War Against the Weak

The word “eugenics,” from Greek words for “well born,” was coined by the English pioneer in statistics, Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of scientist Charles Darwin. Galton suggested that it might be possible to direct natural selection by encouraging marriages among people with desirable traits. Galton made some effort to obtain information on inherited traits, gathering data on family traits through questionnaires collected by his Anthropometric Laboratory at London’s International Health Exposition. Galton’s interest in eugenics remained largely theoretical, though; he confessed that it would be a long time before scientists had enough knowledge to direct evolution. He also maintained that eugenicists should stress “positive eugenics,” matings between people with valued characteristics, and avoid “negative eugenics,” the practice of preventing reproduction by people judged to be mentally or physically inferior.

In the United States, Galton’s work inspired activists who put the British statistician’s ideas into practice. Chief among these was Charles Benedict Davenport, who earned a doctorate in biology at Harvard University and taught zoology at Harvard and at the University of Chicago. Davenport managed to secure funds from the Carnegie Institute to set up a Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in 1904. The Institute would be devoted to finding ways to direct evolution.

In order to pursue this goal, Davenport obtained additional support from the widow of railroad magnate E. H. Harriman and created the Eugenics Record Office (ERO), which would register the genetic histories of American families, identifying desirable and undesirable hereditary strains. In 1913 the eugenicists, led by Davenport, created the Eugenics Research Association (ERA), which was dedicated to research and to promoting laws and policies. Two of the most prominent members of the ERA were Madison Grant and Lothrap Stoddard, best-selling authors who had published books arguing that the white race was threatened by the hereditary influences of inferior nonwhites.

Many of the important figures in American social and intellectual history were involved in the eugenics movement. Margaret Sanger; the feminist campaigner for birth control and founder of Planned Parenthood, had ties to the movement. Henry Goddard, the pioneer of intelligence testing who coined the word “moron,” was also connected to it.

Davenport’s chief lieutenant in the crusade for eugenics was Harry Hamilton Laughlin. Laughlin was an ambitious teacher who met Davenport while attending a summer biology class at Cold Spring Harbor. When Davenport founded the ERO, he obtained permission from the generous Mrs. Harriman to make Laughlin the head of the office. Laughlin was a tireless promoter of the cause of eugenics. With the support of U.S. Secretary of Labor James J. Davis, in 1923 Laughlin set out on a six-month tour of Europe to encourage U.S. consular officials to obtain information on the supposedly hereditary characteristics of European nations that would be sending immigrants to the United States. Laughlin also acted as a consultant to Congressman Albert Johnson, chairman of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. Although Laughlin’s statistics on the intellectual superiority of northern Europeans sparked some scorn in the press, the eugenics activist played a part in the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924, which established a quota system for accepting immigrants which heavily favored people from northern and western Europe.

In this book, Edwin Black documents the impact of the eugenics movement on the treatment of the native-born population of the United States. The “weak” in the title of his book refers to people considered undesirable for a number of reasons. Members of racial minorities, the poor, and unemployed rural people living at the margins of an urbanizing society could all be seen as products of...

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