Eugenics was practiced in the United States many years before eugenics programs in Nazi Germany and actually, U.S. programs provided much of the inspiration for the latter. Stefan Kühl has documented the consensus between Nazi race policies and those of eugenicists in other countries, including the United States, and points out that eugenecists understood Nazi policies and measures as the realization of their goals and demands.
Most popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and now generally associated with racist and nativist elements (as the movement was to some extent a reaction to a change in emigration from Europe) rather than scientific genetics, it was considered a method of preserving and improving the dominant groups in the population.
The American eugenics movement was rooted in the biological determinist ideas of Sir Francis Galton, which originated in the 1880s. Galton studied the upper classes of Britain, and arrived at the conclusion that their social positions were due to a superior genetic makeup. Early proponents of eugenics believed that, through selective breeding, the human species should direct its own evolution. They tended to believe in the genetic superiority of Nordic, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon peoples; supported strict immigration and anti-miscegenation laws; and supported the forcible sterilization of the poor, disabled and "immoral".
The American eugenics movement received extensive funding from various corporate foundations including the Carnegie Institution, Rockefeller Foundation, and the Harriman railroad fortune. In 1906 J.H. Kellogg provided funding to help found the Race Betterment Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan. The Eugenics Records Office (ERO) was founded in Cold Spring Harbor, New York in 1911 by the renowned biologist Charles B. Davenport, using money from both the Harriman railroad fortune and the Carnegie Institution. As late as the 1920s, the ERO was one of the leading organizations in the American eugenics movement. In years to come, the ERO collected a mass of family pedigrees and concluded that those who were unfit came from economically and socially poor backgrounds. Eugenicists such as Davenport, the psychologist Henry H. Goddard, Harry H. Laughlin, and the conservationist Madison Grant (all well respected in their time) began to lobby for various solutions to the problem of the "unfit". (Davenport favored immigration restriction and sterilization as primary methods; Goddard favored segregation in his The Kallikak Family; Grant favored all of the above and more, even entertaining the idea of extermination.). The Eugenics Records Office later became the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
Am J Public Health. 2005 July; 95(7): 1128–1138.
Race, Immigration, and Reproductive Control in Modern California
Copyright © American Journal of Public Health 2005
In exploring the history of involuntary sterilization in California, I connect the approximately 20 000 operations performed on patients in state institutions between 1909 and 1979 to the federally funded procedures carried out at a Los Angeles County hospital in the early 1970s.
Highlighting the confluence of factors that facilitated widespread sterilization abuse in the early 1970s, I trace prosterilization arguments predicated on the protection of public health.
This historical overview raises important questions about the legacy of eugenics in contemporary California and relates the past to recent developments in health care delivery and genetic screening.