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Chapter 4 The Rise and Fall of Eugenics

The Jukes, the Kallikaks, the Zeros, the Nams, the Happy Hickories, the family of Sam Sixty (named for Sam's IQ), the Doolittles. These were some of the cacogenic families ('kakos' is Greek for 'bad') that the eugenics case workers of the late 1800s and first quarter of the 1900s described in their books and reports. All the names were fictitious, not to 'protect the innocent' but to enhance the image that these people were stupid, degenerate, slovenly, shiftless, cacophonic, rotten to the core.

Eugenics caseworkers wrote judgement-laden reports about the families and individual members, compared their habits to those of animals and insects, and calculated how much these families were costing society. The reports sometimes included menacing diagrams, in which a family's first known progenitors were positioned in the center of an ever-widening circle, with succeeding generations fanning outward. These 'family trees' gave the impression that the proliferation of cacogenic individuals was unstoppable. When an individual in a cacogenic family didn't turn out to be as bad as the eugenicists expected, the narrative would include speculation that the person-typically, one in the outermost arc of the circle-had not yet grown old enough to express his or her cacogenic potential or that the odd healthy person was the likely offspring of an illicit relationship that the cacogenic mother had with a healthy man.

The targeting of rural families for these studies seems somewhat enigmatic, considering that a pastoral, rural life had always been an American ideal. But the eugenicists went after these families, families who did not value money, seemed to live chaotically, and were so different from themselves. The targeting of the rural poor went on in many states. One of them was Vermont.

Two statistics troubled Vermonters in the early 1900s: the state's population had dropped between 1910 and 1920, and the state's draft board had rejected a higher percentage of men for military service for World War I than did any other state. The reason for the rejections was that the men scored too low on intelligence tests. The native-born Vermonters, those of so-called pioneer stock and Yankee Protestant heritage, were worried that the fittest Vermonters were actually abandoning the state, leaving behind 'unwholesome,' 'degenerate' families who would eventually dilute out the state's sturdy Yankee genes. At the time, about 71% of the residents of Vermont were native-born Yankees. Many of the rest were of Irish, French Canadian, English, Italian, and German origin. Few if any African American and Asian individuals lived in Vermont at the time. And, the state's original inhabitants, the Abenakis and other Native Americans, were not even counted.

The state's most zealous eugenicist was Henry Perkins, a professor of zoology at the University of Vermont. He enlisted students and caseworkers to conduct surveys in the 1920s and 1930s. He also pressed for the legalization of eugenic sterilizations. In 1931, the Vermont legislature passed a sterilization law, making Vermont the 24th state to enact such a law. Perkins's activities only really became widely known in the 1990s, when his records were discovered in an attic in 40 crates. (His surveys and other activities are the subjects of Nancy Gallagher's book, Breeding Better Vermonters.)

Among the people whom Perkins targeted were Native Americans of the Abenaki tribe, some of whom he labelled the 'Gypsy family.' An Abenaki elder, Homer St. Francis, is quoted in a 1999 Boston Globe article as saying that eugenic sterilizations were just one of the methods that the state used to deprive the Abenaki of their rights. Abductions and murders were others. St. Francis knew of many Abenaki families who were childless, and he assumed this was the consequence of their state-supported sterilizations. Many members of the community hid their language, religion, customs, and so on, so as not to be targeted by the eugenicists. While this kept some from being sterilized, it also essentially wiped out their culture. The acting chief of the Abenaki tribe, April Rushlow, is quoted in an article published in 1999 in the Montreal Gazette as saying that many women in her father's generation (Rushlow was 31 at the time) had been sterilized, that this was common knowledge transmitted verbally through the community, and that she considered Perkins to be "just like Hitler."

By the 1930s, the eugenics movement was losing strength nationally. The data, the motives, and the 'science' behind eugenics all came under scrutiny and criticism. The eugenicists were accused of exploiting genetics for political ends. And, in Germany, Hitler was taking eugenics to unacceptable extremes.

Perkins, sensing the swing of the public away from eugenics-in-general and from negative eugenics specifically, shifted gears. His surveys soon generated profiles of families who were making positive contributions to their communities through their genes-eugenic families. He also acknowledged that some of the members of the cacogenic families could be helped and 'managed' through the cooperative efforts of schools and social service and welfare agencies.

One vocal opponent of eugenics who objected to the movement and its goals was physician psychiatrist Abraham Myerson, who lived in nearby Massachusetts. Myerson had been studying Massachusetts families, and he reported that "even among these 'worst' families there were normal branches producing worthwhile persons." His observations led him to suggest that Laughlin-style 'ideal' legislation could only be crafted by people with "some technic of supernatural revelation, some crystal ball or Delphian vision, by which the potentialities of any person's germ plasm in the succeeding generations may be ascertained. There are fine people springing from the most unlikely parents, and the finest parents may bring forth the wildest and most inadequate progeny."

