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Chapter 3 Peas, People, Rural Cacogenic Families

What traits, diseases, behaviors, and conditions run in families-genius? laziness? hair color? criminality? height? heart disease? athletic prowess? aggression? shyness? diabetes? promiscuity? blindness? retardation? cancer? depression? obesity? loquacity? drunkenness? feeblemindedness? eye color? musicality?

Early advocates of eugenics were inspired by the work of the 19th century plant biologist Gregor Mendel, who identified seven genes-in his time they were called 'unit characters' or 'heritable factors'-that accounted for the distinctive appearance of garden pea plants. Mendel noted the colors of flowers, their positions on the plants, the colors and shapes of seeds and pods, and the lengths of the stems. Then, he meticulously crossed specific pairs of pea plants and recorded how each of the seven physical characteristics was inherited in the progeny plants.

The eugenicists extrapolated from Mendel's work with peas to humans. They concluded that human traits, like pea characteristics, were transmitted from one generation to the next in the genes. They attributed to the genes not only the obvious physical characteristics of people (height, hair color, eye color) but also their mental ability or lack of it and behaviors-both good and bad. The eugenicists reasoned that, by halting the 'breeding' of people who had undesirable genes, they could rid humankind of undesirable traits; when these people vanished, so would unpopular and unhealthy social conditions.

Charles Davenport, a biologist, eugenicist, and mathematician, lobbied for the establishment of an institution at which scientists could study genes, heredity, and human evolution. In 1904, the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) was set up as a section of the Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Davenport was the Station's director, and he hired another biologist and eugenicist, Harry Laughlin, to run the ERO. Both the eugenics researchers and their wealthy sponsors-Mrs. E.R. Harriman, John D. Rockefeller, and others-were intrigued by the possibility of fixing social problems by fixing or eliminating genes.

The researchers at the ERO could not carry out Mendel-style breeding studies on people, so they approached human inheritance nonexperimentally. They collected wide-ranging 'genetic'data about people, their living relatives, and their ancestors. The ERO trained caseworkers to go into the community to talk to people about themselves and their family members and to assess some of their characteristics. The ERO encouraged people to mail to them their family records and case histories.

During the 35 years of its existence, the ERO assembled thousands of documents, including pedigrees and personal and family histories, case studies, and so on, describing traits, characteristics, and diseases in individuals and families and across generations. Some of the data from the ERO and other information about the eugenics work done there were posted on the internet early in the year 2000 at

Policy makers from the ERO worked with physicians and lawmakers in individual states to help them draft and enact state eugenic sterilization laws that would sanction sterilization of members of 'cacogenic' families, those with 'bad' genes. (The Greek word 'kakos' means 'bad.') They also supported federal legislation restricting the immigration of people into the United States from southern and eastern European countries.

These two activities fall into the category of 'negative eugenics,' activities that would lead to the reduction and removal of so-called undesirable people from society and would keep them from producing more people of their kind. The 'feebleminded' were the eugenicists main targets; they believed that feeblemindedness was directly linked to social dependency, promiscuity, criminality, low IQ, and abnormal behavior. Laughlin published a 'Model Eugenical Sterilization Law' in 1922 (see pages at the end of Chapter 4), providing exact language that states could use to define persons who should be sterilized and detailing how the decisions should be made and the sterilizations carried out. The federal immigration laws were directed toward identifying and stopping at the U.S. border cacogenic individuals trying to enter the United States; the eugenicists felt that these people brought with them genes that would contribute to 'race degeneration.'

The ERO thrived for some years but eventually closed in 1939, when the eugenics movement in the United States had lost popularity (Chapter 4) and Hitler was carrying 'race betterment' to unacceptable extremes in Germany (Chapter 5). But, even without continued backing from the ERO, eugenic sterilizations went on in the United States for many more decades.

Included References

  1. Pages from the Eugenics Records Office website

Additional Resources

  1. The Surgical Solution, Phillip Reilly, JHU Press, Baltimore, 1991.
  2. White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies, 1877-1919, Nicole Hahn Rafter, ed., Northeastern U Press, Boston, 1988.
  3. In the Name of Eugenics, Daniel J. Kevles, U. Cal. Press, Berkeley, 1985.
  4. Guide to Laughlin's papers:


Students should understand the following:
  • Mendel's work with peas inspired early eugenicists
  • Mendel's work also provided a foundation for the field of genetics
  • Difference between inheritance of simple traits (like physical characteristics of peas) and complex behaviors: single gene versus multiple gene traits
  • Methods of collecting family data
  • How to research information at the ERO website
  • Personal prejudices of eugenics proponents
  • Flaws in eugenics reasoning
  • Nature versus nurture

