The Shameful History of Eugenics in America

Article excerpt


Stephen King, meet your nonfiction counterpart.

Some of the scariest things that one can read these days come straight from the history books, including this comprehensive look at the eugenics/racial purity movement.

Populated with characters from prominent American families and based on research from top-flight universities, the movement to mandate forced sterilization of those considered mentally inferior was a significant force in the United States during much of first half of the 20th century. It is a complicated story, but in the hands of Harry Bruinius, "Better for All The World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity" reads like an engaging, though eerie, novel.

Mr. Bruinius traces the movement from its intellectual origins in 19th- century Britain - where its founder was a cousin of Charles Darwin- to a woman still living in Colorado who was involuntarily sterilized while in a state mental institution.

Based on questionable scientific data, the movement caught on with Americans who who were worried that those of lesser intelligence would harm the nation's gene pool by reproducing.

The book's title comes from an opinion by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes upholding a Virginia law that mandated sterilization of those deemed intellectually and morally inferior.

"It is better for all the world if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind,'' Mr. Holmes wrote in Buck vs. Bell in 1927.

Mr. Bruinius, a journalism professor at Hunter College in New York City, is clearly quite aghast at the movement (which also fueled racial quotas and other prejudicial acts) and its popularity. He goes to great lengths to explain the intellectual and social contexts in which it thrived. He cites the increase in immigrants and the changing dynamics that these newcomers created as helping fuel concerns among those from old Yankee stock. Worries about the financial and social costs to society in caring for the mentally challenged also caused some to favor forced sterilization.

Such ideas helped inspire many of the policies that were prevalent in Nazi Germany, including killing people who were not part of the "master race'' and the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jews of citizenship and outlawed marriage between the races.

In America, forced sterilizations were by no means a fringe movement. …