May 2, 1927, was a day that called for celebration on Church Street.
That day, the future of Carrie Buck’s body was in the hands of nine men in black robes.
Buck was the mentally-challenged daughter of a mentally-challenged mother and the mother of a mentally-challenged child. On this day, she was pleading with the U.S. Supreme Court to protect her from being sterilized against her will. Buck’s lawyers said she had the right to “bodily integrity” and could not be forcibly operated on by the state.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was less than impressed by Buck’s argument.
“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,” Holmes wrote in the Court’s decision. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
The court ruled against Buck, and her fallopian tubes were removed later that year. Only one of the court’s nine justices dissented.
In New Haven, at the headquarters of the American Eugenics Society, Leon Whitney carefully cut out articles about the decision and pasted them in his scrapbook. With Buck’s case out of the way, thousands of America’s disabled and mentally handicapped could continue to be legally sterilized. The society’s work could continue.
At that time, Whitney was executive secretary of the AES, a national movement centered a few blocks from Yale University. In only a few years, AES’s thousands of members swept through the country, claiming they could discern those with genetic stock worthy of cultivation — and those who should be left by the wayside. Whitney was a key player in decisions which eventually led to the sterilization of thousands of those deemed “human debris” and “a cancer on the body politic,” many without their knowledge. He was a man whose work received the personal praise of Adolf Hitler.
How was an ordinary horse and dog breeder able to spread so much ignorance and bigotry among the most important scientists, politicians and intellectuals of his time?
He couldn’t have done it without Yale.
— a hobby, a sport, a hatred
Whitney seems like an unlikely figure to energize the eugenics movement. Baby-faced with thick owlish glasses, he did not look like a leader of men. Applying for the post of executive secretary of the AES in 1924, the animal breeder must have seemed noticeably out of his league among the Ivy League’s intellectual elite.
As part of his application for the job, Whitney asked friends to submit letters of recommendation on his behalf.
“Mr. Whitney’s father and I are lifelong friends and so I am familiar with Mr. Whitney’s ancestry,” one friend wrote. “I know that he has a most desirable family history.”
But even some of the letters from his supposed friends seem tepid in their endorsement of Whitney. Albert W. Draves goes so far as to call him “a darn fool.” But Draves’ openly critical “letter of recommendation” does have one sentence that may have appealed to AES president Irving Fisher.
“Mr. Whitney is an enthuseist [sic],” Draves said. “His enthusiasm remains, rather than diminishes whether his delight be coon-hunting, a hobby, a sport, a hatred.”
Within a few days, Whitney was hired. He was just what the AES was looking for.
If Whitney was the energetic newcomer at the AES, Irving Fisher, Yale class of 1888, was its revered veteran. Fisher was a Yale political economist who is credited even today with being one of the most influential economic thinkers of the 20th century. In 1998, on the 50th anniversary of his death, the Yale Economics Department celebrated Fisher’s accomplishments by holding a mathematical conference in his honor.
During Fisher’s tenure as second president of the AES, he dramatically increased the society’s membership and budget. He also presided over Whitney’s more ambitious projects.
Among the other sociologists, biologists and economists who filled the AES, Ellsworth Huntington seems like an odd man out. The Yale geography professor freely admitted he had no expertise on the topic. “[The environment] is the field where I still concentrate most of my efforts,” Huntington wrote in a promotional pamphlet for the organization. “Nevertheless, I am so profoundly convinced on the importance of eugenics that my whole outlook upon life has been changed and broadened by it.”
What Huntington lacked in knowledge, he made up for in ambition — serving as president of the organization from 1934 to 1938. He wrote “The Builders Of America” and “Tomorrow’s Children,” two books that served as the fundamental texts of the eugenics movement throughout the early 20th century.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Whitney, Fisher and Huntington were the three most powerful figures in the nationally respected society. The group had thousands of members from most of America’s most prestigious universities and its ranks included some of the top thinkers of the age.
And for most of the 1920s and 1930s, the AES was centered in New Haven, first at 185 Church St. and then at 4 Hillhouse Ave. It was here that its most successful and most perverse plans were created.
Step right up
The fair is in town.
In September of 1928, the Fitter Families Contest rolled into the Chautauqua Country Fair. The contest was part exhibit and part Eugenics Olympics.
“Some people are born to be a burden on the rest,” a sign at the fair said. “Learn about heredity. You can help to correct these conditions.”
The idea for the Fitter Family Contests came from livestock competitions at fairs. Farmers had long put their prized pigs, cows and sheep into competitions. Now, they could enter the competitions themselves.
“How long are we Americans to be so careful for the pedigree of our pigs and chicken and cattle — and then leave the ancestry of our children to chance, or to ‘blind’ sentiment?” a chart at the Kansas Free Fair read.
