to inspire marriages (and subsequent reproduction) between fitter individuals. While it all may seem a bit foolish now, these contests were very popular. They were held across the US, and individual contests “[drew] hundreds of young entrants and thousands of curious onlookers”. An interesting fact about these competitions is that they had a very close relationship with agricultural contests where people presented their best animals – they were often held alongside each other.

Negative eugenic methods are even more morally and ethically questionable than positive eugenics’ connection between farm animals and humans. The most common methods were segregation and sterilization. Segregation came in various forms. Eugenic marriage laws, for example, were passed in various states with the aim of preventing marriages between “individuals afflicted with mental and physical maladies”, in the hope that the spread of said maladies to future generations would be curbed. Another way of separating unfit individuals from the rest of the society was to lock them up in institutions for the feeble-minded. In this case, it is very difficult to assign clear eugenic intent, because it could easily be argued that some inmates were institutionalized to prevent them from causing harm to themselves or other people, and not to hinder them from passing on their ‘faulty genes’.

Institutionalization was closely bound up with another form of negative eugenics: involuntary sterilization.
Sterilization is perhaps the most shocking part of eugenics. People deemed unfit were often sterilized without their consent, regardless of their race or sex. These sterilizations were legalized in many states, and they were carried out illegally in others. California was the most proactive state when it came to depriving people of the ability to have children. More than 20,000 legal forced sterilizations were performed, with the last one occurring in 1963. Not only are such facts and figures disquietingly high, but they also demonstrate a very important point: while eugenics enjoyed its greatest fame in the first half of the 20th century, sterilizations were performed well into the second half of the 20th century, after the Second World War hampered widespread enthusiasm for eugenics.

The most iconic case of forced sterilization is the Buck vs. Bell Supreme Court case from 1927. It all started in 1920 when Emma Buck was admitted to the Lynchburg Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in Virginia, accused of prostitution and having syphilis. She had a daughter, Carrie, who was raped and made pregnant. After giving birth, Carrie was admitted to the same institution as her mother. The director of the institution, Albert Priddy, decided to use her as a perfect example of why sterilization was needed. The case of whether it was correct to sterilize Carrie or not went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Carrie Buck and her daughter Vivien were both feebleminded and hence Carrie’s sterilization without her consent was completely legal because “three generations of imbeciles are enough”. This ruling was based on dubious evidence, and it is much more likely that the Buck family suffered from poverty and bad luck rather than any form of mental illness or retardation. This case is just one of many sad examples of how eugenics did not work.

Eugenics was widespread and popular in the 20th century. It took the form of curious contests, marriage restrictions, mass institutionalization and forced sterilization. While not all theories of eugenics are completely unfounded (albeit very misguided) – for example, a mutation which causes increased aggression has been established in more recent years – the methods and ways in which they were implemented were borderline horrifying. This aspect of US history is often overlooked and ignored by school curriculums, but it is definitely worth talking about, not only to illustrate that progress and advances in science do not always bring positive results, but also because people have suffered similar fates – unconsented sterilization – in this century, too. That is why eugenics continues to be a relevant topic even today. 

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