Matt Archbold graduated from Saint Joseph’s University in 1995. He is a former journalist who left the newspaper business to raise his five children. He writes for the Creative Minority Report.
Eugenics traces its roots back to the late 19th century when Charles Darwin's cousin Sir Francis Galton coined the term. The theory is that human characteristics and afflictions could be bred out of the human race. It was all the rage in the early 20th century until Adolf Hitler came along and ruined all the fun for everyone.
Despite being debunked, today, eugenics still is going strong except people don't call it that. Recently, the Kenyan bishops seemed to have exposed an involuntary sterilization program there. And in India, eleven women recently died after a botched sterilization surgery. There have been reports women were bribed to undergo sterilization surgeries in India.
While the term "eugenics" is typically applied to Hitler's Germany, it was in the United States where eugenics also found great acceptance. Even Hitler once said, "There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States."
Hooray for us.
Truly, the level of acceptance for eugenics in America was and is shocking. Here's a list of seven famous people (some of them quite beloved) who were wildly pro-eugenics.
1) Teddy Roosevelt
Teddy Roosevelt is typically lauded as one of America's great political figures. So beloved is he, that teddy bears are actually named after him. You don't get more famous or lovable than Teddy. But Teddy's beliefs about breeding humans wasn't all that cuddly.
Teddy wrote a letter:
I agree with you if you mean, as I suppose you do, that society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind. It is really extraordinary that our people refuse to apply to human beings such elementary knowledge as every successful farmer is obliged to apply to his own stock breeding. Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum. Yet we fail to understand that such conduct is rational compared to the conduct of a nation which permits unlimited breeding from the worst stocks, physically and morally, while it encourages or connives at the cold selfishness or the twisted sentimentality as a result of which the men and women ought to marry, and if married have large families, remain celebates or have no children or only one or two. Some day we will realize that the prime duty the inescapable duty of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.
Kinda' ruins teddy bears for you doesn't it? Unless you think of teddy bears as demented furry creatures intent on wiping out the unfit. The thing with this stuff is always, "Who is unfit?" And those against eugenics inevitably bring up names like Helen Keller who was deaf and blind but still accomplished so much. She's a great argument against eugenics...except for the fact that Helen Keller was wildly pro-eugenics.
2) Helen Keller
I know what you're thinking. Come on Matt. Helen Keller was pro-eugenics? Are you crazy? Yes, but not about this.
Helen Keller was blind and deaf but clearly, made a distinction between Helen Keller and non-Helen Keller people. In defense of eugenics, Keller wrote “Our puny sentimentalism has caused us to forget that a human life is sacred only when it may be of some use to itself and to the world.”
She also called for “physicians’ juries for defective babies.” Seriously.
"It is the possibility of happiness, intelligence and power that give life its sanctity, and they are absent in the case of a poor, misshapen, paralyzed, unthinking creature,” Keller said, adding that allowing a "defective" child to die was simply a “weeding of the human garden that shows a sincere love of true life.” Yikes.
3) H.G. Wells
HG Wells, the author of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds and so many other books millions love to read ( including many children), had a bit of a dark side.
"The way of nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way, unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born," he wrote. "It is in the sterilization of failures, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies."
And kind of a racist. "The mating of two quite healthy persons may result in disease," he wrote. "I am told it does so in the case of interbreeding of healthy white men and healthy black women about the Tanganyka region; the half-breed children are ugly, sickly, and rarely live."
4) George Bernard Shaw
One of the most celebrated writers of the western world looked like Santa Claus but sounded a little more like Hitler. George Bernard Shaw famously wrote Pygmalion about a woman from the lower class making her way into a higher class. Good thing Shaw didn't get to Eliza Doolittle when she was younger.
"We should find ourselves committed to killing a great many people whom we now leave living, and to leave living a great many people whom we at present kill," he wrote. "A part of eugenic politics would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber. A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people's time to look after them."
He once said, "You must all know half a dozen people at least who are no use in this world, who are more trouble than they are worth. Just put them there and say Sir, or Madam, now will you be kind enough to justify your existence? If you can’t justify your existence, if you’re not pulling your weight, and since you won't, if you’re not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little more, then, clearly, we cannot use the organizations of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it can’t be of very much use to yourself."
This doesn't ruin My Fair Lady for me. But it comes close.
5) Winston Churchill.
Winston Churchill, a giant of the 20th century, was wildly pro-eugenics but ironically became the man who would stand up to Adolf Hitler, the tyrant who brought all the logical conclusions of eugenics into horrific reality.
In a letter, Churchill advocated the sterilization of the "feeble minded and insane."
He wrote: "The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the Feeble-Minded and Insane classes, coupled as it is with a steady restriction among all the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate. I am convinced that the multiplication of the Feeble-Minded, which is proceeding now at an artificial rate, unchecked by any of the old restraints of nature, and actually fostered by civilised conditions, is a terrible danger to the race."
He called sterilization a "simple surgical operation so the inferior could be permitted freely in the world without causing much inconvenience to others."
