This entry is a part of a series.
To clearly understand the material below in context,
you may wish to begin at the beginning with
the introduction to the series.
I am quite convinced that the average American has either
1) never heard of the American eugenics movement that flourished before World War 2… or
2) has heard of it, but is under the impression it was just a flash-in-the-pan bunch of pseudo-scientific silliness promoted by a few wild-eyed racist cranks out on the edge of society for a few years, with no more influence on daily life in America than the Scientology cult has these days.
As earlier entries in this blog series have shown, this impression is utterly false. At the height of the reign of eugenics, there were many well-known Americans either supportive of…or directly involved in…its activities from a wide variety of sections of society: academia in general, science and medicine in particular, politics, the media, and more. (Familiar names like George Bernard Shaw, John Harvey Kellogg, Alexander Graham Bell, Theodore Roosevelt, H. G. Wells, and Woodrow Wilson.) And these people were able to establish a lasting influence in American culture and law that has negatively affected millions of people to this day.
But actually, in the earliest days of the movement, it almost DID end up as just a blip of goof-ball science in American history, not much more believable than The Absent-Minded Professor’s Flubber.
Something happened that changed the future of the movement from obscurity to center stage. An irresistible force was applied to circumstances, which jolted the movement to life…just like a Frankenstein’s Monster.
What force could possibly have been used that would convince a large proportion of the US society that a phony pseudo-science was The Real Thing? It didn’t take hypnotism or strong-arm tactics. All it took was…
A LOT of philanthropy. If you interpret the term very loosely… For here is what philanthropy USUALLY means.
Philanthropy: from Greek philanthrōpia, from philanthrōpos loving people, from phil- + anthrōpos human being
“…the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes.”
Yes, most folks, when they hear the word philanthropy, think of generous men and women who love their fellow human beings so much that they want to do good to them; want to promote their welfare; and are willing to sacrifice part of their own wealth to give generous donations to accomplish this.
Quite typically, the “object” of philanthropy is a person or a group of people who are financially poor, or medically needy, or perhaps lacking in education because of being subject to a system of racial prejudice.
However, as we have seen, the ultimate goal of eugenics was not at all to relieve the suffering or misfortune of any individual man or woman or family. It wasn’t to help the poor, or address medical handicaps, or to solve the problems caused by racial prejudice. In fact, it was just the opposite. The ultimate goal of eugenics was to …get rid of all of the people with such problems!
Poverty? That wasn’t a social problem…it was a genetic problem. People “inherited” a tendency to poverty. The way to alleviate poverty wasn’t with a more equitable system of balancing fair corporate profits with a living wage for workers. It was to just sterilize the poor so they wouldn’t pass on their “pauper” genes.
Most physical handicaps? They were inherited, and the only way to prevent them in the future was to sterilize everyone in the present who had such handicaps—AND all of their extended family members who might be carrying “recessive genes” for the handicap—so no more such imperfect people would be born.
And inferior education for certain subgroups of people? The problem was bothering to try to educate mentally inferior people in the first place! Eugenics would eliminate them, and thus treat the “source” of the education problem…“Stupid people.” Morons, as eugenicist Henry Goddard dubbed them, from a Greek word meaning “dull.” (Eugenic “intelligence tests” had already shown that 87% of the Negroes in America were morons, 70% of Jews…and even 47% of “whites.” Non-Nordic whites, of course.)
In other words…if someone wanted to invest as a “philanthropist” in the efforts of the eugenics movement, he would be donating NOT to “take care of the poor” in the sense of “meet their needs.” He would be donating to “take care of the poor” in the sense that a Mafia boss would tell an underling to go “take care of” a rival! Which, from the eugenic point of view, would leave the country for all those Nordic people it was meant for in the first place.
In this context, “philanthropy” doesn’t exactly mean “love of fellow humans,” does it?! It means “love of people who are just like me.” And indeed, there were American “philanthropists” more than eager to contribute to such a cause.
I mention all this to lead up to the reality of how eugenics went from a fringe group that had some racist theories that they shared among themselves…to a central player in American politics, setting the pace for immigration reform, forced sterilization, and anti-miscegenation laws. The movement became “bankrolled” by huge philanthropic donations from some of the biggest personal and corporate names in America.
You may remember from earlier entries in this blog series that the “high prophet” of eugenics in America, Madison Grant, had been able to persuade his “peers” in the American elite to contribute funds generously to his many projects, including saving the bison and the redwoods. This same circle of elite American Aristocracy became a pool to draw from to fund Madison’s new passion, saving the Great Race of American “Nordics.”
And thus it was that the era’s biggest philanthropists—headed by the Rockefellers (oil fortune), the Carnegies (steel fortune), and the Harrimans (railroad fortune) became personal and corporate sponsors of the “Science” of Eugenics. For instance Andrew Carnegie—at the same time the philanthropic arm of his corporation was building Carnegie libraries all over America…it also invested large sums in the establishment of a laboratory complex that became the center of eugenics efforts in America for the next forty years. (The widow of railroad magnate E. H. Harriman contributed significant amounts of “philanthropy” to this same cause.)
