Exhibition - ‘We are not Alone’: Legacies of Eugenics

Curator: Professor Marius Turda

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'We Are Not Alone'

Only Hereditarily Healthy Offspring Can Ensure the Survival of the Nation - Neues Volk (1 March 1936)

Image: 'Only Hereditarily Healthy Offspring Can Ensure the Survival of the Nation’

From: Neues Volk (1 March 1936), p. 37.

Credit: Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin

In a much-circulated eugenic poster, Nazi propagandists claimed that their programme of compulsory sterilisation was in no way different from other similar legislation introduced in countries such as the USA and Sweden and planned in Japan and in other European countries such as Britain, Hungary, and Poland.

‘We are not the only ones’ planning to eliminate ‘defectives’ from society, they said!  

It is this claim that we explore in the exhibition, aiming to reveal the transnational character of eugenics across the twentieth century and beyond.

By the time the first international congress of eugenics was convened in London in 1912, eugenic societies had been established in Germany, Britain, Sweden, and the United States.

Far from being a marginal movement, eugenics was a truly global phenomenon, which cut deep and wide into the texture of our modern world.

British Eugenics

Francis Galton defined eugenics as ‘the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally’ (F. Galton, Memories of My Life, 1908, p. 321).

In 1905, the first professorial chair in eugenics at University College London was inaugurated and two years later, the Eugenics Education Society was established with Galton as honorary president.

Francis Galton, aged 87, at Fox Holm, Cobham, with Karl Pearson

Image: Francis Galton, aged 87, at Fox Holm, Cobham, with Karl Pearson

From: K. Pearson, The Life, Letter and Labours of Francis Galton, 1930, vol. IIIa, plate 36.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Francis Galton (1822-1911), founder of modern eugenics, with statistician Karl Pearson (1857-1936), his protégé, disciple and biographer.

Pearson was also the first holder of the Galton Chair of Eugenics created at University College, London in 1911.

The Eugenics Review, vol. 1, no. 1, 1909, cover.

Image: The Eugenics Review, vol. 1, no. 1, 1909, cover.

Credit: Open Collections Program, Harvard University’s Library

The Eugenics Review was launched in London in 1909 and ran continuously until 1968.

It was one of the leading eugenic journals in the world with a wide circulation, both home and abroad.

Marriage, Family and Children

Eugenicists described themselves as guardians of society’s moral behaviour, promoting sexual control, cleanliness, and the ideal of married life.

They put forward guidelines for those wishing to marry.

They also argued for the importance of family and highlighted the couple’s responsibility for future generations, whilst promoting the eugenic representation of white women’s bodies as blessed and superior.

Marry Wisely’ poster, c. 1930, The Eugenics Society

Image: ‘Marry Wisely’, Poster, c. 1930, The Eugenics Society

Credit: SA/EUG/G.49, Wellcome Collection, London

Notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ heredity soon became familiar enough to be taken seriously by those contemplating marriage, and the eugenicists hoped that many would follow their advice.

A six-year-old contestant receiving a physical exam - ‘Better Babies’ contest, Louisiana State Fair, 1913

Image: A six-year-old contestant receiving a physical exam. ‘Better Babies’ contest, Louisiana State Fair, 1913

Credit: Mrs. Frank deGarmo Papers, MS# 1879, Special Collections, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The first ‘Better Babies’ contest was held in 1908 in Shreveport at the Louisiana State Fair.

At these contests, physicians assessed the health of babies between the ages of 6 and 48 months.

Education

Education was of paramount importance to eugenicists, who were avid communicators.

They popularised their message at fairs and public events, and through exhibitions and public lectures.

They appealed to educationalists and school reformers who advocated teaching children and the youth of the nation ‘sound morals’ alongside physical education and modern ideas of hygiene.

Image
Eugenic Booth, c. 1930, The Eugenics Society
Image: ‘Eugenic Booth’, c. 1930 The Eugenics Society. Credit: SA/EUG/G.40, Wellcome Collection, London.

‘Eugenic booths’ such as this one contained charts, explanations, and images.

They were prepared for display at various events, facilitating a direct approach to topics related to heredity.

Women’s Fair and Exhibition at Olympia, London - The Eugenics Society’s Day, 17 November 1938

Image: Women’s Fair and Exhibition at Olympia, London. The Eugenics Society’s Day, 17 November 1938.

