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The American eugenics movement after World War II (part 1 of 3) 


Editor's Note: This is the first story in a three-part series examining the American eugenics movement after World War II.

Many believe that after the Nazis' attempts at race purification, U.S. eugenics programs would have died out after the war. But instead, supporters of involuntary sterilization enacted and promoted that policy with even greater ardor. Thanks to Clarence Gamble and many others, North Carolina was a testing ground for the new national campaign, which helps explain the surge in sterilizations here.

In reporting this story, Kevin Begos, a freelance journalist who worked on the original award-winning Winston-Salem Journal series in 2002, had access to documents not available to the Journal at the time. Some of these documents are from private library collections; others were once available through an open records request in North Carolina, but later were withdrawn from the public sphere. These documents are in the sidebar to the right and linked throughout this story.

As readers will learn throughout the series, people from all walks of life supported the eugenics movement. It was common public policy at the time, and its tacit or overt acceptance reflected the social mores of that era, as morally reprehensible as that seems now.

Or is it still reprehensible? Today in Western North Carolina, a nonprofit group offers drug addicts money to be "voluntarily" sterilized. It is dubious whether one could honestly consider this program to be voluntary or ethical, since many people suffering from drug addictions will do nearly anything for money—and that money will likely go to scoring their next fix.

Part 2 of the series analyzes the public relations and advertising campaign of the eugenics movement, while Part 3 scrutinizes involuntary sterilization of the poor and of people of color, including Native Americans, during the civil rights movement.

We welcome your comments. Send letters to backtalk@indyweek.com or post a comment below. —Lisa Sorg


Dr. Clarence Gamble never had to work a day in his life, wrote an appalling poem suggesting that "lucky morons" in mental institutions welcomed involuntary sterilization, and was a lifelong promoter of eugenics—with five children.

Gamble was a researcher at Harvard Medical School, heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune and a leader in the movement to launch a second wave of eugenic sterilization after World War II.

Many people found Gamble intolerable, and even family members agreed he could be cold and aloof. Yet a longtime fieldworker recalled that "he showed determination and ruthlessness but had goodness exuding from every pore," and Gamble dreamed of making scientific discoveries—then turning the patent over to the public so drug companies wouldn't reap excessive profits. He helped launch and fund the first public birth control clinics in America.

"The part of the trip which gave me the greatest feeling of accomplishment was two days which I spent in the mountains of western North Carolina. There I have been paying a nurse to go from house to house under the direction of a local doctor to offer free birth control supplies to the mothers who want it. She took me to see some of her patients, all of whom spoke with great gratitude of the help which it is giving them and said it was a great thing for the community as a whole." —from one of Gamble's letters.

People have long debated whether Gamble was a force for good or evil, but there is another possibility: that he was both, a tragically flawed idealist. The story of how he helped revive the eugenics movement suggests that he represents a more common picture of America during that era than we care to admit. For how else can we explain all the people who joined his campaign to promote eugenics, long after it had been exposed as junk science?

Victims paid the price until the 1960s and 1970s. A young man in Iowa was sterilized simply because he liked to have sex in Volkswagens. On a June morning in Alabama, a mother was told that her 12- and 14-year-old daughters needed "shots." There were Latina women in Los Angeles and New York who couldn't even read the so-called consent forms. Gay men and lesbians. Cheyenne, Navajo and Sioux women in the West, black women in North Carolina, and in Georgia, poor whites. In New York City a mother asked doctors to sterilize her 16-year-old daughter—just because the girl was going to attend a mixed race camp that summer. In North Carolina parents asked for sterilization after evidence of incest in the family. As public anger peaked, the Weather Underground bombed a federal building in San Francisco in 1974 to protest the government's role in forced sterilization.

Scholars and journalists—myself included—have long used roughly 64,000 as the number for eugenic sterilizations in America, but that is clearly too low. It omits all sterilizations after 1963—precisely the period when minority women were being targeted. A more realistic figure is more than 80,000, with half of those coming after World War II. Even today, addicts in North Carolina can get a $300 cash payment if they agree to be sterilized.

