American Eugenics Society

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The American Eugenics Society (AES) was "founded in 1926 by Harry Crampton, Harry H. Laughlin, Madison Grant, and Henry Fairfield Osborn with the express purpose of spearheading the eugenical movement. With a peak membership of around 1,250 in 1930, the AES worked at both the scientific and popular levels, becoming a highly effective organization at disseminating practical and scientific information on genetic health, drawing attention to eugenics, and promoting eugenical research."[1]

"When Francis Galton coined the term eugenics in the 1890s, it is doubtful that he could have foreseen the power the movement would accrue in America during the first half of the 20th century. A broad-based social, political, and scientific movement, American eugenics reflected the fears of many whites that their once-great nation was threatened by demographic and economic change. Their understanding of the principles of genetic inheritance led eugenicists to conclude that genetically defective members of society -- including the 'feeble-minded,' criminals, the sexually wanton, epileptics, the insane, and non-white races -- were rapidly out-reproducing the 'normal' members of society at an alarming rate, passing on their 'deleterious' genes at the expense of the 'normal.' The social cost of such a situation, they feared, would be devastating."[2]

"In pursuit of their social agenda, the eugenics movement adopted two faces, a 'positive' one, which concentrated on exhorting the genetically gifted to reproduce, and a 'negative' one, which sought to prevent the defective from breeding. From 1900 on, the movement found a receptive ear in state legislatures, as it did in Washington, and it exerted a profound influence on American public policy. By the 1930s, most states had passed eugenical laws authorizing the sterilization of 'defectives,' and in an infamous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed such laws were constitutional. Eugenical lobbying also contributed to the powerful anti-immigration movement of the 1910s and 1920s, using their scientific studies to support the claim that non-whites and immigrants were inferior to native-born white Americans in intelligence, physical condition, and moral stature. Even though the meticulous studies of Franz Boas, H.S. Jennings, and others amply demonstrated the failure of eugenical methodology and the falsity of their claims, the eugenical tide continued to swell. Only after the Second World War, when the horrific results of the Nazi eugenic program became fully evident, did the movement lose steam. Though much smaller in scope, it continues today."[3]

"At state and local fairs during the 1920s and 1930s, the AES sponsored lectures and exhibits intended to demonstrate principles of heredity and the menace of unchecked breeding among the unfit. 'Some people are born to be a burden to the rest,' read one sign prominently displayed in the Society's 'flashing light exhibit'. On this panel, four red lights were set to flash at various intervals, driving home the point of the text. While a new child is born in America every 16 seconds, it claimed, every 48 seconds a feeble-minded child is born, every 50 seconds comes a criminal ('Very few normal persons ever go to jail'), but only every seven and a half minutes is a truly creative and capable person born. As for the pocketbook, every 15 seconds, $100 of each taxpayer's money goes to support the mentally and morally defective. The threat to American society, according to eugenicists, was clear: the dangerous and defective were reproducing too quickly, while the normal and advantaged of this nation reproduced too little."[4]

"The message of eugenics was delivered in more subtle ways that appealed directly to 'normal' Americans. The AES sponsored 'Fitter Family' contests, open to all who chose to participate, using measures of physical appearance, health, behavior, and intelligence to judge which family displayed the greatest potential to produce genetically superior children. Divided into small, medium, and large family categories, as well as couples, the contests were enormously popular."[5]

Copied from the American Eugenics Society Scrap Book, American Philosophical Society Web Site.


History

  • Allen, G. E. (1997). The social and economic origins of genetic determinism: A case history of the American Eugenics Movement, 1900-1940 and its lessons for today. Genetica, 99, 77-89.

Resources and articles

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References