Credit: SA/EUG/G.20, Wellcome Collection, London

Prominent British feminists embraced eugenics and helped with its popularisation during the interwar years.

In public lectures they often connected eugenic activism with sex education and modern ideas of marriage.

‘Feeble-Mindedness’ & ‘Mental Deficiency’

Eugenicists assumed that by separating ‘feeble-minded’ people from the community, social problems such as poverty, crime and illegitimacy would be brought under control.

They lobbied for a ‘Mental Deficiency Act’ which was passed in Parliament in July 1913 and went into effect on 1 April 1914.

It codified four categories of ‘mental defectives’ and outlined the obligations of local authorities in the establishment of special institutions for them.

The Problem of the Feeble-Minded, 1909, cover

Image: The Problem of the Feeble-Minded, 1909, cover.

Credit: Wellcome Collection, London

In 1908 the Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded published its report in 8 volumes.

A year later it asked a few experts, including Francis Galton, to provide commendations and endorsements.

Mentally Deficient Children. Their Treatment and Training - 3rd ed, 1910, cover

Image: G. E. Shuttleworth, Mentally Deficient Children. Their Treatment and Training, 3rd ed, 1910, cover.

Credit: Wellcome Collection, London

In this hugely influential treatise, first published in 1895, psychologist George E. Shuttleworth (1842-1928) described the ‘mentally-feeble child’ as ‘incapable of comprehending abstractions’.

He also connected mental deficiency to various ‘formative defects’ often associated with physical traits.

A Feeble-Minded Girl - A. F. Tredgold, Mental Deficiency, 1908

Image: ‘A Feeble-Minded Girl’.

From: A. F. Tredgold, Mental Deficiency, 1908, p. 154.

Credit: Wellcome Collection, London

Alfred F. Tredgold (1870-1952) was an expert in ‘amentia’ (an older term for intellectual disability).

His book on ‘mental deficiency’ went through several editions until the 1950s, adding medical credibility to the by then widely popular view that ‘mentally deficient’ people were ‘useless’ and that society needed to be protected from them.

Psychology and psychologists

Eugenicists assumed that by separating ‘feeble-minded’ people from the community, social problems such as poverty, crime and illegitimacy would be brought under control.

They lobbied for a ‘Mental Deficiency Act’ which was passed in Parliament in July 1913 and went into effect on 1 April 1914.

It codified four categories of ‘mental defectives’ and outlined the obligations of local authorities in the establishment of special institutions for them.

Image
Cattell Intelligence Tests, 1951 (left), Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, 1960 (right)
Image: Cattell Intelligence Tests, 1951 (left), Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, 1960 (right) Credit: BPS/005/5/10 & BPS/005/05/18, British Psychological Society History of Psychology Centre

Psychologists such as Charles E. Spearman and Cyril Burt bear a great deal of responsibility for the widespread influence of eugenics in Britain, particularly in education.

They used a host of charts, measurements and tests, such as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, to describe and explain the intellectual and developmental variations between individuals during their childhood and adolescence.

According to them, only individuals who scored reasonably highly on these tests should be permitted to have children.

Charles E. Spearman, 1931

Image: Charles E. Spearman, 1931

Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

Influenced by the psychologist Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) and Francis Galton, Charles E. Spearman (1863-1945) had a significant impact on the development of psychology as a discipline.

He argued that there was a general factor of intelligence (termed ‘g’) which determined all cognitive abilities.

Cyril Burt, 1930

Image: Cyril Burt, 1930

Credit: D191/43/2, Special Collections & Archives, University of Liverpool

Cyril Burt (1883-1971) had a considerable influence on the development of the British education system after the 1940s and well into the 1960s.

He strongly believed in the heritability of intelligence (as measured in IQ tests) and in the existence of innate mental differences between various social classes.

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'Diagram showing the Normal Stages in the Education or Training of a Child According to Age and Grade’. From Arthur H. Wood et. al. Report of the Mental Deficiency Committee, 1929, p. 169. Credit UCL Institute of Education, London
Image ‘Diagram showing the Normal Stage in the Education or Training of a Child According to Age and Grade’. From Arthur H. Wood et. al. Report of the Mental Deficiency Committee, 1929, p. 169. Credit UCL Institute of Education, London

This diagram, prepared with the assistance of Cyril Burt for the Mental Deficiency Committee (established in 1924), provides an outline for an educational system for ‘normal’, ‘retarded’ and ‘low grade defective’ children from the age of 5 to 15.