Suggested Questions for Discussion

  1. Why were the eugenicists unable to use Mendel's methods to study genes in people?
  2. Why might people have been interested in having their records on file at the ERO? Why not?
  3. What were some of the honorable motives of eugenicists? What were some of their dishonorable or prejudicial motives?
  4. Which of these characteristics-genius, laziness, hair color, criminality, height, heart disease, athletic prowess, aggression, shyness, diabetes, promiscuity, blindness, retardation, cancer, depression, obesity, loquacity, drunkenness, feeblemindedness, eye color, musicality-are likely to be determined by single genes?
  5. What, besides single genes, can account for human traits and behaviors and diseases?
  6. How likely is it that single genes cause societal problems?

Topics for Discussion/Written Assessment

  • What were the main personal traits and problems that eugenicists in the early years of the 20th century were interested in weeding out?
  • What is the difference between positive eugenics and negative eugenics? What sorts of policies and programs support each of these movements?
  • What communities did the eugenicists target for their studies? What kinds of questions did they ask? How did they present their data? Use the ERO website to find answers to these questions.
  • What traits and characteristics studied by the eugenicists are known now to be caused by single genes? Which ones are now known to be complex and associated with many genes or with genes and environmental factors?
  • Some of the wealthy sponsors of the ERO and eugenics-in-general felt that they would benefit from an affiliation with this progressive social movement. What might they have hoped to achieve personally and politically from the affiliation?
  • Laughlin developed epilepsy in the 1930s and was dismissed from his job at the ERO as 'unfit.' Some might label this to be a case of 'justice served.' Explain that concept.
  • How do individuals' 'life experiences' sometimes change their resolute viewpoints into more compassionate ones? Cite a recent example of a public figure whose perspective or behavior changed as a result of experiencing a serious illness, accident, or personal problem.
Extension Questions for Additional Research
  1. What were the personal motivations of Davenport and Laughlin? How did their backgrounds and upbringings contribute to their zeal for eugenics?
  2. Why did the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory decide to put the ERO data on the internet? What did they hope to accomplish by doing this? What recent developments in biology have contributed to renewed interest in eugenics?
  3. How did Laughlin's model eugenics law explain and justify eugenic sterilizations? What processes did it recommend for decisionmaking and carrying out sterilizations? Whom did it target? Who had power to make decisions?
  4. The ERO was the East Coast's center for eugenics research. On the West Coast, the Human Betterment Foundation of Pasadena, California, did similar work. Research the Foundation's projects and the work of its key eugenicists, Paul Popenoe and Edwin Gosney.
  5. Why were people from southern and eastern Europe thought of by the eugenicists as carrying bad genes?
  6. Today, the United States prevents some people from immigrating. What diseases, health factors, and conditions do the U.S. immigration policies list as legitimate reasons for denying people permission to enter the United States? What is the purpose of such restrictions? Are these policies just? Why?
  7. What political and social factors affect immigration policies in the United States? In Cuba? In Ireland? In other countries?
  8. When were U.S. immigration laws first developed and implemented? Why were they put into place?
  9. Immigrants came into the United States at several ports. One was Ellis Island. What were some others? For what conditions and diseases were the immigrants screened? Were these diseases genetic or caused by other factors?
  10. What happened to individuals who were rejected at the U.S. borders? What happened to other members of their families? Use the ERO website as a resource for answering the next questions.
  11. Who was Sir Francis Galton? What was his role in the eugenics movement?
  12. What was the case of Skinner v. Oklahoma? What is the issue that is central to the case? How was it similar to Buck v. Bell? How did the two cases differ? How did the attitudes of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (in Buck v. Bell) and that of Justice William O. Douglas (in Skinner v. Oklahoma) differ regarding the inheritance of behaviors and traits?
  13. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed into law the 'Immigration Restriction Act.' What was the reason for this act? Whose immigration did it promote? Whose did it restrict? What did Coolidge mean when he said "America must remain American" as he signed the act into law? When were changes eventually made to the law?
  14. Find out about the history of immigration laws in the United States and about the patterns of immigration. When did various groups enter the United States? What countries did they come from and where did they first settle?
  15. When did your ancestors come here? Write a feature story about your family's arrival in the United States.

Topics for Teacher Preparation

  • Familiarity with resource materials on the ERO website-
  • Goals of the ERO and the Human Betterment Foundation
  • Key concepts in eugenics reasoning
  • Key figures in the eugenics movement
  • History of immigration legislation in the United States
  • Reasons why individuals left various countries to enter the United States


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