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The Emergence of Eugenics


Eugenics attempts to use social sanction or state policy to improve the “hereditary character” of a specific population by preventing those deemed “inferior” from reproducing and encouraging those deemed “superior” to bear children. Eugenics attempts to change the quality and quantity of a population, to increase the numbers of the “fit” over the “unfit.” According to its proponents it is the “well-born science.” Organizations devoted to the “ideals” of eugenics and “racial hygiene” first emerged in Germany (1905), the United States (1906) Britain (1907), France (1912) and Czechoslovakia (1913) to only list some of the most active efforts. These efforts arose in the context of several important societal changes in Europe and the United States: namely industrialization, the emergence of statistics as a science, the development of hygiene and state health surveillance, the propagation of “race science theories”, the development of theories of inheritance and the influence of the environment, and colonialism.

Industrialization led to the migration of individuals from rural areas in search of work and opportunity into the growing urban centers in search of employment and housing. This growing class of the urban poor, as well as concerns from elites over growing political radicalization of the lower classes was a cause for concern for many European and American elites and the middle class, who came to view them the same negative, and often racist, way they viewed colonial subjects in Africa, India and Southeast Asia. Influential British thinkers like Herbert Spencer and Thomas Malthus began developing theories and policies they believed would help alleviate society of the “burden” of the poor and other “problem populations” such as rural and indigenous groups. Francis Galton, who coined the term “eugenics,” wished to decrease the birth-rate of the so-called “unfit” who were “doomed in large numbers to perish prematurely” and to bring about the “...improvement of the race by furthering the productivity of the Fit (sic) by early marriages and healthful rearing of their children.” He believed that subjective qualities like wealth and success, and alternatively poverty, were heritable.

Eugenicists were working from an incomplete knowledge of population genetics, the pace of evolution and the inheritance of complex phenotypes. Their immoral and racist policies would have failed to change the frequency at which these phenotypes would be present in the future. The resources below will provide a historical overview of eugenics.


Launch Eugenics and Science Resource Launch Eugenics and Policy Resource

Photo Credits:

  • Courtesy of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives, NY
  • Courtesy of Historical Collections & Services, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia


Primary Sources

  • Wellcome Trust Galton Papers
  • Frederick Osborn Papers
  • Robert C. Cook Papers
  • Cold Spring Harbor’s Eugenics Archive 
  • Wellcome Trust Eugenics Society Archive 
  • Charles Davenport Papers 

Secondary Sources:

  • Allen, Garland E. "The Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, 1910-1940: An Essay in Institutional History." Osiris 2 (1986): 225-64. 
  • Bashford, Alison, and Philippa Levine. 2010. The Oxford handbook of the history of eugenics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010
  • Bederman, Gail. Manliness & civilization: a cultural history of gender and race in the United States, 1880-1917. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • Comfort, Nathaniel. The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine. NEW HAVEN; LONDON: Yale University Press, 2012.
  • Hawkins, Mike. Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860–1945: Nature as Model and Nature as Threat. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 
  • Hodge, Jonathan, and Gregory Radick, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Darwin. 2nd ed. Cambridge Companions to Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Kevles, Daniel J. In The Name of Eugenics : Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. New York: Knopf, 1985. 
  • Merricks Patrick, and Turda Marius. The Eugenics Podcast. Podcast audio. November 20, 2020.
  • Paul, Diane B. "Culpability and Compassion: Lessons from the History of Eugenics." Politics and the Life Sciences 15, no. 1 (1996): 99-100.
  • Ramsden, Edmund. "Confronting the Stigma of Eugenics: Genetics, Demography and the Problems of Population." Social Studies of Science 39, no. 6 (2009): 853-84. 
  • Ramsden, Edmund. “Social Demography and Eugenics in the Interwar United States.” Population and Development Review, vol. 29, no. 4, 2003, pp. 547–593. 
  • Stern, Alexandra Minna. Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America. University of California Press, 2005. 
  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Eugenics” Holocaust Encyclopedia.

These instructional materials were created and reviewed by the following contributors:

  • Samantha Agoos, NBCT, M.Ed., Science Department Chair, East High School
  • Lawrence Brody, Ph.D., Division Director, Division of Genomics and Society
  • Christina Daulton, M.A., Community Outreach Specialist, Education and Community Involvement Branch
  • Christopher Donohue, Ph.D., Historian, Communications and Public Liaison Branch
  • Kimberly Jacoby Morris, Ph.D., Education Specialist, Education and Community Involvement Branch
  • Allison McCague, Ph.D., Policy Analyst
  • Marie Montes-Matias, Ph.D., Biology Professor, Union County College
  • Tiffany Rolle Ph.D., Education and Engagement Fellow, Education and Community Involvement Branch
  • Balakrishnan Selvakumar, Ph.D., STEM Faculty, Upper School, Washington DC campus, Whittle School and Studios
  • Ana Stevens, Scientific Program Analyst, Division of Genomic Medicine
  • Zach Utz, M.A., Archivist, History of Genomics Program, Communications and Public Liaison Branch
  • Christopher W. Williams, Ph.D., STEM Education Specialist, National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • Rosann Wise, M.A., Program Analyst, Education and Community Involvement Branch