American Eugenics

Eugenics was deeply embedded and widespread in American society, shaping a host of issues from population’s health to immigration and racial segregation.

It also exerted a significant influence abroad.

Two international congresses on eugenics were organised at the Natural History Museum in New York in 1921 and 1932 confirming United States’ leadership in global eugenics.

The Eugenics Record Office, Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, NY

Image: The Eugenics Record Office, Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, NY.

Credit: American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia

A Station for Experimental Evolution was established at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, New York in 1904 and transformed into the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) in 1910.

Zoologist Charles Davenport (1866-1944) was its director, and Harry H. Laughlin (1880-1943) its assistant director. It ceased its eugenic activities in 1939.

The ‘Eugenics Tree’, Third International Congress of Eugenics, 1932

Image: The ‘Eugenics Tree’, Third International Congress of Eugenics, 1932

From: A Decade of Progress in Eugenics, 1934, plate 1.

Credit: Wellcome Collection, London

One of the most familiar images associated with the international eugenic movement is that of a large tree with strong roots, each representing a scientific discipline.

These include biology, anthropology, genetics, medicine, psychiatry, sociology, education, and politics.

From German to Nazi Racial Hygiene

Aided by several political factors including the defeat in World War I and the rise of Nazism, the eugenic movement in Germany became the world’s most successful.

After 1933 it mixed deeply with racism and anti-Semitism, leading to the murder of thousands of people with disabilities through the ‘T4’ euthanasia programme and then to the extermination of millions of people in the Holocaust.

The Race, the Nation and the State Grow out of Families

Image: ‘The Race, the Nation and the State Grow out of Families’.

From: Friedrich Wecken, Rudolf Moschkau, Bilder zur Familien- und Erbkunde, 1933.

Credit: Bibliothèque Nationale et Universitaire de Strasbourg

The Nazi regime placed the family at the centre of its demographic and eugenic programmes.

Echoing popular eugenic narratives elsewhere, the marriage of healthy German women and men was promoted with the purpose of protecting the racial qualities of the nation.

Image
Hereditarily Diseased - Part of the exhibition ‘Das Wunder des Lebens’, Berlin (1935)
Image: ‘Hereditarily Diseased’. Panel 17. Part of the exhibition ‘Das Wunder des Lebens’, Berlin 1935 Credit: Library of Congress, Washington.

The aims of Nazi racial hygiene were twofold: to increase the number of people deemed hereditarily ‘superior’ and to reduce - if elimination was not possible - the number of those considered to be ‘racially undesirable’ and ‘hereditarily diseased’.

The latter group was often described as a burden on the resources of the state and the healthy majority.

Internationalisation

Between the 1880s and 1950s, eugenic movements developed in countries as diverse as Britain, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Turkey, USA, Brazil, Argentina and Australia.

National eugenic societies had been established before World War I, but during the interwar period they thrived, and some, such as the Argentinian Society of Integral Eugenics and the Greek Eugenics Society were only established during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Bulletin du II-ème Congrès International de la Fédération Latin des Sociétes d’Eugénique, 1939

Image: Bulletin du II-ème Congrès International de la Fédération Latin des Sociétes d’Eugénique, 1939, cover.

Credit: Institutul de Igienă şi Sănătate Publică, Bucharest

The International Federation of Latin Eugenic Societies was established in 1935, providing a different model of eugenics than the one promoted by Germany, Britain and the USA.

Its first international congress took place in Paris in 1937 and a second one was planned to take place in Bucharest in 1939.

Boletim de Eugenia, August 1930, first page

Image: Boletim de Eugenia, August 1930, first page.

Credit: Biblioteca Nacional, Rio de Janeiro

Boletim de Eugenia (Bulletin of Eugenics) was edited by the Brazilian Institute of Eugenics (Instituto Brasileiro de Eugenia), led by physician Renato Kehl (1889-1974).

The Bulletin was published between 1929 and 1932.

The Experts

Eugenics was constantly sustained by expert knowledge and bolstered by scientific research that poured out of institutes, universities, private and state organisations, and various government agencies.

In turn, eugenicists were considered experts and their advice and knowledge widely praised as beneficial to society.

