Remembering the Hiding-In-Plain-Sight Practice of Eugenics in America
Among the thousands of file boxes maintained in the climate-controlled storage vaults of the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis are the records of Dr. George Heinrich Preston, commissioner of mental hygiene for Maryland from 1928 to 1949. The index for Dr. Preston’s papers includes the following entry: sterilization—eugenics. Further down, the notation is made: “Material Moved out of File to make room for recent correspondence.”
This file, though, is nowhere to be found, and may never be. This fact is unfortunate, because the papers contained there offer the potential to tell a significant part of the story of Maryland’s battles over proposed laws providing the state with the power to forcibly sterilize members of its citizenry considered to carry certain “hereditary” defects. While the story of the debate over eugenic sterilization in Maryland traditionally starts and stops with successful opposition from the Catholic Church, the partial record that can be unearthed promises a more complex tale: not only Dr. Preston, but powerful forces within the state’s medical community, lobbied ferociously and continuously throughout the 1930s for a compulsory sterilization law. The successful opposition extended beyond the church and included a political establishment leery of reform movements and government power and philosophic conservatives such as H.L. Mencken, who were dubious of any scheme proposing a science of “human betterment.”
While Maryland never enacted a sterilization regime, 30 other states did, including regional neighbors Virginia, Delaware, North Carolina, and West Virginia. By the early 1960s, more than 60,000 Americans had been forcibly sterilized under such laws, including over 7,000 in both Virginia and North Carolina. While such operations went into steep decline after World War II, North Carolina actually accelerated its sterilization efforts, shifting its target from “feeble-minded” poor whites to poor black women.
But for the most part, after the war eugenics became part of an unacknowledged past, largely due to its association with the Nazis’ eugenics regime. Where once eugenics was a dominant social and scientific force, most Americans today would not even recognize the word “eugenics,” much less know the pedigree of this effort to breed better people and prevent “the unfit” from breeding at all.
During the past two decades, the detailed story of U.S. states and other nations that did enact eugenic sterilization programs have steadily appeared. Harry Bruinius’ Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity is the latest contribution to a rapidly growing literature on the history of American eugenics.
The title itself, however, is misleading: There is no “secret history”—rather, as Paul Lombardo, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Law and Medicine, has pointed out, it is a history hiding in plain sight. Furthermore, there’s nothing really new in this book, much less revelation of any “secret history.” Disappointingly, the title’s overreach is indicative of problems with the book as a whole.
Better opens with the story of Virginia’s Carrie Buck and the infamous Buck v. Bell case going to the U.S. Supreme Court. Affirming a state’s right to forcibly sterilize a person, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes penned the 1927 opinion declaring,
The manner in which Buck was railroaded to serve as the test case is even more chilling than Holmes’ rhetoric.
The book’s narrative then goes back to Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin and founder of the theory of eugenics (a word he coined, meaning “well-born”), and proceeds forward, telling the story of American eugenics primarily through the lives of two of its leading founders and promoters, Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin, and ends with the interactions between America’s eugenicists and their German counterparts implementing the Nazi “racial hygiene” program.
Bruinius tries to frame the eugenics story as an extension of America’s puritan heritage and its religious vision of a pure “city on the hill.” At times he attempts to interweave and locate these theological themes in the personal biographies of the leading eugenicists. Other times he simply goes off on his own theological riff. But it is a theme he imposes rather than one emerging from history, and he more than fails to be convincing. The reader shrinks back with embarrassment at the effort, just as one cringes watching an overly self-confident American Idol contestant who doesn’t realize he can’t carry a tune.
Bruinius is more successful when he simply serves as a reporter. Thankfully, Better for All includes long stretches of this, with extensive quotation from original documents. The Carrie Buck story is more or less ably reported. The basic biography of Francis Galton and his scientific interests are interestingly delineated. The Nazi connection is given in detail, though Bruinius essentially conflates eugenics and the Holocaust; there are parallels and intersections, but they are not the same. Even getting to the decent reportage requires cutting through the stylistic and analytic pretensions, which is a bothersome chore.
Highlighting Bruinius’ misapprehensions is his final pages’ foray into contemporary genetics. A statement on the concluding page ponders the meaning of eugenics’ past for eugenics’ future: “Will genetic enhancement . . . [usher] in a tipping point in which genocide—cultural, ethnic, or genetic—seem a rational and desirable goal?” Genocide is a pretty serious matter, but it’s not at all clear what is intended here. Acts of genocide have never before required genetic enhancement as a precondition.
If Bruinius’ intent is to suggest the continuing danger of seeking to address serious social problems with misapplied science, then that trend certainly remains a valid concern. Identifying some social group or individual type whose elimination from further propagation would solve all of society’s difficulties continues to be a misguided impulse. By 1937, even H.L. Mencken identified his target: every adult American, Mencken suggested, should be provided a financial incentive if they agreed to be sterilized.