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The Historical Development Of Eugenics, 1904–1950

In most countries eugenics movements combined theory with various forms of social and political programs, from education committees to lobbying political leaders. Before 1925 most eugenicists were well-respected members of the scientific community, and the eugenic ideas they espoused were not considered eccentric or bizarre. The acknowledged leader of American eugenics, Charles Davenport, received his Ph.D. from Harvard, taught at the University of Chicago, and then established his own research laboratory to promote the study of heredity and its relationship to selection and evolution. In Britain, Davenport's equivalent was Karl Pearson (1857–1936), director of the Eugenics Record Office and Galton Professor of Eugenics at University College, London. In Germany, Eugen Fischer (1874–1967), the academic leader of Rassenhygiene (racial hygiene), was the director of the newly founded Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Genetics, and Eugenics (KWIA) in Berlin-Dahlem. Along with other colleagues, these investigators contributed solid work on aspects of human inheritance as well as more tenuous studies on inheritance of feeblemindedness, mental capacity, and social traits.

In addition to such conspicuous national leaders, many well-known, rank-and-file biologists, especially in the period 1910–1925, enthusiastically endorsed the aims of eugenics. The attraction for these biologists was that the new science of genetics appeared to offer a solution to recurrent social problems that had eluded social workers and charitable organizations. Eugenics was seen as the efficient, rational, and scientific way to solve these problems by eliminating the cause rather than treating the symptoms. These supporters all contributed in some way to spreading the eugenics message to a broader public.

Financial support for eugenics research and propaganda came from the economic, political, and social elite and clearly served several special interests. First was economic efficiency: it was expensive to let defective people be born and then spend taxpayers' money to keep them in institutions for much of their lives. Second, the eugenic argument that social problems originated in "bad genes" deflected criticism of social policies and conditions and placed the blame for social problems on individuals.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical BackgroundEugenics - The Historical Development Of Eugenics, 1904–1950, Research Methods, Eugenics In The Public Arena, Criticisms Of Eugenics