Eugenics, the notion of improving the genetic quality of the human race through selective breeding, is a dark stain upon science’s past. It is a prime example of how science can be misused to support nefarious ends.
Eugenics is most commonly associated with Nazi Germany, where poor, mentally ill, blind, deaf, developmentally disabled, promiscuous, homosexual, and Jewish people (among countless other groups) were murdered by the millions in an effort to purify the populace and create a master race. But we must not forget that eugenics also has a prominent legacy in the United States, one which began well before the Nazis sowed their own, much darker history.
When scientific research made clear that traits are heritable and passed on from parent to offspring through genes, individuals in society began wondering how these findings could be applied to humans in an effort to improve our species. This notion, originally opined by Sir Francis Galton in the 1860s in the United Kingdom, soon spread to the United States. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, prominent Americans including Alexander Graham Bell, Margaret Sanger, and even Theodore Roosevelt expressed support.
By the 1920s, eugenics was a genuine movement. As author and pediatrician Paul Offit describes in his new book, Pandora’s Lab, Hundreds of colleges taught courses on the subject. It appeared in the majority of high school biology textbooks. There were fairs, meetings, and advertisements. The nationwide campaign convinced citizens and legislatures – forty-one states eventually prohibited marriage by those deemed feeble-minded or insane, and a few states even instituted policies of forced sterilization.