Volunteers were physically examined by members of the AES. They were given grades in pedigree, personal history, health habits, temperament and intelligence. Those judged to be up to snuff were given a Capper medal, signifying their reproductive value.
In 1925, a beaming Hubert Lee Collings spoke to a reporter for the Jamestown Post after he received a Capper medal.
“Gee,” Collings said. “I’m glad to get this, I want to show it to the girl I’m engaged to.”
Three years later, Collings brought his new bride to the fair to see if she would pass genetic muster. Luckily for Mrs. Collings, she did. The couple both brought home medals that day, along with 38 other people. About 100 people walked away empty-handed.
What Collings and his wife didn’t know was that the information about their award-winning pedigree was not left at the fair. Data about the Collingses and the 137 other people examined that day was brought back to New Haven, where it was compiled and examined by Whitney. The Capper medals were little more than pieces of cheese at the end of a maze.
As the Fitter Families booths toured the Midwest, Yale students were also being tested. Two hundred Yale students were given 10 minutes to write down names the names of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. The same test was being performed at 49 other American schools. The results, Whitney said, revealed that America’s most intelligent breeders were woefully unaware of their background.
Through the early 20th century, the AES conducted tests of college students, with special emphasis on Yale and Harvard. Students from the two schools were the subject of most of the research in Huntington and Whitney’s “The Builders of America.” It was this select group, the AES believed, that represented the cream of America’s genetic crop.
“Among Harvard and Yale graduates — the average number of children decreases with almost perfect regularity from the number accounted most useful and successful by their classmates down to those deemed least successful,” Huntington wrote.
In other words, Huntington believed that Yale students stood for the ideal eugenic society — one where the best students reproduced most successfully and created superior offspring. Yale was, quite literally, a breeding ground for the AES’s master race.
Pulling a tooth
The Buck case was only a small delay in the movement to sterilize the handicapped. At the AES’s urging, tens of thousands of sterilizations were performed in America. According to the June 2, 1930 Des Moines Register, states sterilized those “who are feebleminded, insane, syphilitic, habitual criminals, moral degenerates, or sexual perverts.” Many were sterilized without their consent, and some without their knowledge.
By 1925, Connecticut had performed 95 sterilizations of the disabled. By 1934, 28 states had eugenics laws. Ten thousand sterilizations had been performed in California alone and Virginia, Kansas and Michigan had each performed over 1,000 sterilizations. Huntington wanted more.
“[Sterilization] must be employed all over the country, on a scale far greater than in California.” Huntington wrote. “A reduction of 10 to 20 per cent in each generation would be no small item.”
In a paper titled “Is the Abnormal to Become Normal,” eugenicist Lena K. Sadler delivered the AES’s message for handicapped children.
“You shall be either segregated or sterilized,” Sadler said. “We will do our full duty by you, but there will be no more like you.”
Huntington downplayed the danger of the operations — a vasectomy in males and a severing of the fallopian tubes of women.
“The one for men is about as severe as pulling a tooth,” Huntington said.
There was significant opposition to the eugenics movement in its time, though eugenics detractors tended to focus on logistical, rather than moral, problems with sterilizing unwilling Americans. The Catholic Church, in line with an across-the-board opposition to birth control that continues to this day, was a particularly strong opponent. Church officials argued that God intended all children to be born, including the mentally and physically handicapped. In an article in the Bridgeport Sunday Post on April 15, 1928, Whitney confronted this religious objection.
“What a terrible thought. It still prevails, but is easily dispelled by reminding the objection that ‘God created man in his own image,'” Whitney said. “And if God is like any of these imbeciles, who are kept chained in chairs in the institutions, who sit gibbering and grimacing, then we should all be atheists.”
Whitney added that it was actually part of a Christian’s responsibility to pursue eugenics and improve the human race.
“God loves perfection, every glance at Nature tells us so,” Whitney said. “We have ourselves and our civilization to blame for our defectives.”
People one invites to dinner
During much of the 1920s, the eugenics movement had carefully avoided the issue of race. By the 1930s, at the Third International Conference of Eugenics, held at the American Museum of Natural History, a distinctly racial tone had infected the proceedings.
“There is a great human desire for purity — blue eyes, yellow hair, pink cheeks, tall stature, long head, long narrow face, high narrow nose,” W.A. Plecker said at the conference. “Thus a yearning for simple, clear-cut human origins, a sense of the aesthetic and a sense of superiority have clustered around the Nordic — parent of the people one invites to dinner.”
AES members pushed for increasingly harsh segregation laws. Connecticut, which had no ban on interracial marriage, received especially harsh criticism from eugenicists.
“The only law worthy of consideration is one defining a white person as one with no ascertainable non-white heritage, and classifying a negro as one with any ascertainable trace of the negro,” Plecker said.