Many have claimed that eugenics died out in America after World War II, but Gamble's story shows that isn't true. "Eugenics doesn't end, really, until the '60s and '70s," says Alexandra Minna Stern, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of Eugenic Nation. Before World War II, eugenic sterilization programs were usually aimed at residents of mental homes or prisons, but by the early 1960s it could happen almost anywhere. The overwhelming majority of victims were poor, guilty only of "promiscuity" or being on welfare rolls. In California and Ohio, judges offered the operation as a condition of parole.

Blinded by the illusions of reducing poverty, eliminating mental illness and saving taxpayers money, people from all walks of life supported this second wave of eugenics. Among them were an Iowa minister, housewives and a judge in Augusta, Georgia, a rabbi in Little Rock, a director of Procter & Gamble, a Nobel Prize winner, a California banker and professors at major universities. Leading journalists helped too, including H.L. Mencken, Walter B. Pitkin (a founding members of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism) and Barry Bingham Sr., publisher of the Louisville Courier-Journal. Social workers from all over the country joined in, and new research shows there was a long history of support for eugenics in the black community.

An obscure group in New Jersey launched the nationwide campaign toward the end of World War II. In one sense the timing couldn't have been worse. The Nazis used involuntary sterilization to terrible effect against those with physical and mental "defects" in the 1930s, and the story of how that policy grew into the Holocaust was about to become widely known. Many scientists, doctors and public health officials already knew that eugenics was junk science—promising great change but delivering little. But in the end, science and the horrors of the Nazi era weren't enough to overcome an even stronger force: the urge to believe that quick, easy solutions can solve our social ills.

The full story of how this second wave of eugenics was organized and financed has been missed even by scholars, most of whom focus on the prewar era or on individual states. For years I missed it too, thinking that North Carolina was a unique case.

"I think this is major because everyone always has been pushing for 'what's the national link'?" in eugenics after World War II, said Paul Lombardo, a professor of law at Georgia State University and editor of the new book, A Century of Eugenics in America. "This is unusual. This is fascinating. I think you've found some brand new information."

An unlikely beginning

In late 1942, some thought the Sterilization League of New Jersey should give up the cause. It had never accomplished much, and far more organized groups such as the Eugenics Records Office in Long Island and the Human Betterment Foundation in California had already ceased operations.

The group met at the luxurious Robert Treat Hotel in Newark, overlooking the Passaic River. The lobby had "huge columns combined with intricate lighting features over a white marble steps, tile floors, and lavish rugs. There were large palms and potted plants, and writing desks and tables on a balcony for afternoon tea," a history of the hotel reads.

The directors considered several options, including going into limbo for the duration of the war or becoming a national organization. But there were benefits to being the last champions of a seemingly lost cause. Perhaps with nowhere else left to turn, key leaders of America's prewar eugenics movement pledged support, including Harvard anthropologist Earnest Hooton, and California eugenicists Paul Popenoe and C.M. Goethe.

The little group voted for the national option by a 24-1 vote, and among its members were some of the most notorious early supporters of eugenics. Hooton had worked on the "Committee of the Negro" during the 1920s as part of an effort to prove that the black race was inferior, and Goethe had openly praised Nazi eugenics programs.

They had a plan, but not much money. Then Dr. Clarence Gamble stepped in, bringing great wealth and the absolute certainty he was right. Gamble funded the new group (now renamed Birthright) and soon convinced his brother Cecil to make an even bigger donation. In December 1943, the Gamble Family Trust sent a $10,000 check (equivalent to $125,000 in 2011 dollars), and a follow-up letter stressed, "Do not make any mention of the conditions of the gift." A Procter & Gamble spokesperson noted that "Cecil Gamble was on the Board and gave personal money to a wide variety of different causes. These were personal decisions and in no way reflected the opinion of The Procter & Gamble Company."

The pattern of secrecy was repeated many times over the years, part of careful plans to control the identity of prominent donors and the nature of the campaign.

