Excerpted From: Daniel A. Kracov, Eugenics and the Development of U.S. Food and Drug Law, 77 Food & Drug Law Journal 135 (2022) (272 Footnotes) (Full Document)

DanielAKracovAlthough often portrayed as a bygone “pseudoscience” that has little relevance today, the actual history and impact of eugenics is much more complex, primarily because it evolved and persisted over time, became a deeply embedded ideology via pervasive dissemination in educational institutions and the media, and had various strands that influenced society in numerous ways. Thus, I begin by providing an overview of the vast and convoluted history of eugenics, with a particular emphasis on aspects of that history that are pertinent to the early development of FDA. From a legal perspective, eugenics is typically associated with involuntary sterilization and the notorious 1927 Supreme Court decision in Buck v. Bell. In that opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes--joined by Justices Louis Brandeis and William Howard Taft--ruled that a Virginia statute met due process standards in allowing involuntary sterilization of the so-called “unfit” (specifically, Carrie Buck, an eighteen-year-old patient at the “Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded”) to ensure the “welfare of society.” Holmes declared that “[i]t is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind” and infamously concluded that “[t]hree generations of imbeciles are enough.” The Buck decision was a landmark in the eugenics movement, and eugenicists “rejoiced.” Virginia soon sterilized Carrie Buck, and by the mid-1930s “some twenty thousand sterilizations had been legally performed in the United States.”

However, eugenics went well beyond involuntary sterilization laws and campaigns and was a potent and wide-ranging cultural and ideological force, driving concepts of and societal “purity” and “hygiene” throughout the Progressive Era and well beyond. Many aspects of eugenics incorporated older racist constructs and practices, reframed as scientific thinking based on Mendelian principles that they believed demonstrated that genetics, rather than the environment, controls all. But eugenicists' uses of the term “race” were often cryptic--at times meaning the human race, and at other times referring to a “superior” Anglo-Saxon race or to what they believed were “dysgenic” races that could be characterized as an “internal or external threat.” However the term was used, the eugenicists' conceptions of race--like most historical “scientific” theories about race--were largely based on pigmentation, erroneous measurements of various types, or self-reporting of a racial category with little genetic meaning. Yet, despite this fatally flawed foundation, eugenic beliefs about race and purity shaped numerous aspects of our nation, while over many decades doing profound and sustained damage to those that the eugenicists tended to deem less desirable or “unfit,” such as Black Americans, the disabled, and immigrants.

The name and concept of eugenics originated with Francis Galton (1822-1911), a British statistician who focused on human heredity. Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, “proposed that humans take charge of their own evolution” and defined the term “eugenics” (Greek for “good in birth”) variously as “'the study of agencies under social control which may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations' and 'the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage.”’ Galton believed that different races had genetically distinctive features and characters that could be ranked (with those of Anglo-Saxon ancestry at the apex), and that the randomness of natural selection could be replaced with efforts to influence heredity on a population basis.

Eugenicists like Galton were not merely theoreticians: they proselytized and aimed to put their theories into practice. And eugenics found particularly fertile ground in the United States. For whites in the early 1900s United States concerned about the “degeneration” of their own race and historical power relative to immigrants and Black Americans, eugenics allayed such anxieties by creating a framework for “race improvement” or “betterment.” Americans at the time--including prominent elected leaders--often spoke with alarm at the possibility of “old stock” Anglo-Saxon ancestry Americans' lower birth rates presenting a risk of being eclipsed by Black Americans and immigrants. As Professor Dorothy Roberts wrote:

White Americans had for over two centuries developed an understanding of the races as biologically distinct groups, marked by inherited attributes of inferiority and superiority. Scientific racism predisposed Americans to accept the theory that social characteristics were heritable and deviant behavior was biologically determined.

Thus, eugenics provided a “scientific” basis for racism, and existing racism fertilized its expansion: the two beliefs were often intertwined and mutually supporting.

A particularly important proselytizer of eugenics in the United States was the then-respected geneticist Charles Davenport [1866-1924], who historians have referred to as “America's leading eugenicist” and its “scientific pope.” Secretary of the Eugenics Research Association, Davenport “was obsessed with the biological threat of blacks and immigrants.” With funding from Harrimans, Carnegies, and Rockefellers, he established the Eugenic Records Office, a private research institute which operated from 1918 to 1939 in Cold Spring Harbor in New York, conducting eugenic research including anthropometric assessments of World War I recruits and “race crossing” in Jamaica. The Eugenic Records Office “supplied the burgeoning American eugenics movement with adherents and research” by conducting training on eugenic methods, sending trainees out to do so-called “field studies,” and assembling them for a conference every year to update them on the latest research findings and techniques.

Davenport's studies were also funded by Wyckliffe Draper's Pioneer Fund, which was founded to promote “the genetic stock of those 'deemed to be descended predominantly from white persons who settled in the original thirteen states prior to the adoption of the Constitution”’ and which supported various eugenic and white supremacist causes, including the preservation of Jim Crow laws in the South. At the time of his death in 1972, “Draper's money had become the most important and perhaps the world's only funding source for scientists who still believed that white racial purity was essential for social progress.”

