Devastating measures taken in the name of racial improvement are most often associated with Nazi Germany. Yet, in the years preceding the Holocaust, the American eugenics movement sought to better the human race through selective breeding. According to the American Breeder’s Association, eugenics aimed to “emphasize the value of superior blood and the menace to society of inferior blood.” As defined by the 1914 Model Eugenical Sterilization Law, “inferior blood” included the “feebleminded, insane, criminalist, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf; deformed; and dependent,” as well as “orphans, ne’er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless and paupers.” Two means were taken to eradicate negatively perceived gene pools from society. Positive eugenics encouraged breeding between those believed to be genetically superior, while negative eugenics restricted those deemed unfit from reproducing. Backed by genetic science of the late nineteenth century, eugenics became a fixture of academics, religion, and popular culture. Its widespread acceptance sanctioned a legal agenda that promoted segregation, immigration restriction, sterilization, and even euthanasia, a frequently overlooked darker side of American history.


Genetic science, revolutionary at the time, provided the foundation on which the eugenics movement was legitimized. In his work On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, Charles Darwin proposed natural selection, an evolutionary process through which more advantageous traits thrive. Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton built upon natural selection in Hereditary Genius published in 1869, by applying the theory to humans to show the race could be improved by promoting the reproduction of some and inhibiting that of others. In 1883, Galton coined the term eugenics to describe his research and the practice of improving the human race through the manipulation of genetics.

As Galton’s work favored the traits of the American upper class, the eugenics movement quickly garnered financial support. Financing by the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Harriman’s of railroad fortune elevated eugenics to scientific prominence.  In 1904, the Carnegie Institution funded the Station for Experimental Evolution at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, out of which arose the Eugenic Record Office in 1910.  Lead by Charles Davenport, the Eugenic Record Office amassed and analyzed family histories, determining which bloodlines to promote or eradicate. The influence of wealthy families presided over academic researchers at the country’s top universities. David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, famously promoted eugenics and asserted that talent, poverty, and other such conditions were inherited traits.

The promotion of eugenics by prominent scholars contributed to the movement’s widespread acceptance. With a strong foothold in academics, eugenics was a focus of college courses at many universities throughout the 1920’s. The National Education Association’s Committee on Racial Well-Being funded programs that assisted professors in incorporating material on eugenics into their curriculums. High school biology courses integrated the budding field as well, and textbooks distinguished “fit” from “unfit,” suggesting immigration policies, segregation, and sterilization to improve the human race.  Religious leaders preached similar messages, motivated by organizations like the American Eugenics Society, which recognized sermons that emphasized human improvement.


Popular culture also served as a means to spread eugenic teachings to the masses. The acclaimed 1917 film The Black Stork, based on the true story of a doctor who convinced parents to let their infant son die rather than raise him disabled, reflected the nation’s perception of physical disabilities. Although The Black Stork faced censorship from film regulators, it was shown in many theatres from its release date through the 1920’s.  Under the revised title Are You Fit to Marry? the film was circulated and shown in theatres until the beginning of World War II. In rural America during the first decades of the twentieth century, “better baby” and “fitter family” contests became the main attraction at state fairs.  Just as farmers selectively bred agriculture and livestock, the same idea was applied to families. Martin Pernick writes in the American Journal of Public Health that the contests not only rewarded middle class Whites for successfully reproducing, they served as a public demonstration of who should and should not bear children.

The widespread acceptance of eugenics in education, religion, and popular culture inspired a legal agenda that sought to keep those deemed unfit from reproducing out of the gene pool, the practice of negative eugenics. A deep fear that the White race was declining amidst changing demographics, along with the understanding that social inadequacy was a medical concern, contributed to the desire to act upon the genetic science of the time. As wealthy whites funded academic research, scholarly findings reflected favorably of the families who backed them. Likewise, legal proceedings based upon such findings were heavily influenced by those in places of power who wished to eradicate citizens they perceived as socially and racially inadequate. An influential report that inspired legal action was the “Preliminary Report of the Committee of the Eugenic Section of the American Breeder’s Association to Study and to Report on the Best Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population,” financially supported by the Carnegies. Among many suggestions for reaching “the desired ends” was forced sterilization, the most extreme measure to be used on a large scale during the eugenics movement.