To avoid alerting opponents of eugenics, Birthright collected figures on the number of Roman Catholics in each state. In New Hampshire, sympathizers wanted Birthright information mailed to them in plain envelopes.

Some had tried to raise alarms. A New York Times science editor sent a devastating critique of eugenics to Birthright in 1940, concluding that "the more I go into this subject the more doubts I have." But Birthright pushed ahead, thinking they could avoid mistakes of the past by merging two opposing goals. A draft memo from 1945 suggested helping "the worst type in every social class" to die out—yet not discriminate. It was an impossible balancing act, but it took 20 years for the group to finally accept that.

"It is important to keep clearly in mind that a sound sterilization program makes no social distinctions. It is designed to check the reproduction of defectives wherever they may be found, in institutions or at large, in the richest family or the poorest family, without regard to color, race, or religion.

Immediate steps which are needed include: Accumulation in every municipality, county and state of detailed family histories. Only by means of such continuous records can human evolution be intelligently and effectively directed.

The best in every social class should be encouraged to increase, the worst type in every social class should be helped to die out. To know that we are able to guide and quicken evolutionary progress is a momentous and inspiring discovery."

Lombardo says it's important to remember that for much of America's history, eugenics wasn't a dirty word. "This is not something that happened because a few people were in favor of it. It's because a lot of people were in favor of it or at least acquiesced in it."

Like Gamble, most of Birthright's founders did good things, too. Goethe built public playgrounds for children in California and was a major supporter of the Sierra Club in its early years; Popenoe virtually created the practice of marriage counseling in America and wrote the hugely popular Ladies Home Journal column "Can This Marriage Be Saved?"

In hindsight the thought that a nonprofit group could promote both voluntary and involuntary sterilization seems absurd, yet the membership showed an admirable balance. If the concern was social justice, one of their members was Eduard C. Lindeman, a professor at Columbia University's School of Social Work. He was also chair of the American Civil Liberties Union Commission on Academic Freedom in 1949. If the concern was racial bias, there was the Rev. Guy Emery Shipler of New York, an early supporter of the NAACP. And for those worried about gender bias, Gamble's partner on the Field Committee was Dr. Robert L. Dickinson, considered by many to be America's first medical advocate for women's sexuality.

But what Birthright's members never seemed to understand was that the careful balancing act fell apart once it moved out into a world filled with racial, gender and disability bias. On paper everything was scientific; in reality there were jagged edges that would hurt people.

Unable to launch a new wave of eugenic sterilization in their home states, Birthright's leaders used the south, midwest and west as testing grounds, hoping to create a model for the entire nation. Iowa and North Carolina were chosen for the first intensive campaigns, and fieldworkers met with doctors, social workers and public officials to lay the groundwork for expanded sterilization of "the unfit."

In 1945 a fieldworker reported that an Iowa State Psychologist ordered the sterilization of two girls at a training school even though their IQs were in the 80s—far above even the then-current crude definition for the mentally handicapped. "This has never happened before in Iowa, and I now hope a precedent has been established, that it will continue, and many of these girls can be included," she wrote.

Victims of the program felt differently. In North Carolina records from the Eugenics Board show an entire family traveled to Raleigh to protest the operation in 1945, to no avail.

"Sally has never been a filthy girl," Sally's mother said. "She has just been overworked more than anything else."

"Suppose the girl was to marry and have children, do you believe she could care for them?" asked board member Dr. R.T. Stimpson. "I do," her mother replied. "She is the best child I have got, and let me tell you, a mother that has raised a large family don't want their children sterile, because I know she don't need it."

"We are looking after the welfare of the patient and the public, too," Dr. F.L. Whelpley of the State Hospital in Goldsboro added. "If Sally had children, two or three might have to go to institutions."

"I don't see why she needs no sterilizing," her cousin said. "She stays at home and works all the time. Sent her over here (the hospital) because she worked too hard."

"I never knew hard work made people nervous," Stimpson said. "You just never done any," the cousin replied. "Try it and see."

"What does the patient have to say?" Stimpson asked. "I don't want it. I don't approve of it, sir," Sally said.

