Tracking Chromosomes, Castrating Dwarves: Uninformed Consent and Eugenic Research

Article excerpt


In 1929 Charles B. Davenport, a prominent biologist and leader in the American eugenics movement, carried out an experimental castration of a "Mongoloid dwarf" at a New York State mental institution. His goal was to retrieve tissue for chromosomal analysis in an attempt to understand the basis of syndromal mental retardation. Davenport was assisted in the research by cytologist T. S. Painter, who later achieved scientific celebrity for his work in counting human chromosomes. Davenport also invited George Washington Corner, who eventually contributed to the discovery of progesterone, to participate in the experiment. Davenport planned and carried out the surgery using the questionable promise of therapeutic benefit to elicit consent from a parent with limited mental capacity on behalf of an even more seriously impaired institutional resident. Archival evidence demonstrates that even at that date scientists like Davenport and the physicians he collaborated with were sensitive to ethical issues such as the necessity for consent and questions of decisional capacity, as well as the potential for negative publicity for mistreatment of "research subjects."

Keywords: Mongolism, Chromosome analysis, Informed consent for research, Eugenic research

In 1929 Charles Davenport planned and carried out an experimental castration in New York's Lecthworth Village for the Feebleminded. Davenport was a leader in the U.S. eugenics movement. Two men who would later become famous for their scientific accomplishments assisted him. Anatomist George Washington Corner performed the castrating surgery on the asylum inmate; renowned cytologist TH. Painter analyzed the tissue Corner removed. The experiment, which was designed by Davenport to provide insight into the "inherited defect" of "mongolism," addressed an important concern of the eugenicists. It also focused on dwarves, a "striking and much studied" group within public institutions.1

The field of eugenics took its name from the work of Francis Galton, focusing on "all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race."2 The word itself meant "well-born." While people who supported eugenics spanned many political and ideological boundaries, and the movement encompassed a number of innocuous or even praiseworthy goals,3 the term is now used almost exclusively as a pejorative term linked to the atrocities of the Holocaust. Many recent books have focused on linkages between the eugenics movement in the United States and its eventual expression as a program of Hitler's Third Reich. It is becoming more widely appreciated that some of the more toxic expressions of eugenics, such as laws mandating coercive sterilization, racial categorization and separation, and ethnically targeted immigration restriction were in place in the U.S. long before Hitler came to power.4

But de jure eugenics in the U.S. was far from the only insidious U S. /Nazi parallel. Another historical link between the German version of eugenics and its American cousin can be seen in the research focus of the movement in both countries. For years, U.S. scientists doing biomedical research found convenient research subjects in the abundance of "unfit" residents in mental hospitals, sanataria, orphanages and asylums. Some of the largest and most notorious institutions, like Virginia's Colony for Epileptic and Feebleminded, were the site of research over the years not only by civilian doctors, but also by the military.5 The Eugenics Record Office (ERO) also stressed the importance of research and championed the use of institutional inmates as research subjects. E. E. Southard, Harvard Medical School neuropathologist and member of the Special Board of Directors of the ERO, compared public institutions to mines, waiting "to be explored for the ore of progress." Katherine Bernent Davis, executive secretary of the Bureau of Social Hygiene, said that we should look at "our great state institutions as human laboratories. …