Myerson and other members of a committee he chaired directly critiqued Harry Laughlin's proposal for state eugenic sterilization laws in 1935. He wrote that "ideal legislation should spring from certainty of knowledge, from facts accepted by the bulk of biologists and geneticists. If one examines, however, the writings of important workers in the field of biology, psychiatry and eugenics, one finds no justification whatever for the proposed legislation."

Doctors and others had a duty, noted Myerson, to attack indiscriminate proposals for legislation that would "destroy freedom and individuality." The movement's "overenthusiastic proponents," wrote Myerson, "hurt it more than do its enemies."

The biased reports produced by the eugenicists were unprofessional. They helped the opponents of eugenics make their case that eugenics was a pseudoscience rife with social and political agendas.

Included References

  1. Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, 1935, March, 33(3): 453-466.
  2. Eugenical Sterilization in the United States, by Harry H. Laughlin, Psychopathic Laboratory of the Municipal Court of Chicago, 1922, December, 445-452.

Additional Resources

  1. Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State, Nancy L.Gallagher, University Press of New England, Hanover and London, 1999.
  2. White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies, Nicole Hahn Rafter, ed., Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1988.


Students should understand the following:
  • Eugenicists often camouflaged their personal biases as 'professional activities'
  • Opposition to the eugenics movement was strong and vocal in some parts of the United States
  • Eugenics activities in Vermont were not unique; they are known because the records were found
  • Family surveys often included highly judgmental, subjective statements
  • Rural poor were targeted by the eugenicists who feared dilution of the Yankee gene pool

Suggested Questions for Discussion

  1. Why did the eugenicists target country people?
  2. Perkins was described as a man who tended to "color between the lines." He had lived his whole life in the same place (Burlington, VT), and he rode the intellectual coattails of his highly successful father, who was a prominent figure in the state and at the University of Vermont. How might his upbringing, personal style, and experiences be relevant to understanding his eugenics work? What is implied by "coloring between the lines?"
  3. The rural poor were considered by the eugenicists to be a threat to the gene pool. The eugenicists reasoned that, if the fittest members of the community were all fleeing to the cities, then the most unfit would be the ones who stayed behind. How relevant is this attitude to demographic changes in the United States today?
  4. Many individuals who had been sterilized in Vermont did not realize that this had happened to them until the records from the 1920s and 1930s were discovered in the 1990s. In what ways might this information have altered their lives had they known it earlier? How large an impact could having children or not have on the lives of adults?
  5. Few people gave consent when they were sterilized. What might motivate someone to consent to this procedure? Why might people say 'no?'
  6. Is having children a legal right? A moral right? Why?

Topics for Discussion/Written Assessment

  • Theodore Roosevelt said that the "old pioneer stock" were committing "race suicide" by having small families. What did he mean by this? How pervasive was this attitude? Who were the people who held this opinion? Do people today still subscribe to the statement? Who are they?
  • Myerson was not totally opposed to eugenic sterilizations, but he felt that they had only limited uses. What might be some legitimate uses of the procedures?
  • What reasons might Myerson have given for saying that eugenic sterilization laws would "destroy freedom and individuality?"
  • What ecologic and environmental movements today deal with issues, like diversity, that the eugenics movement dealt with? How are the issues similar? How do they differ?
  • The eugenicists frequently gave their reports judgement-laden titles. What is the effect on readers of a title like this one: The Results of the Matrimonial Adventures of Four Degenerate Offspring of the Fourth Generation of the Doolittle Family? Which words are inflammatory or insulting? How does language influence thinking?

Extension Questions for Additional Research

  1. What sterilization laws were enacted in your state? How many people were sterilized under the law? What were the reasons given for the surgeries? If no laws were enacted, why not? Are the laws still in place or were they repealed? When and why?
  2. Learn more about the Kallikaks, the Nams, the Doolittles, or one of the other families mentioned in the first paragraph. Who were the members of the family? What characteristics and traits were the researchers tracking? How large was the family? What conclusions did the eugenicists draw from their surveys? How solid were these conclusions?

Topics for Teacher Preparation

  • Eugenic policies and activities in your state
  • Eugenic policies and activities in other states
  • Vermont's experience
  • Reasoning of eugenics proponents-flaws and accuracies
  • Reasoning of the eugenics opponents-flaws and accuracies


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