How did you get
access to the letters, diaries, and public records you did while researching
Better For all the World, and where did that research lead you? The research trail for the American eugenics movement led me to a number of
archives around the country. The primary repository of documents, photos, and
other material is located at the American Philosophical Society Library in
Philadelphia. Most all of the papers of Charles Davenport and the Eugenics
Record Office, the loci of my story, are housed here. At the Pickler Memorial
Library at Truman State University in Missouri, the papers of my other main
character, Harry Laughlin, remain available to researchers. Another important
repository can be found at the California Institute of Technology Archives in
Pasadena, which includes the papers of the Human Betterment Society.
But one of the most exciting collections turned out to be the Cold Spring Harbor
Laboratory Archives in New York, where I found a treasure trove of untapped
sources on the family life of Charles Davenport, including the diaries of his
father and mother. I corrected a long-established misunderstanding of Davenport,
which maintained that he had been beset by "conflicting influences" as a child,
torn between a severe Puritan father and a skeptical, science-loving mother. Not
so. As was made clear in his mother's diaries, she was just as pious as his
father, and far from science-loving. Over the years, Davenport's memories of his
mother evolved, and in his later life he had completely forgotten her,
describing her to biographers with the personality of his wife.
When I began my research of Carrie and Emma Buck, their confidential medical
records were, by law, sealed from public view. But when the law was changed in
early 2002, I was the first researcher to see them. (Others have claimed this,
but I am confident that when I observed them at the Central Virginia Training
Center in the summer of 2002, only a few months after the law was changed, I was
the first non-staff to see them.)
Of course, I read a number of secondary sources, and used information first
gleaned by academic historians. In particular, the studies of Allan Chase, Nancy
Gallagher, Daniel Kevles, Wendy Kline, Mark Largent, Paul Lombardo, and David
Smith were starting points, and my own research often followed the winding trail
of sources they had already laid out
in their footnotes.
But one of the most meaningful experiences in the course of researching this
book would be my time with Lucille. She not only shared painful parts of her
life from over 60 years ago, she also allowed me to spend nearly a week with her
and showed me places from her past and present. The story of forced
sterilization and America's quest for racial purity is her story, and my hope,
above all else, is that this book will be a record of the wrongs done
to her and others like her.
What groups of people led the eugenics movement, and what were their
influences? Gabriel Garcia Marquez once described One Hundred Years of Solitude
as, in effect, a book about a family who did everything they could to avoid
having a child with a pig's tail, and, precisely as a result of everything they
did, ended up having a child with a pig's tail. As a family saga, Better for
All the World traces a similar irony. I pay special attention to the
relationship between parents and children and the longings and disappointments
that arose out the quest for better breeding. There is a theme of "three
generations" throughout the bookan allusion, like the book's title, to Oliver
Wendell Holmes's decision in Buck v. Bell so the influences of parents on
children, and children on parents, resound in the story.
But I also suggest that the American eugenics movementwhich, unlike England,
passed actual legislation to breed genetically superior citizensstemmed in part
from a unique American self-understanding. Since the time of the Puritans,
Americans have seen
themselves as a "city upon a hill," a nation liberated from the old world and
its history. Americans have long seen themselves as a "peculiar people," chosen
by God to come to this land of Edenic lushness, where material abundance, good
health, and moral purity can reign free. Americans have often defined their
civic and spiritual lives through this Biblical image, and have remained
relentlessly optimistic, ever confident that the burdens of history and the
evils of the past can be swallowed up in this new Jerusalem, this paradise
regained in America. But this promise has always been conditional. A return to
innocence requires an effort to maintain that innocence, that moral and
spiritual purity, or else the promise will become a curse. Many of the eugenics
movement's leaders were New England Protestants, and, using an evangelical tone
which harked back to their Puritan forbearers, they proclaimed that the goal of
their scientific program was to keep the "American stock" pure by excising the
causes of immoral behavior. They saw eugenics as critical to renewing
America, purifying it not only from disease, but from moral impurity as well.
