for All the World, Harry Bruinius charts the little-known history of
eugenics in Americaa movement that began in the early twentieth century
and resulted in the forced sterilization of more than 65,000 Americans.
Bruinius tells the stories of Emma and Carrie Buck, two women trapped in
poverty and caught up in a new scientific quest for racial purity.
Buck v. Bell became a test case brought before the Supreme Court,
which voted 81 to make sterilization a constitutionally valid way for
the state to prevent anyone deemed "unfit" from having children.
The court's majority opinion was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes: "It
is better for all the world," Holmes wrote, "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. The principle that sustains compulsory
vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. . . .
Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
Eugenicists believed that the human race must begin to take control not
just of human reproduction, but of ethnic intermingling. With the
natural and objective methods of science they hoped to breed only the
biologically best of the races and prevent the propagation of the worst.
The result: marriage restriction, anti-miscegenation, and immigration
In Better for All the World, Harry Bruinius shows how reformers
across the nation transformed haphazard, locally run systems of charity
and welfaremostly church handouts and town asylumsinto government-run
systems of welfare that aspired to make America a place where social and
moral purity could reign, free from the "hereditary defectives" of the
Those who supported the programs included Theodore Roosevelt; Margaret
Sanger; Alexander Graham Bell; the heads of the Harriman, Carnegie, and
Rockefeller foundations; and scholars from Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.
Bruinius writes how many of the leaders of the eugenics movement were
New England Protestants who used an evangelical tone that harked back to
their Puritan forebears, and who proclaimed their goal to keep the
"American stock" pure by excising the causes of immoral behavior.
Drawing on personal letters, diaries, and documents never before used,
the author writes of the three scientists who developed the theories and
practices of eugenics: Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, who
coined the word "eugenics" to describe the science of better breeding;
Charles Davenport, the first influential eugenic thinker in America,
professor at Harvard University and the University of Chicago, direct
descendant of Reverend John Davenport, the founder of the city of New
Haven; and Harry Laughlin, Davenport's protégé, the nation's foremost
expert in eugenic sterilization and also a leader in the movement to
stop the tide of immigrants coming to this country.
The author makes clear how America's quest for racial purity influenced
Nazi Germany: one of its first laws, the Prevention of Genetically
Diseased Offspring, followed the work of California's Human Betterment
Foundation and Harry Laughlin's Model Law. In less than two years, more
than 150,000 German citizens were sterilized, preparing the way for the
genocide to come. In 1936, the Nazi regime awarded Laughlin an honorary
doctorate from Heidelberg University for his contributions to "racial
hygiene." During the Nuremberg Trials, the Allied prosecutors were
doubtful they could convict Nazi doctors of "crimes against
humanity"since those accused had carried out acts based on theories of
eugenics that had been practiced for decades in the United States.
Bruinius's account, enlivened with many novelistic touches, is backed up by well-documented hard data, including the legislative records that show how 30 states implemented forced sterilization programs; and how many individuals and groups including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Sanger, Alexander Graham Bell, the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, Ivy League scholars, temperance advocates, suffragists, and liberal American churches and synagogues all got behind the campaign, inspired by the idea that America could be a place where moral purity and social harmony reigned. (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).
The New York Times - Sally Satel, physician
Bruinius stakes out little new ground beyond that already covered in Daniel Kevles's more substantial study, In the Name of Eugenics (1985). And his decision to pay minimal attention to the scientific ideas behind eugenics lightens the narrative at the cost of a fuller understanding of what fueled the passions of eugenicists.
Washington Post - Michael Ruse
Bruinius suggests, rightly, that compulsory sterilization was horrible and not something of which the nation should be proud. However, because he concentrates on individuals and tries to convey their personalities, hopes and shortcomings, he fails to provide any real understanding of them or the issues that defined them.
The Wall Street Journal - Christine Rosen
If Mr. Bruinius's book helps to introduce readers to this dark chapter of American history, it will be, whatever its flaws, a useful contribution to the literature of eugenics. The "age-old passions and human desires" for improvement that Mr. Bruinius describes exist in all of us. In a world where new genetic technologies offer even greater opportunities for shaping human life, it is worth remembering that moral scruples and a respect for human dignity are not as widely shared.
San Francisco Chronicle - Elbert Ventura
[W]hile Bruinius displays a novelistic flair, he occasionally veers into facile psychologizing and bludgeoning sanctimoniousness, wringing every drop of pathos out of a story that hardly needs a heavy hand. That said, his book is a welcome addition to the literature. Better for All the World invites us to look back on the follies of the past and recognize our own reflection in them.
Although eugenics has long been discredited as a science infected by social prejudice
and notions of racial supremacy, Bruinius notes that biotechnology has once again brought the dream of better breeding to the fore ...
This history isn't as "secret" as the title makes it out to be-it's been told most recently by Edwin Black in War Against the Weak-but Bruinius brings compelling drama to the narrative that should give it broad appeal.
Booklist - Donna Chavez
Starred Review. Bruinius' account of one of America's dirty little secrets is that rare thing for nonfiction, a real page-turner.
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