"If there is anything else you want to say, feel free to speak," said Clifford Beckwith, who was representing the attorney general's office. "I hope you will see how she is needed at home," the father replied. "We feel this is the best way to go about it," Beckwith said.

"I object to it," Sally's father said. "I need her at home to help save the garden. Got an acre in tomatoes and such stuff."

"We believe this is the quickest and surest and only way to get her back where she will be satisfied," Beckwith said. "She could go ahead and get married and be happy just as much as any other person and not have children."

"I don't want a sterilize operation," Sally said. I think I am getting along just fine. I help them over there. Treat them nice. I don't approve of it. Give me a trial. Let me go home, see if I get along all right."

"Is there anything further to say?" Beckwith asked. "If you would stop this and let me go home," Sally said. "Have mercy on me and let me do that." "If there is nothing more you wish to say we will send you a notice of the Board's decision," another Board member said. "She has never been a filthy girl," the father said. "No suggestion of that was made," Beckwith replied. "What is decided will be our best judgment."

But Birthright pushed ahead and began to print thousands of copies of pro-eugenics literature, much of it modeled after what had been done in California before the war. From 1945 to 1946 professors and staff at scores of institutions around the country sent requests to Birthright's Princeton offices for "educational" material about sterilization. Among them were Cornell, New York University, Vassar, Ohio State University, Stanford University and Dartmouth.

In California, the daughter of a prominent eugenicist mailed out eugenics material in California Institute of Technology envelopes. With that kind of broad support, the revived eugenics program grew dramatically in the next few years, and started to yield what Gamble considered to be promising results: a surge in sterilizations around the country and new interest from scientists.

The 2002 Winston-Salem Journal series Against Their Will prompted an apology from North Carolina's governor and much soul-searching. But new research shows how much of the postwar expansion there was planned in New Jersey, New York and Boston. The testing of schoolchildren in Orange County and Winston-Salem was related to similar attempts in Iowa and Baltimore to identify large numbers of children for future sterilization. The Iowa State Department of Public Instruction conducted a survey of all handicapped children, and Birthright planned "intensive work in the county which appears most promising."

In North Carolina, help came from all over the state. Robert Madry, head of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill News Service, used his position to send out eugenics news releases.

But no matter how inviting the public facade, the founders left no doubt that ultimately they were promoting involuntary sterilization. On May 7, 1945, as Germany lay in ruins and the war in Europe was ending, Goethe sent an airmail letter to Gamble. There was no mention of the Nazi defeat or a recognition that eugenics was flawed. His only regret was listening to friends who had urged him away from involuntary sterilization.

"Then came the New Jersey organization, now rechristened 'Birthright.' Here seemed an opportunity to help a group that were willing to concentrate on negative eugenics while I was throwing all my strength along the lines of strategy advised by a number of wise men. I felt easier in my conscience that the New Jersey organization had appeared on the scene and am whole-heartedly supporting it."

The improbable crusade was quickly becoming a reality. A field worker began one-on-one contacts nationwide, and the network of supporters grew. Goethe paid for a new publicity campaign, and by the summer of 1945 there was a steady stream of encouraging reports. A fieldworker wrote from Minnesota that "The attitude of many of those people is so fine and realistic, that I am sure we have struck GOLD! It is a great thrill to find people who are so whole-heartedly in favor, and who welcome help from a national organization, such as Birthright, with real enthusiasm. I hope for great things from Minnesota!"

Birthright promoted positive eugenics, too – identifying and seeking to reward gifted people, be they black or white. Gamble tried to convince Harvard, Princeton and other schools to start a fund to promote a higher birthrate among graduates. They dismissed the idea, but in early 1946 leaders of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America applauded a plan to encourage members of the clergy to have more children. "I have talked with Dr. Cavert about your generous and forward looking proposal. He is quite enthusiastic about it and believes that we can work out some arrangement which will be exceedingly favorable as a bit of social experimentation and aid to all concerned," wrote a member of the church group.

