Excerpted from Eugenics and Public Health in American History
 Martin S. Pernick, PhD
American Journal of Public Health 
Nov 1997 87:11
… Many eugenicists regarded disease as nature’s way of weeding out the unfit1. Charles Davenport, America’s foremost eugenic scientist, warned in 1915, “The artificial preservation of those whom the operation of natural agencies tends to eliminate … may conceivably destroy the race.” He considered it “anti-social” to “unduly restrict the operation of what is one of Nature’s greatest racial blessings – death.” 2
His comments exemplified the close kinship between eugenics and earlier Social Darwinist and Malthusian attacks on public health and social welfare programs, a link that remained powerful throughout the history of eugenics. A speaker at the 1914 National Conference on Race Betterment, the first major American eugenics conference, explained that “death is the normal process of elimination in the social organism, and … in prolonging the lives of defectives we are tampering with the functioning of the social kidneys.”3
A Lebensborn birth house in Nazi Germany. Created with intention of raising the birth rate of "Aryan" children from extramarital relations of "racially pure and healthy" parents.

Wikipedia “A Lebensborn birth house in Nazi Germany. Created with intention of raising the birth rate of “Aryan” children from extramarital relations of “racially pure and healthy” parents.”

Malthusianism and eugenics were far from unpopular ideas in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Many prominent figures who are considered liberal by today’s standards endorsed parts of the underlying rationalizations. By the turn of the century there was talk of  race suicide, that not-so-subtle claim that by admitting foreigners and the poor, the country was in danger of losing its superior stock — the Northern Europeans.  The term first appeared in print in 1901, when a speech given by sociologist and eugenicist Edward Ross was published.

For a case like this I can find no words so apt as “race suicide.” There is no bloodshed, no violence, no assault of the race that waxes upon the race that wanes. The higher race quietly and unmurmuringly eliminates itself rather than endure individually the bitter competition it has failed to ward off from itself by collective action. The working classes gradually delay marriage and restrict the size of the family as the opportunities hitherto reserved for their children are eagerly snapped up by the numerous progeny of the foreigner. The prudent, self-respecting natives first cease to expand, and then, as the struggle for existence grows sterner and the outlook for their children darker, they fail even to recruit their own numbers. It is probably the visible narrowing of the circle of opportunity through the infiltration of Irish and French Canadians that has brought so low the native birth-rate in New England.  Ross, Edward A. “The Causes of Race Superiority.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 18 (1901): 67–89.

This line of reasoning provided those who campaigned against birth control with argument they could present to the public, as President Theodore Roosevelt did with some enthusiasm.  Early malthusian arguments are to be found in the work of Charles Loring Brace, who is celebrated as an early pioneer of children’s welfare and rights.
Taken to an extreme, malthusianism led to eugenics.  Actual policies based on eugenics began in the U.S. in the early nineteenth century and extended to forced and coerced sterilization of the mentally ill.  The popularity and scientific acceptance of eugenic theory began to decline with its use as a foundation for Nazi racial policies and the Holocaust.
  • Brace, Charles Loring. The Dangerous Classes of  New York and Twenty Years’ Work among Them. New York: Wynkoop & Hallenbeck, 1872.
  • Gordon, Linda. The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America. University of Illinois Press, 2002.
  • Pernick, M S. “Eugenics and Public Health in American History.” American Journal of Public Health 87.11 (1997): 1767–1772. (Atypon).
  • Ross, Edward A. “The Causes of Race Superiority.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 18 (1901): 67–89.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Today, terms such as unfit or defective are pejorative and offensive. However, early 20thcentury eugenicists considered them to be objective technical diagnoses. At that time, simply using such terms did not necessarily indicate intentional conscions hostility. Nevertheless, this paper argues that, despite this belief in their objectivity, these labels were inherently value based. These terms are used here not to endorse but to understand the values implicit in them and the claims for their objectivity.
  2. Charles Davenport, quoted in “Was the Doctor Right?” Independent, January 3, 1916, 23. See also A Decade of Progress in Eugenics: Scientific Papers of the Third International Congress of Eugenics (Baltimore, Md.: Williams & Wilkins, 1934), 196, 289-293,300-313; and Pernick, Black Stork, 84, 113.
  3. Leon J. Cole, quoting G. Chatterton-Hill, National Conference on Race Betterment, Proceedings I (1914), 503.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.