Annals of Human Genetics Opens Archives, Reveals Dark Past


By Dave Andrusko

Editor’s note. This first ran in 2011 but the story it tells is so important and so revealing about who supported the eugenics movement here in the United States that I believe it is very much worth reprinting.

Eugenicist Karl Pearson in 1903 Courtesy: National Library of Medicine

The headline in a USA Today story that ran last month (but which I missed until today) was as accurate as it was chilling: “Genetics Journal Reveals Dark Past.” The journal in question is what it changed its name to in 1954—the respectable sounding “Annals of Human Genetics”—a change from what it was called when founded in 1925–the “Annals of Eugenics.”

Reporter Dan Vergano has written a very important and very troubling story. 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.”

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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 is a history full of 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 energised 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.

Please take a few minutes and go to Vergano’s story.

Let me end with this trenchant and telling quote:

“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.”