Birthright's members continued to ignore even the most accurate criticism from knowledgeable critics. Just as the prewar eugenics movement had, the group produced charts and press releases suggesting that the "feeble-minded" were reproducing at an extravagant rate, one that would soon overwhelm society with its costs. But a Princeton University expert in population studies responded that one of the charts was "indefensible" and "would be laughed out of court in any group which gave thought to its real meaning. I think, moreover, it is fundamentally a gross misrepresentation of the actual fact."

And Birthright's leaders were even blind to the damning evidence of Nazi abuses. They complained to Sheldon Gluek, a Harvard Law School Professor and expert on war crimes, about "the myth that sterilization was one of the Nazi atrocity measures." Gluek responded with exasperation that he "quoted from official sources verbatim." Gamble wrote in a memo that, "It has often been alleged that Germany's active use of sterilization of the insane and mentally defective was for racial discrimination or elimination. Careful questioning of those who have escaped from Hitlerian control, however, has failed to confirm this."

As work progressed in North Carolina, Gamble suggested they "please be careful not to mention this to ANYONE outside of the Executive committee. In the initial stages it's better not to let out the news of a new project, especially if, as in this case, it's governmental."

But soon the time for keeping quiet was over. Birthright hired a New York City advertising firm to design new eugenics pamphlets, and a publicist there to pitch stories to national publications. The sterilization campaign was destined to grow in the 1950s, reaching out to thousands of social workers and slowly moving toward the mainstream. Before it was over, Birthright was corresponding with a young senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy, who almost certainly knew nothing of their past. And before too long, despite the founders' hopes for an unbiased program, minority women and men all over the country would be targeted.

African-Americans supported eugenics, too

Involuntary sterilization clearly targeted minority women during the 1960s and 1970s, and for almost 50 years people have voiced outrage over the practice. But there was a long history of support for eugenics within the African-American community, too.

A prominent African-American scientist taught eugenics in his classes, says historian Gregory Michael Dorr, contributor to the new book A Century of Eugenics in America. Dr. Thomas Wyatt Turner was a founding member of the NAACP and a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. On a 1915 exam, Turner asked his students to "Define eugenics. Explain how society may be helped by applying eugenic laws."

Dorr says Turner learned about eugenics by studying with one of the leaders of the movement, Charles Davenport of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. "He literally drank at the fountain (of eugenics) in the early 1900s. Here's a guy who literally taught mainline eugenics—he was talking about it in exactly the same terms as white mainline eugenicists, just absent race."

That doesn't mean Turner condoned whites who discriminated against blacks, Dorr says. Nor does it deny that sterilizations had a deeply racist bent in the 1960s and 1970s. Rather, it's proof that eugenics appealed to people of all races. "We're horrified by eugenics now, but a couple of generations ago, sacrificing the individual for the greater good was the more common position. Eugenics is so appealing because it starts with such a basic premise: Do you want to have healthy children who grow up to be productive members of society? And you follow that question up with, 'Well, I've got a pretty simple way to do that.'"

Eugenics, at its root, divides people into positive and negative groups, and the legendary historian and civil rights leader W.E.B DuBois did just that in his 1903 essay The Talented Tenth. "The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races." DuBois believed that the top 10 percent of African-Americans were the key to prosperity, and he also warned of the "submerged tenth"—the "lowest class of criminals, prostitutes, and loafers," Dorr says.

New research also shows that a controversial experiment in North Carolina to target schoolchildren for sterilization promoted exceptional blacks—an example of positive eugenics. Birthright's field reports note that the N.C. tests found "highly superior children of both races," and that "new plans for these making full use of their abilities are being devised with such enthusiasm on the part of teachers and parents."

Birthright also reached out to the African-American community in early 1946 and reported a warm reception. "During May I had the opportunity of speaking to the entire student body and faculty of the North Carolina Teachers' College, at which there was an estimated attendance of well over five hundred persons. The response of the audience was good ... The Negro Ministers' Alliance also invited me to meet with them; nineteen ministers were present, including the Executive Secretary of the Negro YMCA." The invitation to speak came from the president of the college, the fieldworker noted.

