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Eugenics In The Public Arena

Eugenics ideology was spread not only through scientific but also through popular channels, including the press, exhibits, the eugenicists' own popular journals such as Eugenical News, various movies, "fitter family" contests at state fairs, and even a eugenical sermon contest. The number of articles on eugenics in popular magazines rose precipitously between 1910 and 1914 and again in the 1920s, especially when the immigration restriction issue was being debated in Congress between 1921 and 1924. Most high school biology textbooks included some discussion of eugenics. By the early to mid-1920s many segments of the American, British, and wider European public were at least aware of a claim, made in the name of modern science, that many social, especially mental, traits were genetically determined, that many segments of society were genetically unfit for anything but the most menial work, and that in these respects blacks, Native Americans, and many non-Nordic or non-Anglo-Saxon groups were genetically inferior.

From the start most eugenicists were anxious to play a role in the public arena. A good deal of eugenicists' efforts focused on lobbying for compulsory sterilization laws for the "genetically unfit" and, especially in the United States, for eugenically informed immigration restriction.

The United States pioneered in the passage of eugenical sterilization laws. The majority of such laws were passed by state legislatures during the interwar period. Eugenical sterilization was aimed specifically at those individuals in mental or penal institutions who, from family pedigree analysis, were considered likely to give birth to socially defective children. Eugenical sterilization reached astounding proportions worldwide in the first half of the century. In the United States over sixty thousand eugenical sterilizations were performed between 1907 and 1963. A similar number was estimated for Sweden, while the Germans ultimately sterilized over 400,000.

A generalized pedigree chart showing the various symbols used and the methods of display

In the United States eugenicists were instrumental in the passage of the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act. Immigration from Europe, especially from eastern and southern Europe, had increased significantly since the 1880s, replacing the traditional immigrant groups from northern Europe and the British Isles. IQ test scores and data on institutionalization of various immigrant groups for feeblemindedness, insanity, criminality, blindness, and so on were used to support the claim that recent immigrants were less genetically fit than the older, northern European stock. Eugenics provided an air of scientific objectivity for what various nativist groups wanted to accomplish for reasons of economics or prejudice.

Because racial policy and eugenics formed one of the cornerstones of National Socialism, eugenics research and policy found considerable support in Germany after 1933. When Fischer retired as director of the KWIA in 1942, he was succeeded by his protégé Otmar von Verschuer, one of the pioneers in the use of identical twins in genetic and eugenic research. Verschuer eventually took the institute's research into extermination and slave-labor camps, where his assistant and former doctoral student, Josef Mengele, made pairs of twins available, especially for research on pathological conditions. For example, twins (with non-twins as controls) were infected with disease agents to study the effects of the same and different hereditary constitutions on the course of disease. After they died or were killed, twins' body organs were sent back to the KWIA for analysis. Such procedures, when brought to light at the Nuremberg trials, not only shocked the world but indicated the extent to which eugenic work could so easily transgress the bounds of acceptable scientific practice.

Additional topics

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