In 2006, the idea of eugenics seems appalling. Why was it so appealing in
the late 1800s, early 1900s? We see "eugenics" through the lens of the Holocaust today, and the term
is certainly untenableat least at the moment. However, the same longing for
perfection, the same drive for physical "purity," is hardly an appalling idea
today. The premise behind thinkers trumpeting the promises of genetic
engineering today remains the same as those promoting eugenics 100 years ago.
Then, Mendel's theory, combined with the stunning, identity shattering ideas of
Darwin, led many to believe that human reproduction could be engineered, that
human imperfections and ailments could be scientifically eliminated, and that
human strengths could be enhanced. I argue that eugenics may have been primitive
and misguided, and of course riddled with false premises and shoddy
methodologies, but it was not, as many maintain, a "pseudoscience." Today, many
believe that genetic engineering offers the exact same promises as eugenics. And
some even dare to suggest we make it a social policy of enhancement in order to
move the entire human race to a higher level.
On the one hand, those who found eugenics so appealing in the early 20th century
were by no means racists or Nazis (though a great many were, of course). Many
influential thinkers and politicians rightly believed that scienceand, in
particular, the science of eugenics and geneticscould help eliminate diseases
and social problems, including alcoholism, cancer, and blindness. A great many
were honest and well-meaning, and their optimism about the possibilities of
science and technology remain very strong with us today.
And I wonder how appalling the idea of eugenics seems to a great number of
honest, well-meaning people today. Yes, Oliver Wendell Holmes's words seem
shocking, but I think they really are logically sound. It's a Utilitarian
argument. When can reproductive choices be regulated by the state, if they are
demonstrably dangerous to society as a whole?
How did the American scientists' work influence Nazi "racial hygiene" and
genocide? It would be a mistake to see a simple cause-and-effect nexus at work.
Eugenics is, however, an Anglo-American idea, and the United States was indeed
the pioneer in state-sanctioned programs of better breeding, which included
forced sterilization, antimiscegenation, and immigration restriction. Germany
had its own history of eugenic research, which dated back to the late 19th
century, and many of its eugenic programs rose out German research. But eugenics
had been an international movement with international conferences and
collaborations, and global research played the same kind of role it usually
does in the scientific community, with innovations being picked up, imitated,
and revised by scientists in different countries.
Having said this, in the early 20th century many American eugenicists had
already suggested, however subtly, that euthanasia could be one "solution" for
the problem of "mental defectives," while conceding that it was "probably"
against current social mores. While a few thinkers did suggest euthanasia as a
eugenic solutionand there was a significant castration movement in the late
19th centuryfew called for actually killing. Forced sterilization, too, was
very controversial in the early decades after 1900, reaching a high point in the
late 1920s and early 1930s.
When the Nazi regime instituted its comprehensive sterilization program in 1934,
it hailed American research and legislation as the model. This was probably for
propagandistic purposes as much as anything, since such a program is inherently
As the states adopted new eugenic laws, when and how did the federal
government, including President Theodore Roosevelt, become involved? The federal government was involved in the early period of the eugenics
movement. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt's Secretary of Agriculture,
William Hayes, appointed Davenport and other prominent scientists to a national
"Heredity Commission," charging them to investigate America's genetic heritage.
Its purpose, Hayes said, should be scientific research, but "with the idea of
encouraging the increase of families of good blood, and of discouraging the
vicious elements in the cross-bred American civilization." The Commission
should also try to discover whether "a new species of human being may be
consciously evolved," even amid the resistance of traditional culture and mores.
This commission helped organize eugenic research and bring together key scholars
in the early 20th century, but no federal legislation rose out of it. The key
federal legislation is arguably the 1924 Immigration Act, which severely
curtailed the immigration of "non-Nordic" peoples, especially Jews. While not an
explicitly eugenics act, the arguments in Congress centered around the idea of
racial purity. And Calvin Coolidge, who signed the bill into law, had said,
"America must be kept American. Biological laws show that Nordics deteriorate
when mixed with other races." But in this pre-New Deal era, most eugenic
legislation was passed on the state level.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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