United States, World

Californian Eugenics and the Nazis

“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….Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Buck v. Bell, 1927 (7 Disturbing Eugenics). As Americans, we like to believe that we are the good ones, the ones who fought alongside Great Britain and the Soviet Union against Hitler and the Nazis in World War 2. No no, we righteous Americans, who believe all men are created equal, would never have any similarities to Nazis. Yet scientists in America, California to be specific, introduced the idea of scientific racism and forced sterilization, known as eugenics.


Eugenics are defined as “the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics” (Eugenics). Beginning in the 1880’s and headed by Sir Francis Galton, the eugenics movement gained popularity and sponsors such as J.H. Kellogg who funded the Race Betterment Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan. Remember this little tidbit of information next time you settle down to your favorite bowl of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes! Galton advocated a selective breeding program for humans to encourage them to think about the possibilities of genetically creating a race of highly gifted people (Nature News). Andrew Carnegie, who controlled the steel business in America, founded the Carnegie Institution, a eugenicist institution. Charles Davenport (Farber) was a Professor of Zoology in the University of Chicago, but later worked at the Carnegie Institution as a eugenicist working in the Experimental Evolution Department to study races. Another eugenicist working at the Carnegie Institution, Harry Laughlin, was hired as a superintendent of the Eugenics Research Department (10 Wildly Admired). Other well known supporters of the Eugenics movement include Teddy Roosevelt – president of the United States from 1901-1909, Helen Keller – who was blind and deaf herself, and Winston Churchill, who ironically fought against Hitler who used eugenics in WW2.


Eugenics sounded nice in theory, imagine people all being intelligent, healthy and attractive! But in practice, many scientists, known as eugenicists, used it to enforce their racist ideologies. The movement was focused on eliminating the negative traits and went so far as forcing undesirables to be sterilized, or prevent them from having children. These undesirables included immigrants, colored people, the poor, the disabled, and more (Unwanted Sterilization). They were seen as subhuman, the minority, the lower class. Eugenicists would also coerce people, particularly poor people, into voluntarily being sterilized to receive a sum of money. In total, the American eugenics sterilized 60,000 people, targeting blacks, Native Americans, Mexicans, Asians, and other colored peoples. To gain popularity by helping the masses understand, a chart was created to portray idiots, imbeciles, and morons, comparing their mental inferiority to a specific age group of children. The lowest on the scale was an idiot, and the highest was a moron. Harry Laughlin did quite a large amount of work in trying to figure out who should be sterilized or not. By studying inmates in asylums, he looked for signs of insanity, crime in family history, diseases and other disabilities including blindness and deformity, and decided that they had the least amount of social inadequacy and should be prevented from having anymore children. Like stated above, he also looked into the immigrants. Laughlin specifically studied areas such as the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. In the end he officially decided that immigrants coming from Japan and Switzerland were also the ones with the least amount of social acceptability and that they should also be sterilized first. Yeah, not really the nicest guy.

But to make it even worse? The word of the eugenics ideas reached Nazi Germany’s ears. Booklets on sterilization were published by California eugenicists and circulated to German scientists and officials. Hitler in particular took interest, and later used it against Jewish people and other persecuted groups, including homosexuals and disabled people, in the Holocaust. He studied these American eugenics laws, and by medicalizing this whole process, he was able to create a pseudoscience regarding the eugenics, which in turn helped him get followers using the name of science and improving “the superior German race”. Hitler even proudly told his fellow Germans how closely he followed the American eugenics movement; and Hitler was quoted as saying,”There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.” It was something that peaked his interest greatly, so much that he went so far as to write a letter to eugenics leader Madison Grant. The first German sterilization law was enacted in 1933, only a short time after Hitler took a leadership role in Germany. Once the decision to sterilize someone had been decided, the doctor that had petitioned for the sterilization of the person had to tell the patient “that there would be no deleterious consequences” (Rosenberg). Of course, many patients didn’t go along with this happily. Often times, the police force was needed to subdue the patient and bring them to the operating table for their sterilization. It was definitely not a fun process. By 1945, there was about an estimated amount of 300,000 to 450,000 that had been sterilized so far.

Eugenics set up very strong prejudices against people of color and the poor, which still affect us, even in our progressive world. Racial prejudices still exist, including in America where “all men are created equal”. Some people still have the mindset of the 1700’s though, and believe that white men are equal to each other, but above people of color. Or they’re just straight up racist, who knows?  But it is our civil duty to identify when someone is being racist, and call them out on it. Explain why they’re being racist if they don’t understand, and explain how to prevent their biased thinking. Do you think we have a new eugenics movement? Are we trying to put down or sterilize those that just don’t fall into the right category? Maybe not, but consider that it could always become a possibility in the future, and make sure to keep careful watch and prevent something like this gigantic movement from happening.

Article by Karly Talbot and Tifany Wong

Works Cited

“7 Disturbing Eugenics Quotes.” Intellectual Takeout, www.intellectualtakeout.org/blog/7-disturbing-eugenics-quotes.

“Eugenics in the United States.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Nov. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics_in_the_United_States

“10 Widely Admired People Who Supported Eugenics.” Listverse, 6 Sept. 2016, listverse.com/2015/07/10/10-widely-admired-people-who-supported-eugenics/.

“Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/unwanted-sterilization-and-eugenics-programs-in-the-united-states/.

Farber, Steven A. “U.S. Scientists’ Role in the Eugenics Movement (1907–1939): A Contemporary Biologist’s Perspective.” Zebrafish, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., Dec. 2008, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2757926/.

Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, www.nature.com/scitable/forums/genetics-generation/america-s-hidden-history-the-eugenics-movement-123919444.

Rosenberg, Jennifer. “Why Did the Nazis Sterilize Some of Their Own People?” ThoughtCo, www.thoughtco.com/sterilization-in-nazi-germany-1779677.


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