The Other Side of the Human Genome

Henri R. Manasse, Jr.


Am J Health Syst Pharm. 2005;62(10):1080-1086. 

In This Article

Eugenics in America

The writings of Darwin, Galton, and their contemporaries in England inevitably wound their way across the pond, arriving at a particularly tenuous time in U.S. history. A confluence of conditions in the five decades following the American Civil War deepened the divide between the business-owning and -managing class and the working class. Recurring economic depressions, price fluctuations, widespread migration of workers from farms to cities, and the increasing industrialization of labor and agriculture gave rise to urban sprawl, unemployment, and consequent poverty. Huge waves of immigrants, mostly from southern and eastern Europe, swelled the working class and worsened the strains on already overburdened social and charitable services.

Leaders in government and business observed that the working class was not only uniting against them, through increasing vocal and powerful labor unions, but was outreproducing them as well, evidenced by higher birth rates among less-wealthy sectors of the populace.[7] These revelations dovetailed with an emerging conviction among governmental and academic leaders that the immediate application of new discoveries in the social, medical, and physical sciences would provide solutions to such pressing social problems as crime, crowding, and disease. Innovation and invention in communication, transportation, and energy were transforming the American landscape and culture. In this context, it was not a far reach for those in positions of power and leadership (who, during the early 20th century, were predominantly male and shared a common western or northern European heritage) to envision a fitter, healthier human herd and assist nature by creating conditions whereby genetically "fit" human specimens could flourish, while less "worthy" varieties of the species would recede and eventually vanish.

Galton's writings on eugenics were readily adopted and disseminated by a number of Americans in the late 1800s, but the movement would truly begin to gather steam with the founding of the Station for Experimental Evolution in 1904 and the Eugenic Record Office (ERO) in 1910.[8] Both of these entities were directed by Harvard-trained zoologist and ardent eugenicist Charles Davenport and generously funded by the Carnegie steel and Harriman railroad fortunes. The nascent movement for racial hygiene in America now had a platform and a deep pocketbook from which to roll out its grand plan for the cleansing of humanity.

Work began in earnest to identify those lurking among the citizenry who were genetically "unfit" -- those who suffered from, who appeared predisposed to, or whose family histories revealed such undesirable (and purportedly hereditary) traits as "feeble-mindedness" (whose definition was never standardized), "pauperism," prostitution, low intelligence, epilepsy, mental illness, "criminality," and even blindness.[9] The methods used by the ERO staff in their fact-finding missions were hardly scientific or consistent. Often they relied on cursory interviews, visual examinations, quizzes based largely on the knowledge of popular culture (the "IQ test" was a eugenic innovation), and hearsay from relatives, law enforcement officials, and employees of institutions where the feeble-minded or mentally suspect were confined. Those unlucky enough to be so incarcerated were often surgically sterilized to prevent the transmission of their "defective germ-plasm." From 1914 through the mid-1970s, 33 states legalized such sterilizations, and more than 60,000 U.S. citizens were sterilized, often involuntarily or surreptitiously, under the false pretense that some other legitimate surgical intervention was being performed.[10] Thousands more were institutionalized (many eugenicists promoted the incarceration of unfit women until menopause). The disparaged practice of interracial marriage, or miscegenation, was outlawed in several states, beginning with Virginia's 1924 passage of the Act to Preserve Racial Integrity.[11] The act forbade the marriage of a white person to anyone possessing even "one drop" of non-white blood, although a compromise was reached (influenced by wealthy Virginian families who claimed Poc-ahontas and other prominent Native Americans as ancestors) whereby persons with one-sixteenth Native American blood would be legally counted as white.[12]

The supposed effects of immigration on the purity of the white, Nordic bloodline was another key item on the eugenics agenda: the Federal Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which significantly restricted the admission of immigrants through Ellis Island for over 40 years, was the direct outcome of advocacy by ERO staffer Harry Laughlin.[13,14] Its purpose was to tip the balance of the U.S. population in favor of northern and western Europeans, at the expense of Italians, European Jews, Slavs, and other supposedly dysgenic groups.

It should not escape our notice that the body of eugenics knowledge, however corrupt in its conclusions and methodology, was regarded by leading academics and policymakers as legitimate and state-of-the-art science, and it was promulgated as such by what were then, and are now, prominent scientific and medical journals and educational institutions. The journals of the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association ran numerous features relaying, without quotation marks to infer editorial distance, the latest eugenics research papers and conference proceedings.[15,16] Eugenics courses were part and parcel of university curricula during the first three decades of the 20th century.[17] Had the profession of health-system pharmacy existed then at the same level of maturity and entrenchment that it does today, and had chemical therapeutics been a major element of clinical eugenic interventions, would we too have succumbed to the temptation to publish and propagate such timely pseudoscience?

It should also be recognized that the discoveries associated with the eugenics movement were not wholly devoid of scientific validity. Legitimate discoveries were made during the early 1900s, both within and outside the eugenics community, that applied the newly popularized Mendelian observations on plant heredity to hereditary transmission, in animals and humans, of such traits as eye color and certain mental disorders. Unfortunately, such discoveries were often tainted by the private biases, prejudices, and arrogance of the individual observers. Only later, with hindsight and regret, would the science of genetics be rescued from among the ruin wrought by many of its purported adherents.