When we think of eugenics we usually think of Hitler, perhaps the most hated man in history. We are reminded of his plan to get rid of Jews, the mentally ill, homosexuals, and others he considered sub-normal human beings. We may also think of Joseph Mengele, known as the ‘angel of death’, who conducted eugenic experiments at Auschwitz on twins, many of whom were children.
But apparently the idea of eugenics and how to improve the human race by eliminating certain people was an idea that had been around for some time before it erupted in Nazi Germany. Darwin wrote about natural selection, a process in which the best and strongest survive. If this is the case, then the human race should improve naturally. The weak bodied, the weak-minded, those with inherited disabilitating diseases, even homosexuals, it was thought, should naturally disappear in time. But for some in the early 20th-century, natural selection wasn’t doing the job fast enough. What if science accelerated the process of improving human beings so that there would no longer be drug and alcohol addicts, the insane, and the mentally retarded? Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, coined the term ‘eugenics’ in 1883, from its Latin roots meaning ‘good in birth’ or ‘noble heredity’ and it was promoted as a science.
Some well known Americans and British jumped on the bandwagon to improve the human race by eugenics and backed the idea with their money and their writing. As is usual, the ideas filtered across the border into Canada as we will see. Here are a few of those in 20th century America who aided the birth of the so-called ‘science of eugenics’.
Charles Benedict Davenport -(1866-1944) was a Harvard zoologist who said, “Prevent the feeble-minded, drunkards, paupers, sex offenders and the criminalistic from having children or marrying their like, or cousins or any person belonging to a neuropathic strain.”
Harry Hamilton Laughlin (1880-1943), who with Davenport founded the Eugenic Record Office on Long Island, New York with their staff, compiled detailed records on 534,625 Americans whom they considered defective. Sixty thousand of them would face sterilization, the males by forced castration. Their aim was to sterilize fourteen million people in the United States and more worldwide to replace them with ‘pure Nordic stock’. Sound familiar?
Davenport had plenty of funds to accomplish this, but soon the Rockefeller Foundation poured in thousands more. In 1914, John Kellogg, brother of the Cereal King, founded the Race Betterment Foundation in Michigan.
Lucien Howe, was the ophthalmologist who discovered that bathing the eyes of newborns with diluted silver nitrate would save the sight of thousands. But he was an avowed eugenicist and proposed that blind people should be sterilized and forbidden to marry. The state of New York voted against this so it did not become law there.
In some states, prohibitions of marriage between certain races were prohibited: black/white marriages in several states, white/Asian marriages in Montana, white/Native Americans in other states. Delaware criminalized marriages of people on welfare!
Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote the decision that was voted on by the United States Supreme Court to uphold legalized sterilization. In 1917 there were only 1,422 sterilized people in institutions in the US, but by 1941 there were 38,087. Not surprisingly, public support for sterilization was not strong and the movement against it was aided by the Hearst newspaper which published horror stories of sterilzaitons
In 1908, Nova Scotia was home of the first ‘eugenics movement’ in Canada when the League for the Care and Protection of Feebleminded Persons was established in the province. In Quebec, Ontario, and elsewhere, academics and physicians worked to enlist others to publicly support eugenics.
The most damaging sterilization program in Canadian history was afforded via the passing of the Alberta Sterilization Act of 1928. Youths, minorities, and women were sterilized in disproportionately high numbers. Indigenous people and Métis, regardless of age, were also targeted making up 25% of the sterilizations performed even though they represented only 2.3% of the general population in Alberta. If the persons were deemed 'mentally defective' no consent was required.
British Columbia’s Sexual Sterilization Act, legislated in 1933 and repealed in 1973, closely resembled Alberta’s legislation. In BC however, t he Act created a Board of Eugenics, consisting of a judge, psychiatrist, and social worker and less people were sterilized there. Many were inmates of Riverview or Essendale Mental Institution.
When the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933, they patterned their program of eugenics on American legislation. As well, they received financial assistance from those in the American movement. As we know, it turned into something horrific and 10,000 Jews alone were murdered. Many more who were deemed ‘undesirable’ by the Nazi regime were also killed. When the truth became known at the end of the war, the world recoiled at the very idea of forced sterilization and getting rid of so called ‘inferior’ human beings. Instead it turned to ‘more civilized’ methods of contraception and abortion which was supposed to rescue women from being slaves to their fertility and protect the world from over-population. Those who were deemed the undesirable segments of humanity were targeted. ‘A Woman’s Choice’ was the cry of the day and Margaret Sanger headed a new onslaught on who should be allowed to have babies. We will learn more about Margaret Sanger and this movement in the future articles.