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The Gene: A Brief History of Eugenics in the Heartland Kansas and Missouri Played Roles in Sterilization Movement

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Above image credit: Winners of Small, Medium, and Large Family Classes, Fitter Families Contest, Kansas Free Fair, 1923. (Courtesy | American Philosophical Society)
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6 minute read

Writing for the U.S. Supreme Court in May 1927, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. could hardly have been more brutally frank, or more in line with the push to cleanse America of its undesirables.

“Three generations of imbeciles is enough,” Holmes wrote in upholding the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck, a 17-year-old patient at the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded in Lynchburg. 

Holmes’ conclusions drew from a scientific theory known as “eugenics,” a term coined in the late 1800s by English explorer and anthropologist Francis Galton (a cousin to Charles Darwin). Galton combined the Greek prefix eu — “good” — with “genesis.”

Eugenics had metastasized into a sterilization movement by the early 1900s, even though the flimsy science still considered it plausible that something called “germplasm” passed traits from parents to offspring.

The world had not yet experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, and stalwarts of the eugenics movement included University of Kansas Professor Florence Brown Sherbon and fellow Kansan Dr. F. Hoyt Pilcher, a zealous practitioner of sterilization as early as the 1890s.

Missouri, too, made its contribution in the form of Harry H. Laughlin, a former Kirksville, Missouri, school superintendent who rose to the highest echelons of the international movement.

It was Laughlin, in fact, who compiled one of the most complete histories of the movement’s early years.

Harry H. Laughlin
Harry H. Laughlin (Courtesy | American Philosophical Society)

Ten years of work culminated in the 1922 publication of “Eugenical Sterilization In The United States,” issued as a 500-page report to the Psychopathic Laboratory of the Chicago Municipal Court, under the leadership of Chief Justice Harry Olson.

“America, in particular, needs to protect herself against indiscriminate immigration, criminal degenerates and race suicide,” Olson wrote in the forward.

Hammering on the racial issue, Olson argued that homogeneity was the key to a thriving American democracy.

“If, on the contrary,” he wrote, “there is a constant and progressive racial degeneracy, it is only a question of time when popular self-government will be impossible, and will be succeeded by chaos, and finally a dictatorship.”

Unwed Mother

It is against that backdrop that Holmes reached his conclusion about Buck.

The desparately poor girl had given birth to a child out of wedlock — the product of a rape covered up by her foster parents. And Buck’s mother, Emma, had been hauled off to Lynchburg a few years prior.

Holmes presumed that Carrie’s daughter, Vivian Elaine, would also amount to nothing because “experience has shown that heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, imbecility…” 

Thus, the state of Virginia was well within its rights to protect public health — and the public purse by avoiding the need to warehouse such defectives — by stopping the Buck family tree at grandmother, daughter and granddaughter.

Watch on KCPT

Flatland is exploring the role of Missouri and Kansas in the eugenics movement in conjunction with its airing of “The Gene: An Intimate History,” the latest collaboration between filmmaker Ken Burns and Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee.
The four-hour, two-part series premiered on Kansas City PBS on Tuesday April 7. The second installment airs at 7 p.m. Tuesday April 14.
Go here to learn more about the national program and to see how Kansas City institutions are contributing to the cutting edge gene research of today.
For more on the topic, you can view the 2018 documentary, “The Eugenics Crusade: What’s Wrong With Perfect?” produced by PBS’s American Experience.

The Gene: An Intimate History

Alongside Laughlin’s tome of the early 1920s, equally comprehensive research came later in Julius Paul’s manuscript from 1965 and 2010-2011 state-by-state summaries overseen by University of Vermont Associate Professor Lutz Kaelber

The American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia houses many of the records from the Eugenics Record Office that was located in Cold Spring Harbor, New York.

Laughlin’s papers are housed at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, where Jason McDonald, an assistant professor of history, teaches about the eugenics movement. 

Road to New York

A native Iowan, Laughlin landed in Kirksville at age 11, when his father took a position at the university, known then as First District Normal School.

Laughlin would graduate from the Normal School, and after his stint in the Kirksville school system, he too went to work at his alma mater as head of the Department of Agriculture, Botany and Nature Studies.

The eugenics movement had a heavily agrarian bent, and Laughlin’s introduction to the concepts came through his older brother, George, who was an accomplished cattle breeder.

Laughlin’s star really began to rise after he attended a six-week summer course in 1907 at the Eugenics Record Office in New York, where he came to the attention of Charles Davenport, who was the head of the office.

A few years later, this obscure academician from small-town Missouri leapt into the eugenics movement as Davenport’s No. 2 man, responsible for the day-to-day operations of the facility as the boss was off doing research.

There was nothing for Davenport not to like about his protege, McDonald said.  