In 1907, Indiana became the first state to pass a sterilization law for the purpose of eugenics, and in 1914 the Eugenic Record Office proposed the Model Eugenic Sterilization Law that pushed the sterilization of the “socially inadequate.”  By the 1920’s, sterilization was widely accepted. Thirty-three states enacted sterilization laws and the involuntary sterilization of over 60,000 Americans followed.  Although sterilization was less commonly practiced after the 1930’s, many laws remained in place, especially for those who were institutionalized. In 1942, 13 states still had laws permitting for the sterilization of criminals, and citizens in mental institutions continued to be subject to involuntary sterilization throughout the 1970’s.

The sterilization case of Carrie Buck is instrumental in explaining the coercive and unjust means taken in involuntary sterilization. Buck was the first Virginia resident selected for sterilization after the state passed the Eugenical Sterilization Act in 1924.  Buck was chosen under the premise that she, her mother, and daughter shared heritable traits of promiscuity and feeblemindedness, now known to have no genetic component. Despite having her children while married to Frank Buck, Emma Buck, Carrie’s mother, was institutionalized for promiscuity. Carrie became pregnant with her daughter Vivian in her teens after she was raped by a relative of her foster family, information omitted in her later trial. In assessing Carrie’s daughter Vivian, the representative from the Eugenic Record Office asserted she was “below average,” but the only evidence produced by the representative and nurse was “There is a look about [Vivian] that is not quite normal.”  Not only was Carrie Buck selected for sterilization out of fear that she might pass on traits that had no genetic component, she, her mother, and daughter were targeted for qualities they did not possess.

As Carrie Buck’s was the first sterilization case in Virginia, the legality was challenged in the Circuit Court of Amherst County, later in the Virginia Supreme Court, and finally in the Supreme Court of the United States. In Buck v. Bell, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled, “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,” he ruled, “is enough.”  On October 19, 1927, Buck became the first person in Virginia to be legally sterilized. Between 1927 and 1979, the state of Virginia went on to sterilize between seven and eight thousand others, often in instances that were similarly unjust.

Sterilization was most widely practiced and accepted, but segregation was another utilized means of negative eugenics. Immigration restriction laws stood as one of the earliest legal forms of eugenics. In 1882, the Act to Regulate Immigration asserted “any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge” should be forbidden entry to the United States. Primarily targeted were criminals, those suffering from mental illness, and those who lived in extreme poverty. Laws also forbade immigrants from entry on the grounds of race and ethnicity. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, signed by President Chester Arthur, prohibited Chinese from immigrating to the United States and from gaining citizenship.  The Magnuson Act of 1943, which recognized China as a World War II ally, reversed the Act, but permitted only 105 immigrants per year.  The Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 specifically targeted Italians and eastern European Jews. After signing the law, which reduced the quota of southern and eastern European immigrants from 45% to 15%, President Calvin Coolidge famously remarked, “America must remain American.”  Laws restricting immigrants on the grounds of races and ethnicity were not overturned entirely until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

Fear of racial mixing was present internally in America as well. Another form of negative eugenics by means of segregation existed through interracial marriage laws. By 1915, interracial marriage was considered invalid by twenty-eight states, and prohibited in six state constitutions.  Marriage laws reflected an understanding of “higher” and “lower” races, and a fear that the White race declining. In prominent eugenicist Madison Grant’s book The Passing of a Great Race, published in 1916, the author warned of “racial suicide” and the eventual eradication of the White race.  Citizens who failed to abide by marriage laws faced harsh punishment. Richard and Mildred Loving, a mixed race couple, married in Washington D.C. in 1958, as interracial marriages were illegal in their home state of Virginia. Upon returning home, the Lovings were arrested, jailed, and barred from Virginia for 25 years. Interracial marriage laws were not invalidated entirely until 1967, in the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia. 