Davenport's primary research focused on what he considered the “main problem”--“the relative capacity of negroes, mulattoes, and whites to carry on a white man's civilization.” From 1932 until 1944, Davenport and his colleague Morris Steggerda conducted annual anthropometric measurements of students at the Tuskegee Institute as part of a “long-term experimental program of comparative racial research designed to provide data to support the conclusion that the 'races' are separated by hereditary differences.” However, even when the numerous measurements produced data that did not support his eugenic theories of Black inferiority and the dangers of miscegenation, Davenport nonetheless rationalized the findings to support eugenic objectives.

Such efforts were highly effective. In the initial decades of the 20 Century, eugenics gained rapid acceptance in the United States and “was simply considered applied genetics.” Articles on eugenics “appeared regularly in medical journals like JAMA or the New England Journal of Medicine, and were also constant fare in state and regional medical journals.” Various mainstream foundations continued to subsidize the development of eugenic institutions and scientific projects well into late 1930s. The Race Betterment Foundation, and many other organizations, formed to permit the exchange of eugenic ideas and results.

An important eugenics popularizer in the United States was Paul Popenoe, the editor of the Journal of Heredity. Popenoe believed Black Americans were racially inferior and “germinally lacking in the higher developments of intelligence” and advocated for the “sterilization and segregation of 'waste humanity.”’ In the 1930s, Popenoe went on to praise Nazi Germany's sterilization laws, attributing them to the “best specialists in Germany,” and he eventually “began writing advice columns for Ladies' Home Journal.”

Not all eugenicists focused on the most extreme measures. Eugenics was marked by “ideological diversity and fluidity” and many supporters chose aspects of the ideology to emphasize. It was also “common to reject one aspect of eugenics while endorsing others.” As reflected in Buck v. Bell, however, a central feature of “negative” eugenics was the pursuit of sterilization of the so-called “unfit.” Indiana was the pioneer in this area, and numerous states began enacting eugenic sterilization laws, in some cases incorporating sweeping powers to sterilize criminals and those with various medical conditions or disabilities. By 1935, a majority of states had enacted such sterilization laws.

This sterilization focus of eugenicists--which persisted many years after the supposed end of eugenic thinking in the United States--was in no way separate from many eugenic racial beliefs. Indeed, there is significant evidence that state eugenic sterilization programs “specifically targeted black Americans.” In the south, numerous Black women, including civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, were victims of “Mississippi appendectomies”--forced sterilization without consent, legal process, or at times even foreknowledge of the procedure.

And sterilization was just one aspect of eugenics. In this period, “it came to be a hallmark of good reform government to shape public policy with the aid of scientific experts,” and eugenics was considered quite “scientific.” Thus, eugenics “sanctioned racist domestic policies including segregation and anti-miscegenation laws and efforts to restrict immigration.” The legal impact was profound:

Laws prohibiting interracial marriage, a vestige of the colonial era, were revised to include a new, scientific gloss with biological definitions of “race” during the eugenics era. The entire US system of legally mandated racial segregation was bolstered by eugenic thinking. The 1924 federal law restricting immigration to the United States by means of an ethnic/national quota system was also designed by leaders in eugenics to prevent the “pollution” of American bloodlines.

In essence, eugenics “provided a vocabulary for casting ancient prejudices in a scientific voice, thereby sanitizing bigotry.” And in medicine, it “bolstered a medical tradition in which the maladies of Black patients were linked to racial differences.”

Obviously, racism and white supremacy were far from the unique beliefs of eugenicists--scientific justifications for slavery and racism existed well before Galton, and “[t]reating other races as 'germs' was at least as common as labeling them genetic defectives.” Moreover, there was dissent against eugenic thinking: the Catholic Church objected to eugenic sterilization, and some philosophers and anthropologists refuted aspects of eugenics. Upton Sinclair, whose The Jungle is credited with galvanizing public and political support for the enactment of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, mocked eugenics in his book Arrowsmith (but he nonetheless at times voiced support for eugenics). Even some religious white supremacists rejected eugenics as “unscriptural.”

[. . .]

Eugenics was by no means confined to legal proceedings or scientific and medical institutions--it became a regular topic in popular culture and education. “By 1910, eugenics was one of the most frequently referenced topics in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature,” and it “was endorsed in over 90 percent of high school biology textbooks.” Prominent authors such as H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, and W. B. Yeats were supporters of eugenics. As one scholar wrote, Progressive Era eugenics was “the broadest of churches” and “appealed to an extraordinary range of political ideologies, not just progressives ....”

Despite its focus on race and genes over environment, eugenics was seen as having a particularly important connection to hygiene, diet, and public health. In the eugenic mindset, “[c]leanliness often referred to as much having a pure hereditary lineage and unblemished moral record as it did keeping one's body and home free from dirt.” Hygiene indicated “high evolutionary status, for by avoiding disease the health-conscious individual increased personal and national productivity, fitness, and superiority.” Eugenicists also had a preoccupation with efficiency and “flow” through the digestive system as well as optimizing the human body. A regular feature of eugenic displays at state fairs and national expositions were displays on hygiene and the ideal (and invariably white) human body. This was part of a broader “exhibitionary culture” at the time that utilized such events to reach “the multitudes with their messages of better healthcare for mothers and infants, immigration reform, and sterilization of the socially and racially unfit.” Advertisements presented the streamlined “eugenic ideal,” showing products in which eugenics ideas had a direct relationship to product design, from cars to kitchens to buildings to dinnerware. The objective was achieving an “earthly utopia”-- “a seamless society made of perfected people and products.”

The author is a partner and co-chair of the Life Sciences and Healthcare Regulatory Practice at Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C.