You are here: Welcome » Eugenics


Eugenics Education

Eugenics also had the support of leaders in academia. E.L. Thorndike and Leta Hollingworth popularized eugenics to generations of prospective classroom teachers. Using flawed racial interpretations of the intelligence test data after the First World War, psychometricians such as Carl Brigham and Robert Yerkes added to eugenics' unjustified luster in the public eye.

At the same time, the popular authors Henry H. Goddard and Edward A. Wiggam recommended policies of controlled breeding for American citizens. Traveling across the country with lantern-slide presentations, they warned of a “rising tide of feeblemindedness” and demanded a “new decalogue of science” – a modern ten commandments based upon eugenic principles.

After 1914, courses on eugenics were being offered at some of America's leading universities. Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown were among those listing courses that included eugenics. In the 1920s, the National Education Association's Committee on Racial Well-Being sponsored programs to help college teachers integrate eugenic content in their courses.

By 1928, eugenics was a topic in 376 separate college courses, which enrolled approximately 20,000 students. A content analysis of high school science texts published between 1914 and 1948 indicates that a majority presented eugenics was as legitimate science. These texts embraced Galton's concept of differential birthrates between the biological “fit” and “unfit,” training high school students that immigration restriction, segregation, and sterilization were worthy policies to maintain in American culture. 1)

Cold Spring Harbor Photo Archive

Eugenics was, quite literally, an effort to breed better human beings – by encouraging the reproduction of people with “good” genes and discouraging those with “bad” genes. Eugenicists effectively lobbied for social legislation to keep racial and ethnic groups separate, to restrict immigration from southern and eastern Europe, and to sterilize people considered “genetically unfit.” Elements of the American eugenics movement were models for the Nazis, whose radical adaptation of eugenics culminated in the Holocaust.

We now invite you to experience the unfiltered story of American eugenics – primarily through materials from the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, which was the center of American eugenics research from 1910-1940. In the Archive you will see numerous reports, articles, charts, and pedigrees that were considered scientific “facts” in their day. It is important to remind yourself that the vast majority of eugenics work has been completely discredited. In the final analysis, the eugenic description of human life reflected political and social prejudices, rather than scientific facts.

You may find some of the language and images in this Archive offensive. Even supposedly “scientific” terms used by eugenicists were often pervaded with prejudice against racial, ethnic, and disabled groups. Some terms have no scientific meaning today. For example, “feeblemindedness” was used as a catch-all for a number of real and supposed mental disabilities, and was a common “diagnosis” used to make members of ethnic and racial minority groups appear inferior. However, we have made no attempt to censor this documentary record – to do so would distort the past and diminish the significance of the lessons to be learned from this material.

During a two-year review process, involving a 14-member Advisory Panel, this site has developed an editorial policy to protect personal privacy and confidentiality. For this reason, names and places have been deleted from pedigrees, medical documents, and personal photographs. 2)

Back to top