The Tragedy of Eugenics “Shouldn’t be Forgotten”

By Dave Andrusko

Janice Black, right, jokes with her longtime friend and legal guardian Sadie Long at their home in Charlotte.

Last month we ran a sad story about the much-delayed but sincere effort of the part of the state of North Carolina to compensate the victims of a eugenics program that between 1929 and 1974 “authorized the sterilization of about 7,600 North Carolina residents–some as young as 10,” according to Tommy Tomlinson of the Charlotte Observer. “In many cases, people were sterilized because of low IQs or family poverty.” The ugly rationale was “that one way to improve the population was to limit the number of children born to people with ‘undesirable’ traits.”

That last story focused on Janice Black who puts a human face on the inhuman actions taken against her. She was one of the victims who attended a Task Force meeting in Raleigh on Tuesday. Unavoidably there was controversy over the amount (“Task force members said they know the money isn’t adequate”) and whether (with minor exceptions) the compensation would go only to living victims.

As we wrote last month, her story was a “Painful Reminder of Our dark period of eugenics.” But eugenics was not an illness confined to a few states but a virus that spread throughout the United States, beginning in the early years of the 20th Century.

Miss Black was only 18 in 1971 when she signed a consent form she didn’t understand.  “Her name was the only thing she knew how to write,” according to the Charlotte Observer. Her IQ tested out at 44 and her stepmother took her to the hospital which puzzled her because she “didn’t feel sick.” There at Charlotte Memorial Hospital the teenager was sterilized.

Only California and Virginia performed more of what the newspaper euphemistically described as “eugenic sterilizations.” But to its credit North Carolina is the first state to “consider compensating people who were sterilized under its eugenics program.”

Miss Black was one of the 7,600 North Carolinians who were sterilized between 1929 and 1974 because they were classified as mentally ill, epileptic, or “feebleminded.” After a year of searching  the state has matched only 48 survivors to its records, according to the newspaper.

Just how widespread was the eugenics mentality became clearer when the Annals of Human Genetics opened its archives earlier this year to reveal a dark past.

The Annals of Human Genetics changed its name in 1954. The new name sounded much more respectable than what it was called when founded in 1925–-the “Annals of Eugenics.”

USA Today reporter Dan Vergano wrote a very important and very troubling story back in May. Those who’ve followed the American Eugenics Movement are fully aware that the “best” people were in the forefront of a movement to “improve the breed.”

What’s happened, Vergano reports, is that Andrés Ruiz Linares, the journal’s current editor, “has opened its archives from 1925 to 1954 to researchers, and is running reports by historians on the journal’s past embrace of scientific racism and targeting of the disabled.”

Linares, a geneticist of University College London, told Vergano by email that what happened “shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Linares continued, “Since the social implications of a lot of current human genetics research are enormous it seems important that in judging what human genetics is doing now we maintain awareness of the history of this discipline.”

And it a history full of unseemly and despicable actions.

Aimed at breeding “better” humans, the eugenics movement was a cause taken up from dozens of states. By the 1960s, Vergano reports, there had been more than 60,000 forced sterilizations!

“Eugenics is often dismissed as a crank movement energized by pseudoscience, but we need to bear in mind that science is in any day what scientists do and defend,” writes Yale historian Daniel Kevles in one of the commentaries in the current issue. “Eugenics fell squarely in the mainstream of scientific and popular culture.”

Vergano adds that “Many biology journals today have roots in the era. The journal Social Biology, devoted to demographic health trends research, started out as Eugenical News, for example.”

The eugenics movement was in full bloom in the United States until the 1940s. Indeed, eugenics “flourished as a discipline in the early decades of the 20th Century, until Hitler’s embrace of its theories of ‘racial hygiene’ culminated in the Holocaust during World War II and discredited the movement,” Vergano writes. “Many journals changed their name as did the Annals of Human Genetics.”

Those who have a passing familiarity with the American Eugenics Movement instantly think of Carrie Buck. In the 1927 Buck vs. Bell court decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (one of those “best” people) wrote, “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” The decision legalized forced sterilizations nationwide.

“The eugenics movement of the early 20th century has rightfully been totally discredited, and the contribution it made to horrendous social policies implemented at the time is well known,” Linares says. “People interested in the history of human genetics necessarily need to look at the dark period of eugenics.”

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