In 1904, the Carnegie Institution allocated large grants to establish a laboratory complex at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island. Heading up the Cold Spring Harbor network was its stern-faced, Puritan-minded director Charles Davenport. With Carnegie Institution money and approval, Davenport created an interlocking group of eugenic entities. First, in 1904, he founded the Station for Experimental Evolution to develop the science of eugenics, including a library, seminars, and the initiation of journals.
From there, researchers could carefully plot the removal of families, bloodlines and whole peoples. Cold Spring Harbor eugenics advocates, all under Carnegie funding, agitated in the legislatures of America, as well as the nation’s social service agencies and associations.
The Harriman railroad fortune paid local charities, such as the New York Bureau of Industries and Immigration , to seek out Jewish, Italian and other immigrants in New York and other crowded cities and subject them to deportation, trumped-up confinement or forced sterilization.
In 1910, using Carnegie resources and money contributed by the Harriman railroad fortune, Davenport added a Eugenics Record Office (ERO). Davenport’s designated tactician Harry Laughlin was appointed to head up the office. The ERO’s mission was to quietly register the genetic backgrounds of all Americans, separating the defective strains from the desired lineages. [The ERO eventually had millions of index cards on file with information from across the land about the heredity of thousands upon thousands of families.]
And make no mistake, the supporting philanthropic organizations knew what was going on at the Cold Spring Harbor complex. How could you ignore the title of THIS study paper by Laughlin:
Eighteen solutions to the world’s genetic pollution were explored in a 1911 Carnegie-supported study titled “Preliminary Report of the Committee of the Eugenic Section of the American Breeder’s Association to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population.”
You may be aware that many of the “robber baron” moguls of the 19th century, toward the end of their lives, would take their focus off building their corporations, and put it on “charitable” and “philanthropic” efforts. I’m quite sure for some this was in order to attempt to redeem their reputation from the public knowledge of the cut-throat tactics—toward both competitors and their own employees—that they had used to get where they were financially!
For instance, Carnegie had been the Evil Emperor of the situation that led up to the infamous Homestead Strike of 1892 at his steel plant in Pennsylvania. Carnegie management had brought in both armed Pinkerton men and eventually the state militia—with Gatling guns!—to break up the strike. By the end, three Pinkerton detectives and nine strikers died, and many were injured on both sides. Carnegie himself later declared that the handling of the whole situation was a horrible mistake, and he deeply regretted it.
So perhaps in his mind philanthropy helped him partially “atone” for his past.
But…why eugenics as part of the package? An essay on the “Philanthropy Daily” website offers some suggestions.
Why did eugenics have such an appeal to our first major modern philanthropists?
Because, as Carnegie famously argued, they believed that most previous giving had been “indiscriminate charity … spent as to encourage the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy,” without addressing the underlying circumstances that produced such conditions.
The new philanthropies, by contrast, were animated by “a search for cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source,” according to the words of John D. Rockefeller.The eugenics movement spoke directly to this yearning. Charles Davenport, perhaps the most prominent American eugenicist, wondered in 1910 why “tens of millions have been given to bolster up the weak and alleviate the suffering of the sick,” while “no important means have been provided to enable us to learn how the stream of weak and susceptible protoplasm may be checked.”
This made eminent sense to the Carnegie Institution of Washington. It paid for Mr. Davenport’s search for the protoplasm that caused sloth, drunkenness, unworthiness, and other social ills from 1904 until 1939.
Yes, eugenics promised to “strike at the root” of social problems—inferior people. People incapable of being changed by the efforts of “well-intentioned sentimentalists” because, don’tcha know, most bad habits and most physical weaknesses were congenital. Just as you eliminate a disease by eliminating the germs that cause it, you could eliminate poverty and such from society by eliminating the “germ plasm” that has caused it. Like sterilizing or deporting those Jews and Italians in New York. A worthy philanthropic cause by eugenics standards!
Numerous researchers in recent times have tracked down the long-forgotten connections between corporate money and the eugenic movement. You can read many more details in such books as Edwin Black’s War Against the Weak.
Black sums it up this way:
Eugenics would have been so much bizarre parlor talk had it not been for extensive financing by corporate philanthropies, specifically the Carnegie Institution…the Rockefeller Foundation…and the robber baron Harriman fortune. They were all in league with some of America’s most respected scientists hailing from such prestigious universities as Stanford, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. These academicians espoused race theory and race science, and then faked and twisted the data to serve the movement’s racist aims.
Eugenic science was bought and paid for by the elite for the elite to perpetrate a genetic war against everyone else.
Corporate money powered it all.
And that corporate reach went far beyond America’s shores. We’ll explore its travels in the next entry in this series: