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“Only Healthy Seed Must be Sown.” (1930)
Ethics and morality, Race, ethnicity and culture

Confronting eugenics

Curator Professor Marius Turda (Oxford Brookes University) with panels from a travelling exhibition, ‘We are not alone: Legacies of eugenics’.

26 June 2023

Eugenicists were avid communicators. Across the world, they sought to engage with the public through lectures, fairs, prose, plays, art and design, radio addresses, films and, of course, exhibitions. They were keenly aware that complex scientific ideas about human heredity and its role in shaping our lives could be most easily disseminated when visualized at public fairs or in the press.

Popular culture was the most efficient way to bridge the gap between specialised knowledge about eugenics and the interests of the public around a host of issues, from marriage and family to the wellbeing of future generations.

One of the panels in the exhibition focuses on ‘feeble-mindedness’ and ‘mental deficiency’. The Royal College of Physicians in London defined a ‘feeble-minded’ person to be ‘one who is capable of earning his living under favourable circumstance but is incapable from mental defect existing from birth or from an early age of a) competing on equal terms with his normal fellows; or b) of managing himself and his affairs with ordinary prudence.’ (A. F. Tredgold, Mental Deficiency, 1908, p. 75).

‘Feeble-mindedness’, and its corollary, mental deficiency, was one of the major issues that brought together– and also divided – scientists, politicians, health reformers and educators. Eugenicists were constantly alarmed by the growing number of people they called ‘feeble-minded’. In their scientific publications, political speeches, newspaper articles and public lectures they constantly used terms that we recognise today as exceptionally offensive. ‘Feeble-mindedness’ was believed to be hereditary and a threat to the future of the race.

Another panel explains American eugenics. 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. As the official logo of the two international congresses on eugenics held at the Natural History Museum in New York in 1921 and 1932, the tree below captured the attention of hundreds of scientists and participants attending these major events. It remains one of the most recognisable eugenic images in the world.

Importantly, the exhibition also aims to bring to the fore the victims of eugenics. Eugenicists targeted people in society who were considered to be ‘sub-standard’, either due to their physical or mental disabilities, or because their social and racial (non-white) origins positioned them in less privileged positions.

Discriminatory eugenic arguments were used against these individuals, targeting them irrespective of age and gender. Children were murdered in Nazi Germany and Black and Hispanic women were sterilised in North America.

Indigenous peoples across the world were subjected to humiliating racial research to evidence their assumed ‘inferiority’, a practice also extended to ethnic minorities such as the Roma in Europe. Racial, social, and cultural boundaries between ‘eugenically valuable’ individuals and those considered otherwise have been repeatedly reinforced through racist legislation, medical institutionalisation, and state-sanctioned policies of segregation and annihilation.

For decades, the criminality of coerced sterilization programmes targeting Black and Hispanic American women had been carefully concealed from the public by the officials and institutions involved. The racial structures of domination and subjugation that these sterilizations entailed only began to shift during the 1970s.

Since then, protests by victims and their families, alongside campaigns to compensate them, have grown stronger and more numerous across the United States. North Carolina was the first state to compensate victims of forced sterilizations in 2013, followed by Virginia and California.

And what of current forms of eugenics? This special report by Reuters (7 July 2021), illustrated above, uncovered how a Chinese gene company, selling prenatal tests worldwide, is using the information obtained from millions of women for research on genetic conditions during pregnancy. This and other similar stories evoke the possibility of genetic manipulation of human traits, alerting us to a ‘new’ version of eugenics which focuses not on ‘feeblemindedness’, criminality and so on, as was the case during the early part of the twentieth century, but on genetic diseases caused by chromosomal disorders or single gene mutations. The aim is the same: to control reproductive practices, thereby influencing the transmission of unwanted hereditary traits.

Find out more

“We are not alone”: Legacies of Eugenics (confront-eugenics.org)

See also the BPS coverage, and the online exhibition via the History of Psychology Centre pages.

At the European Congress

The British Psychological Society’s Challenging Histories Group are putting on an associated symposium at the European Congress of Psychology in Brighton this July.