"The people who were in favor for example, of sterilization, or just in favor of the general idea of the best people have more children and the worst people have fewer—that didn't break out by race. There was a kind of black eugenics in the same way there was a white eugenics," says Paul Lombardo, a professor of law at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

In the 1960s, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. noted that poverty, discrimination and birth control were all legitimate topics of discussion. Planned Parenthood gave King an award in 1966, and his acceptance speech (delivered by his wife, Coretta Scott King) bluntly suggested that the large families, which had been the norm in the rural South, were now a problem for urban African-Americans. "The size of family that may have been appropriate and tolerable on a manually cultivated farm was carried over to the jammed streets of the ghetto," King noted. "Like all poor, Negro and white, they have many unwanted children. This is a cruel evil they urgently need to control."

King added that "unrestrained exploitation and discrimination" fueled such problems in the black community, and DuBois made similar points. But King also brought up an issue that many contemporary critics of eugenic sterilization refuse to acknowledge: that some poor black women in the 1960s, just like some poor white or Hispanic women, did in fact desire the operation.

Or to put it another way, if a 34-year-old black woman with 10 children chose to have her tubes tied today, few would blame "eugenics" or claim that racial bias was at work. The only surprise might be that she had waited so long. Yet that summary comes from a 1964 North Carolina Eugenics Board case, which noted that the woman "came to the Welfare Department to request sterilization. She is industrious and works at farm work and simple domestic work when this is available and sees that her children attend school regularly. Both _____ and her parents feel that she already has more children than she can support and does not want more."

Dorr says some minority women clearly sought the operation in the 1960s and 1970s because they couldn't access reliable birth control in any other way. "My argument is, of course abuse occurred. Of course those populations were targeted. In the majority of instances, it was indeed abusive." But some minority doctors and nurses also supported the operation, truly believing it was the best option.

A 1968 New York Times article from Pittsburgh noted that after a black leader accused the local Planned Parenthood office of "genocide" and pushed for it to be shut down, neighborhood women criticized him and demanded it be kept open. "He's only one person—and a man at that—and he can't speak for the women ... Birth control is none of his business," said the leader of the black women's group.

More proof of the hazy line separating involuntary sterilization from legitimate birth control came in the fall of 1966. The eugenics group that began as The Sterilization League of New Jersey now had offices on Madison Avenue in New York and a new name: The Association for Voluntary Sterilization. Their executive director invited King to speak at a national conference on "Population, Voluntary Sterilization and the Quality of Life." On Southern Christian Leadership Conference letterhead, King responded with a polite letter saying he was "deeply grateful" for the invitation, yet unable to attend. "I do hope I have an opportunity to speak under your auspices sometime in the future," he added.

Chapel Hill, UNC and Orange County: Leaders in the eugenics movement

In 1936, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill noticed that Orange County was one of the first counties in the state to target people in the general population for sterilization, as opposed to those in institutions.

"In Orange County the great program of non-institutional sterilization is being put into practice. It has been this spirit, characteristic of the personnel of the Welfare Department that has placed Orange County as the leader in the program of eugenic sterilization in the state of North Carolina," wrote J. McLean Benson.

When Clarence Gamble and others launched a new campaign to promote eugenics in 1942, Orange County residents played a major role. Robert Madry, mayor of Chapel Hill from 1942 to 1949, used his position as head of the UNC News Service to send sterilization news releases to the media, met with editors and helped organize speaking engagements.

The director of the Institute for Research in Social Science at UNC approved of several projects designed to boost sterilizations, and researchers at the school conducted studies to screen schoolchildren for possible future sterilization. In Orange County, researchers suggested that more than 3 percent of the county's inhabitants might need the operation. In 1946, local supporters of eugenics arranged for 115 students in the graduating class of UNC to get copies of the pamphlet "Survival of the Unfittest."

Support continued after the war. Members of the UNC School of Medicine met regularly with N.C. Eugenics Board staff throughout the 1950s and distributed copies of eugenics literature to students.