Annals of Eugenics, vol. 1, 1925

Image: Annals of Eugenics, vol. 1, 1925 cover.

Credit: UCL Special Collections, London

The journal Annals of Eugenics was established in 1925 at the Francis Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics.

Its first editor was Karl Pearson, who was assisted by Ethel M. Elderton (1878-1954), a Galton Fellow at University College London.

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Participants to the 6th International Congress of Genetics, Ithaca, 1932
Image: Participants to the 6th International Congress of Genetics, Ithaca, 1932 Credit: American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.

Important geneticists actively endorsed eugenics, particularly during the 1920s and 1930s. This is one example of how eugenicists and geneticists worked together, amid differences of opinion about the practical application of the science of heredity.

The Victims

Throughout the twentieth century, racial, social, and cultural boundaries were erected between ‘eugenically valuable’ individuals and those considered to be ‘defective’ and ‘unfit’.

In the name of eugenics, hundreds of thousands of people had their reproduction rights curtailed and their health ruined.

In Nazi Germany, euthanasia was performed on children with physical and mental disabilities and sterilisation experiments on Jewish and Roma women were carried out in concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Indigenous peoples such as aboriginal Australians and Native Americans were subjected to humiliating racial research to evidence their assumed ‘inferiority’, a practice also extended to ethnic minorities such as the Sámi and the Roma peoples in Europe.

At the same time, the LGBTQ+ community was constantly supervised and policed.

Deplorably, the forced sterilization of women of colour and of youth with disabilities continued well into the twenty- first century in countries such as the United States and Spain.

This eugenisation of human difference has been repeatedly reinforced through discriminatory legislation, medical institutionalisation, and state-sanctioned policies of segregation and marginalisation.

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Eugenics Sterilization Legislation in the United States – Oct 1913
Image: ‘Eugenics Sterilization Legislation in the United States – Oct 1913’ From: Harry H. Laughlin, The Legal, Legislative and Administrative Aspects of Sterilization, 1914, frontispiece. Credit: Georgetown University’s Library, Washington.

Eugenicists believed it was possible to improve the health of the future generations through selective breeding and the control of reproduction. Many of them recommended the legalisation of voluntary and compulsory sterilisation, targeting individuals with mental disabilities, people of colour, and ethnic minorities.

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Psychologist Robert Ritter (1901-1951) collects data from a Roma woman, assisted by a police officer (1938)
Image: Psychologist Robert Ritter (1901-1951) collects data from a Roma woman, assisted by a police officer, Police (1938) Credit: Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Bundesarchiv, Berlin.

In Nazi Germany and in other countries in East-Central Europe, the Roma were considered to be ‘racially inferior’ and ‘naturally’ predisposed to criminality, vagrancy, and indolence.

Almost half a million of them were murdered in the Holocaust.

Confronting Eugenics

There is a growing consensus that victims of sterilisation in Japan, the Czech Republic, Peru, the United States and elsewhere should receive official apologies alongside financial compensation for the pain and suffering caused.

Human reproductive rights everywhere must be respected and no eugenic discrimination against people belonging to religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities, or of those living with disabilities, should be allowed to happen again.

The stories of those women and men who have been harmed by eugenics must be told and their lives honoured.

Kita Saburō in his house in Nerima ward, Tokyo

Image: Kita Saburō in his house in Nerima ward, Tokyo

Credit: Photograph by Astghik Hovhannisyan, courtesy of Kita Saburō

Kita Saburō (pseudonym) was sterilized without his consent in 1957 under the Eugenic

Protection Law (1948-1996). Although the law was directed at people with disabilities, he had none.

He demands that the Japanese state assumes ‘responsibility for the inhumane procedure and apologizes’ to him and other victims of sterilization.

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A woman calling for justice, 17 September 2020, in Lima, Peru
Image: A woman calling for justice, 17 September 2020, in Lima, Peru Credit: Rosa Villafuerte, Demus ‘Acción bordado’.

The sterilisation programme implemented by the government of Alberto Fujimore in Peru between 1996 and 2000 is one of the most brutal in recent times.

These forced sterilisations particularly targeted indigenous populations in rural areas.

Currently, 1,321 women, with help from their families and women’s organisations such as DEMUS fight for Fujimore’s accountability.

Further links:

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