A proposed means of negative eugenics that was discussed, but not widely practiced, was euthanasia. Euthanasia was first proposed in the 1911 “Preliminary Report of the Committee of the Eugenic Section of the American Breeder’s Association to Study and to Report on the Best Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population,” funded by the Carnegie family.  The most agreed upon form of euthanasia was the lethal chamber, but it was decided America was not ready to implement such an extreme practice on a large scale.  However, this did not stop the practice of euthanasia from occurring, and it was carried out privately. Most famous for utilizing euthanasia was a mental institution in Lincoln, Illinois that served patients milk infected with tuberculosis, resulting in an annual death rate between 30% and 40%.  Passive eugenicide was practiced on infants, as depicted in the film The Black Stork, and lethal neglect was common in many institutions.

Extreme measures to protect the White race exemplify how Nazi ideology did not exist in a vacuum. The Rockefeller Foundation closely assisted in establishing the German eugenics program.  The foundation had financial connections with Josef Mengele before he went to Auschwitz, where he was known as the “Angel of Death” for the human experiments he conducted. Eugenicists at the Carnegie Institute in the 1920’s formed professional relationships with Germany’s leading scientists as well.  The influence of American science on German ideology became evident in Adolf Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf, which draws heavily on American eugenic thought. In a fan letter to Madison Grant, Hitler described The Passing of the Great Race as his “bible.”  American influence on German eugenic thought was ultimately apparent at the Nuremberg Trials in 1945, at which the Allied Forces tried Nazi leaders. In their defense, Nazi doctors on trial recounted Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1927 ruling that “three generations of imbeciles was enough.” 

Eugenic ideology is most often associated with Nazi Germany, but it is imperative to understand that the roots of the movement originated in the United States. Based upon genetic science promoted by Charles Darwin and Francis Galton, eugenics evolved into a pseudo-science tailored to the racial and social interests of the upper class. Not only was eugenics first popularized in the United States, scholars and financers of the movement provided Germany with direct assistance in launching their own program. The extreme measures to which Germany took their eugenics program causes the American eugenics movement to be frequently overlook, but the repercussions must not be underestimated. In the name of science, over 60,000 citizens were unjustly sterilized, countless others institutionalized and denied civil rights, and a small number killed on the grounds of race, ethnicity, and traits believed to be heritable. As shocking as the actions carried out, is the duration for which eugenic programs were implemented, as many laws carried into the later half of the twentieth century. While the eugenics movement in the United States was not marked by the same intensity as Germany’s, its influence extended for nearly a century, defying commonly perceived American values, a less frequently examined but very much present element of twentieth century history.

Additional Resources:

 For more information:

  1. American Breeder’s Association. “Report on the Committee of Eugenics.” Journal of Heredity 4, no. 1 (2013): 201-208.
  2. Lombardo, Paul. “Social Origins of Eugenics.” Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement.
  3. Black, Edwin. “History News Network.” History News Network. George Mason University, 
  4. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. “Archives at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.” Eugenic Record Office. 
  5. Black, “History News Network.” 
  6. Selden, Steve. “Social Origins of Eugenics.” Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement.
  7. ibid.
  8. National Public Radio. “Beyond Affliction: The Black Stork Document.” National Public Radio.
  9. Pernick, Martin S.. “The Birth of a Controversy.” In The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. 6 
  10. Pernick, Martin. “Taking Better Baby Contests Seriously.” American Journal of Public Health 92, no. 5 (2002): 707-708 
  11. ibid.
  12. Lombardo, Paul. “Social Origins of Eugenics.” Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement.
  13. ibid.
  14. ibid.
  15. University of Virginia. “Buck v. Bell.” Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library. 
  16. ibid.
  17. ibid.
  18. Wong, Elizabeth. “A Shameful History: Eugenics in Virginia.” American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. 
  19. Lombardo, Paul. “Eugenics Laws Restricting Immigration.” Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement.
  20. Harvard University. “Chinese Exclusion Act (1882).” Harvard University Library Open Collections Program.
  21. ibid.
  22. Lombardo “Eugenics Laws Restricting Immigration”
  23. ibid.
  24. ibid.
  25. ibid.
  26. National Public Radio. “Loving Decision: 40 Years of Legal Interracial Unions.” National Public Radio. 
  27. Black, Edwin. “The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics.” History News Network. 
  28. ibid.
  29. ibid.
  30. ibid.
  31. ibid.
  32. ibid.
  33. ibid.
  34. ibid.

Leave a Reply