Orange County also had one of the most infamous cases in the history of the N.C. Eugenics Board. Officials recommended that an entire family be sterilized—except for the father. The Eugenics Board approved the mass sterilizations, but Benson notes that "before this last step was completed, the family had become suspicious of this whole affair and had moved from the county during the darkness of some night. But even so, Orange County has made arrangements, and if they ever come back into the county and have not been sterilized before returning, Orange County is ready for them," she wrote.

Benson suggested the wholesale sterilization of criminals. "In all, this group constitutes a veritable army of people that should be controlled by not being permitted the privilege of reproduction. Every person who is convicted of a major crime should be sterilized by whatever method the institution thinks best, and all other criminals who are recidivists would be sterilized by vasectomy. Like many others in the 1930s, she praised Nazi sterilization programs. "So great and effective has been the program in Germany that it far overshadows the entire program of the combined states in the United States," she wrote, suggesting it was a model for the U.S. to follow.

Eugenics timeline

1883 Sir Francis Galton coins the word eugenics, meaning "well born"

1907 Indiana passes first eugenics law in U.S.

1909 California passes a eugenics law

1912 First International Congress of Eugenics

1927 U.S. Supreme Court upholds involuntary sterilization in Buck v. Bell

1929 Human Betterment Foundation established in Pasadena, Calif.

1937 Georgia is the 32nd and last state to pass a eugenics law

1937 Sterilization League of New Jersey founded

1943 Sterilization League changes name to Birthright and becomes a national organization; Cecil Gamble makes first major donation

1943 Human Betterment Foundation ceases operation in California, but several of its leaders join Birthright, bringing along their contacts and mailing lists

1947–51 Clarence Gamble funds and launches state Human Betterment League chapters in North Carolina, Iowa, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas and Nebraska

1950 Birthright changes name to Human Betterment Association of America

1962 Human Betterment Association renounces involuntary sterilization

1964 Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee issues "Genocide in Mississippi" to protest involuntary sterilizations in that state

1972 Nixon aides suppress release of new federal guidelines to prevent sterilization abuse

1972–75 Protests over sterilization of Native American women at Indian Health Service hospitals

1973–74 U.S. Senate hearings over use of federal funds to sterilize minors; multiple lawsuits filed by victims

1973 Committee to End Sterilization Abuse founded in NYC, focus on Latina women

1974 Weather Underground bombs San Francisco office of U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, in part to protest sterilization of two Alabama girls, age 12 and 14

1975 Women in California file involuntary-sterilization suit against Los Angeles County Hospital

1975 New York City reforms medical guidelines to guard against involuntary sterilization


Author's Note: This series contains excerpts from my book in progress, Eugenics: The Second Wave in America (1942 to 1975). I used historical material from numerous sources, including the following institutions and individuals.

The Association for Voluntary Sterilization collection at the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota; Clarence Gamble's papers at Harvard's Countway Library of Medicine; the Julius Paul Collection, which is under the care of Paul Lombardo at the Georgia State University College of Law (Lombardo also gave me access to the Georgia Eugenics Board records, which were donated by Gayle White); North Carolina Eugenics Board records from the N.C. State Archives, Iowa Eugenics Board records from the Iowa State Archives; and the Human Betterment League records at the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Johanna Schoen of the University of Iowa kindly shared her interview with Clarence Gamble's fieldworker; Steven Bucklin of the University of South Dakota shared his research on the Iowa eugenics program, and William VanEssendelft shared previously unpublished interviews he conducted with Birthright's founders in the 1970s. —Kevin Begos


Correction (May 25, 2011): Georgia in 1937 (not South Carolina in 1935) was the last state to pass a eugenics law.

  • Bankers, ministers, journalists and politicians nationwide rallied behind a second wave of forced sterilization

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Uneducated and low informed, probably never been to a library in their life. Also all on some sort of government …

by Donna DiCorcia Davis on In Wayne County, N.C., Trump’s America Is Angry (News Feature)

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by Sahana Sofi on In Wayne County, N.C., Trump’s America Is Angry (News Feature)

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