In February 1911, Churchill urged the House of Commons to introduce compulsory labour camps for "mental defectives." The labor camps would also have plenty of room for "tramps and wastrels," to make them "realize their duty to the State." One of the chief opponents of a similar bill was GK Chesterton.
6) Francis Crick.
Francis Crick was the winner of the Nobel Prize for discovering DNA. Unfortunately for him, he came around a little after Hitler went ahead and ruined eugenics for everyone. That clearly totally bummed him out. He reportedly wrote in a letter:
The main difficulty is that people have to start thinking out eugenics in a different way. The Nazis gave it a bad name and I think it is time something was done to make it respectable again.
So Crick knew you can't just advocate rounding people up and sterilizing them. Now, you have to bribe them. He wrote:
My other suggestion is in an attempt to solve the problem of irresponsible people and especially those who are poorly endowed genetically having large numbers of unnecessary children. Because of their irresponsibility, it seems to me that for them, sterilization is the only answer and I would do this by bribery. It would probably pay society to offer such individuals something like l,000 [British pounds] down and a pension of 5 [British pounds} a week over the age of 60. As you probably know, the bribe in India is a transistor radio and apparently there are plenty of takers. Finally, let me say that although I agree with you that these are basically long term problems, I also agree that they will be upon us sooner than we realize and as soon as intelligent discussion is started on them the better.
I love how he considers giving out transistor radios to poor people is supposedly the state of an "intelligent discussion."
7) Alexander Graham Bell Bell, one of greatest inventors in the history of this country, was intimately connected with the eugenics movement in the United States including being on the Committee on Eugenics. From 1912 until 1918 he was also the chairman of the board of scientific advisers to the Eugenics Record Office. In 1921, he was the honorary president of the Second International Congress of Eugenics which advocated sterilization laws across the country for those Bell called a "defective variety of the human race." Some of those laws were used as models for similar laws in Nazi Germany.
Bell, the inventor of the telephone, called for the "eradication of the deaf race" and was quoted as saying "People do not understand the mental condition of a person who cannot speak and who thinks in gestures. He is sometimes looked upon as a sort of monstrosity, to be stared at and avoided….Those who believe as I do, that the production of a defective race of human beings would be a great calamity to the world, will examine carefully the causes that lead to the intermarriages of the deaf with the object of applying a remedy."
To prevent this, Bell suggested that deaf people be forbidden to intermarry for fear that they would have deaf children.
Pretty depressing, huh?
But I'll leave you with a miraculously hopeful story though. Alexis Carrel was an avowed atheist who received the Nobel Prize in 1912 and appeared on the cover of Time Magazine with Charles Lindbergh (also a eugenics supporter.) This guy was so popular in France that streets were named after him. He was also one of the foremost eugenicists of his time.
In 1935, Carrel published a book that argued that "deviant" humans should be suppressed so the "hereditary biological aristocracy" could increase. (I always wonder if they were so superior why did they need all that much assistance to increase.)
Carrel was so extreme that he has been called the "Father of the Gas Chamber."
"A euthanasia establishment, equipped with a suitable gas, would allow the humanitarian and economic disposal of those who have killed, committed armed robbery, kidnapped children, robbed the poor or seriously betrayed public confidence," Carrel wrote in his book Man, this Unknown.
Carrel had a secret, however. He’d witnessed a miracle in Lourdes which took place on May 28, 1902 when he met Marie Bailly, a young woman dying of tuberculosis on her way to Lourdes. So far gone she was that in March 1902, doctors refused to operate on her. On May 25, 1902, she was smuggled onto a train that carried sick people to Lourdes. She was smuggled because such trains were forbidden to carry dying people for fear of contagion.
At two o’clock the next morning it was clear she was dying. Carrel was called. He gave her morphine and stayed with her, diagnosing her with a fatal case of tuberculous peritonitis. On May 27 she insisted on being carried to the Grotto, although the doctors were afraid that she would die on the way there. On arriving, some water from the baths was poured on her diseased abdomen.
Amazingly, Carrel watched as her enormously distended and very hard abdomen began to flatten and soften. In the evening she sat up in her bed and had dinner. Early the next morning she got up on her own and was already dressed when Carrel saw her again. She was healed. Carrel asked her what she would do with her life now. She told him she would join the Sisters of Charity to spend her life caring for the sick. And she did.
The anti-religion part of Carrel refused to accept the possibility of a miracle for years. He was a eugenics theorist with no use for God. For many years, Carrel tried to ascribe Marie’s healing to “psychic forces” and other lame explanations. But Carrel couldn’t shake what he saw and returned to Lourdes again and again because of his inability to explain fully what he’d seen. On his third trip to Lourdes, in 1910, Carrel saw an 18 month old child regain his ability to see.
Nearing the end of his life, Carrel finally accepted what he’d seen and received the sacraments of the Church and died reconciled to God. Oddly enough science seemed to stop hailing him as a genius around the same time.
"I want nothing for myself, if not your grace. I want to be in your hands like smoke carried by the wind ... Every minute of my life, Lord, will be devoted to your service. In the darkness, where I cannot see, I will incessantly look for you," he said. "Though blind, I will try to follow you, Lord, Show me the way."