In late September 1921, 100 years ago, Yale economics professor Irving Fisher traveled from his home on Prospect Street to attend a prestigious academic conference at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. The Second International Eugenics Congress brought together more than 300 philanthropists, academic researchers, government leaders, journalists and others for the three-day meeting. Henry Osborn, a sugar baron who presided over the Congress, explained that science “must enlighten government in the prevention of the spread and multiplication of worthless members of society, spread of feeblemindedness, of idiocy, and of all moral and intellectual as well as physical diseases.”
Yale’s Fisher was enamored. At the end of the Congress, Fisher co-founded a new national organization that would become known as the American Eugenics Society, or AES. The society was devoted to educating members of the general public about genetic causes of social inequality. It was located at 185 Church St. on the Green, later moving to 4 Hillhouse Ave.
Headquartered at Yale until 1938, the society established chapters in every U.S. state, supported Supreme Court cases that made the involuntary sterilization of more than 80,000 people in the U.S. constitutionally permissible, hosted “fitter family” contests and disseminated publications that advocated for eugenics policies including sterilization, immigration restriction and racial segregation. At each turn, the AES sought “a strong public movement to stem the tide of threatened racial degeneracy.” And this movement could not be waged without Yale.
Following Fisher, another prominent Yale professor and geographer Ellsworth Huntington headed the AES. In the 1930s, the New Haven Committee representing the AES included Yale-affiliated members such as psychobiology professor Robert Yerkes, anthropology professor Clark Wissler, founder of the School of the Environment Gifford Pinchot, obstetrics and gynecology instructor Nowell Creadick, Dean of the Medical School Milton Winternitz, former Director of the Child Study Center Arnold Gesell, educational psychologist Mark May, clinical psychologist Catherine Miles, former Yale College Dean Richard Caroll, former Yale College Dean Clarence Mendell, former University Treasurer Laurence Tighe, former Yale President James Angell and former Yale President Charles Seymour.
Their work touched the research paradigms and instruction of nearly every discipline — music, art, photography, literature, environmental studies, law, medicine, psychology, biology, sociology and many others. In 1925, Yale even offered a course titled “Coercive Restrictive Eugenics,” which argued the relative merits of execution, castration and sterilization of society’s “unfit.”
The AES’s policy agenda was as white supremacist and antisemitic as that of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1928, the AES’s Committee on Selective Immigration urged Congress to further restrict immigration so “that in the future there shall be admitted as immigrants only white persons, all of whose ancestors are of Caucasian descent.”
Like many students, faculty, and staff on our campus, we were largely unfamiliar with this history. That changed this summer, when our team of five Yale College student researchers, supported by professor Daniel Martinez HoSang, delved into the Yale Libraries’ papers of prominent Yale eugenicists.
We quickly came to realize how pervasive eugenics paradigms were across areas of research, teaching and public policy. We also came to understand that these figures faced opposition to their work from many corners, including Black intellectuals and social movements, multiracial labor unions, immigrant communities, indigenous peoples and academics who recognized eugenics research for the parochial, error-laden and racist work that it was.
Engaging this history, in all its complexities, did not leave us with any simple remedies. At Yale, these legacies cannot be addressed by renaming a building or issuing an official pronouncement about the value of equity and inclusion. If we seek to prosecute individuals alone, we miss the many structures, practices and conventions that legitimated eugenics as a framework of common sense.
Telling ourselves we condemn these outdated beliefs also misses the ways they structure so much of our contemporary world. In our obsession with standardized testing. In the ways we stigmatize people with disabilities. In our recurring efforts to regulate the reproductive lives of poor women and women of color. In the forms of inequality, segregation and premature death that flourish in the shadows of our campus.
We need instead to initiate a larger discussion and inquiry that involves scholars and students of every discipline and school to understand how their fields were shaped by the logics of eugenics. How might our curriculum, research designs and pedagogy change as a result? And how might communities outside of the University — especially the residents of New Haven whom eugenicists at Yale frequently sought to classify, segregate and humiliate — engage with these histories?
American eugenics leaves a long shadow across Yale, even as the landscape and institutional memory reveals none of this history. Wrestling with these difficult questions is the necessary first step to repair these harms and realize a more just centennial.
Dora Guo is a junior in Pierson College. She was Illustrations Editor for the News during the 2020-2021 school year. Contact her at email@example.com. José Garcia is a senior in Pierson College, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Daniel HoSang is an Associate Professor of Ethnicity, Race, & Migration and of American Studies. Contact him at email@example.com. Tallulah Keeley-LeClaire is a senior in Pierson College. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sidney Velasquez is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at email@example.com. Emily Xu is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.