America was at the forefront of the eugenics movement, and its message quickly spread to other countries. In 1928, Italy started a marriage consultation bureau. In Japan, an imperial diet prohibited marriage to those suffering from sexually transmitted disease. But nowhere did the message take hold in popular imagination like Germany.
The Third International Conference of Eugenics invited the foremost speakers in eugenics throughout the world. One, Dr. Wilhelm Pessler, presented a paper whose title, translated for English-speaking audiences, read “Racial Distribution and Its Causes.” Pessler had come to the conference to present Germany’s exciting advancements in the field of eugenics. Over the following few years, he became an influential Nazi propagandist.
It is impossible to read Nazi propaganda without noticing the strong streak of eugenics thinking. In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler himself echoes ideas of the American eugenics movement.
“The stronger must dominate and not blend with the weaker, thus sacrificing his own greatness,” Hitler wrote. “[History] shows with terrifying clarity that in every mixing of Aryan blood with that of lower peoples the result was the end of the cultured people.”
Hitler’s argument that racial intermixing weakens the fairer race is identical to that expressed by the AES in its 1930s publications. The term “Nordic” is merely replaced by “Aryan.” Likewise, the call for the sterilization of the mentally and physically handicapped was a fundamental component of AES philosophy.
“In the struggle for daily bread all those who are weak or sickly or less determined succumb,” Hitler wrote. “Those who want to live, let them fight, and those who do not want to fight in this world of eternal struggle do not deserve to live.”
For American eugenicists, including Whitney, the rise of the Nazi party in Germany was cause for excitement. The AES had pushed for segregation of ethnic minorities and protection of racial purity for years. It had advocated sterilizing the handicapped and the mentally deficient for well over a decade. Here, finally, was a nation with the will to pursue the goals of eugenics without qualification.
According to Boston Magazine, Whitney himself received a personal letter from Hitler in 1934, thanking him for penning his new book, “The Case for Sterilization.” A few months before the letter arrived on Whitney’s desk, Hitler had assumed the powers of chancellor and president in Germany and was given the title of Fuhrer.
By the late 1930s, Hitler’s brutality finally began to upset even the most loyal American eugenicists. In 1938, for the first time, AES documents began to dismiss using eugenics to prove the superiority of the Nordic race.
“The larger program of eugenics cannot logically be based on social class or economic or racial distinctions,” the AES said.
But by then, it was too late. By 1938, Germany had invaded Austria and was on the verge of sweeping across western Europe. The segregation and sterilization advocated by Whitney, Fisher and Huntington in America was already a terrifying reality abroad.
Out of sight, out of mind
The second half of the 20th century saw the fall of the AES. The American eugenics movement’s intimate connection with the Nazi party was not lost on a American public that had taken to calling sauerkraut “liberty cabbage.” Evidence of the Holocaust filtered slowly back to America and rang the death knell of the popular Eugenics movement.
In 1939, the AES closed its office on Hillhouse and relocated to New York. By 1946, the AES had fewer than 300 members. By 1971, the group had only $8,000 in savings. In 1972, the society closed its doors forever.
Now, the American Eugenics Society exists only on yellowed paper and faded photographs. Its records, including Whitney’s original scrapbooks, are held and maintained by the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.
The American Eugenics Society is dead. But as any good eugenicist will tell you, offspring are all that really matter. In 1937, AES member and future president Frederick Osborn founded the Pioneer Fund. The Pioneer Fund has awarded grants to research designed to prove that socioeconomic differences in society have a genetic and racial foundation. The language is less overt than that of its predecessor, but the purpose is largely the same.
Like the AES, the Pioneer Fund draws its leaders almost exclusively from the Ivy League. Looking at the list of past presidents on the fund’s Web site, it is impossible to ignore the staggering number of Harvard, Princeton and Columbia graduates. According to the site, John M. Woolsey ’38 LAW ’41 was president of the Pioneer Fund from 1954 to 1958 and John F. Walsh Jr. LAW ’58 was president from 1971 to 1973.
When called, Walsh denied any involvement in the Pioneer Fund. But his education and career history matched the information listed on the Pioneer Fund’s Web site.
“It must be the wrong guy,” Walsh said. “I don’t even know what the dickens [the Pioneer Fund] is.”
Woolsey did not return phone calls. But Woolsey’s daughter, Mary Woolsey ’80, said she had never heard of the Pioneer Fund.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Mary Woolsey said. “But my father does have his secrets.”
At first glance, the Pioneer Fund seems somewhat insignificant. The group has no staff. It doesn’t even have an office. And its five-member board is a far cry from the thousands who once joined the AES.
But, to the members who still subscribe to eugenics, the movement’s fall from America’s good graces is only temporary. They are reassured with every glance at the faces of the Pioneer Fund’s board — pink cheeks, tall stature, long narrow face, and all the rest.
Their destiny, they believe, is written in every cell.