“(Laughlin) is ambitious, he is organized, and he is clearly passionate about the cause,” he said. “He’s a real believer.”

Charles Davenport, head of the Eugenics Records Office
Charles B. Davenport, director of the Eugenics Records Office in Cold Springs Harbor, New York from 1910-1934. (Courtesy | American Philosophical Society)

Among his many high-powered posts, Laughlin served as the “expert eugenics agent” for the U.S. House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, where he helped draft immigration quotas for the country.

Laughlin also served as an expert witness in the Buck case, despite never meeting the girl or her family.

University of Vermont researchers estimated that more than 30 states enacted compulsory sterilization laws at one time or another, resulting in more than 60,000 procedures.

Missouri is not one of them, despite various legislative attempts in the 1920s and 1930s. Those failures came even as Nebraska and Iowa joined Kansas in enacting sterilization measures.

McDonald hypothesized that Missouri’s large Catholic population, in addition to its substantial immigrant populations in St. Louis and Kansas City, tempered eugenic fervor in the state.

Full Speed Ahead

The same cannot be said of Pilcher, who was superintendent of the Kansas State Home for the Feeble-Minded in Winfield in the late 1800s. Pilcher is said to have carried out as many as 150 sterilizations beginning in 1894, long before Kansas lawmakers legalized the practice.

Kansas sterilized more than 3,000 people, according to the research from Vermont.

True believers like Laughlin chafed at even the most basic forms of judicial review and patient-rights protections built into state laws, like those enacted in Kansas. They hated the chilling effect it had on even pursuing sterilizations.

And it was clear from Laughlin’s correspondence with the heads of state institutions in Kansas that they shared his disdain for the “red tape” associated with ensuring outside review of sterilization decisions. He included that correspondence in the 1922 report.

“It seems to me that if it were enforced in our institutions for feeble-minded and subnormal men, and women, boys and girls, it would be of incalculable value along eugencial lines,” wote Lillian M. Mitchner, the superintendent of the Industrial School for Girls in Beloit.

Dr. L.R. Sellers, the superintendent of Larned State Hospital, was equally annoyed, arguing that the state should make it mandatory for institutions to sterilize all women of childbearing age before parole. The same would go for men of any age.

Even a new state law in 1917 that took the matter out of the courts and put it into the hands of an administrative review panel, which would include representation from the state board of health, was too much.

“I would have this whole matter decided by the patient’s friends and the hospital staff,” wrote Winfield Superintendent Dr. F. C. Cave, “and then the work would be done in a quiet manner without publicity.”

Sherbon, the KU professor, at the same time was pursuing what the American Philosophical Society called a more positive approach to eugenics in the form of Fitter Family Contests that debuted at the Kansas State Fair. Sherbon worked in tandem with Mary T. Watts.

Florence Brown Sherbon with American Eugenics Society colleagues
American Eugenics Society photograph of staff members Florence Brown Sherbon, Mary T. Watts, and Leon F. Whitney. (Courtesy | American Philosophical Society)

As one academic analysis of these contests put it, it was no accident that these contests were held at agricultural fairs.

“These contests encouraged families to re-imagine their histories as pedigrees subject to scientific analysis and control,” according to the abstract of the 2007 work by Laura L. Lovett, at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Echoes Today

Interestingly enough, as the world faces stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Laughlin used quarantines as one justification for sterilization.

Forcing people into their homes as a means to promote public health was an accepted practice where the government infringed upon personal rights to protect the public good.

“It is analogous to eugenical sterilization,” he wrote, “in that both are non-punitive and that both appear to be abridgements of personal liberty of a most serious nature.”

Such arguments were beginning to wear thin by the mid-1930s, and one of the most serious assaults on Laughlin and his compatriots came when scientists from the Carnegie Institution showed up at Cold Spring Harbor in 1935.

Carnegie had bankrolled the Eugenics Record Office since 1918, but the institution was increasingly embarrassed by the office’s political activities.

According to the “American Experience” documentary, “The visiting committee’s report was decidedly unfavorable: from a scientific vantage, they concluded, the thousands of heredity records stored in the famed fireproof vault were useless for the study of human genetics.”

By 1942, the U.S. Supreme Court had issued another opinion that repudiated Holmes’ reasoning in Buck. And a few years later liberating forces revealed the horrifying details of the Nazi concentration camps.

Yet Truman’s McDonald argued it’s an oversimplification to say that all these things stopped sterilization dead in its tracks. Indeed, the Vermont researchers said some states continued sterilizations into the 1970s.

Looking back, McDonald said, it is easy to see how something that seems so wrong on its face today did not trouble even someone as learned as Holmes. This was the era of the Progressive Movement, where enlightened reformers were convinced they could save society through strategies such as Prohibition and immigration caps.

As for Laughlin, McDonald said, “I think he understood the implications of all his policies. He did not see those as problems.”


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