Harvard’s dark past as the “brain trust” of American eugenics


Harvard University is the richest, most famous and oldest university in the US – and it won the Harvard-Yale game last year 38-19. But one distinction which it would rather forget is that it was the “brain trust” of American eugenics.

The author of a just-published study on the most famous law case involving eugenics, Adam Cohen, writes that “Harvard was more central to American eugenics than any other university.” (Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, Penguin 2016.)

One of Harvard’s 19th century presidents, Charles William Eliot, was a vice president of the First International Eugenics Congress in 1912. In 1914 he helped to organise the First National Conference on Race Betterment in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr, dean of Harvard Medical School, popular writer, coiner of the term “Boston Brahmin” and father of the future Supreme Court justice, was one of the first Americans to promote eugenics.

A. Lawrence Lowell, president from 1909 to 1933, actively promoted eugenics. During his tenure, many leading academics promoted eugenic theories. Economist Frank W. Taussig believed that “Certain types of criminals and paupers breed only their kind, and society has a right and a duty to protect its members from the repeated burden of maintaining and guarding such parasites.” Botanist Edward M. East warned of the degeneration of the white race. He wrote emphatically: “the negro is inferior to the white.”

Psychologist Robert M. Yerkes developed an IQ test for the US Army which found that about half the men who took it were “feeble-minded”. This was “evidence” of the need for sterilizing the “unfit” and keeping out immigrants. Dudley Allen Sargent, who was head of physical education at Harvard in the early 1900s, was a firm believer in racial betterment.

Charles Benedict Davenport, a Harvard graduate and zoologist founded the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in 1910, which became the chief promoter of eugenic sterilization laws. Lothrop Stoddard, a Harvard PhD, became the chief propagandist of American eugenics. His 1920 bestseller was titled The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy.

The jewel in the crown of Harvard eugenics is Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, a former Harvard Law School professor and Harvard Overseer, and one of the most influential jurists ever to serve on the US Supreme Court. He wrote the 8-1 majority opinion in Buck v. Bell, which declared that eugenic sterilization was constitutional. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” he wrote about Carrie Buck, her mother and her infant daughter.

Cohen, a Harvard alumnus himself, concludes his article in the Harvard Gazette with a warning for the future.

There are also forward-looking reasons to revisit this dark moment in the University’s past. Biotechnical science has advanced to the brink of a new era of genetic possibilities. In the next few years, the headlines will be full of stories about gene-editing technology, genetic “solutions” for a variety of human afflictions and frailties, and even “designer babies.” Given that Harvard affiliates, again, will play a large role in all of these, it is important to contemplate how wrong so many people tied to the University got it the first time—and to think hard about how, this time, to get it right.

Disclosure: Michael Cook is also a Harvard alumnus and lived in Eliot House, named after Charles William Eliot. 




MORE ON THESE TOPICS | eugenics, Harvard, history of bioethics

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