BookBrowse Reviews Better for All the World by Harry Bruinius

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Better for All the World

The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity

by Harry Bruinius

Better for All the World by Harry Bruinius
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2006, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2007, 416 pages

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The history of eugenics in the USA - 'Eye-opening . . . Disturbing . . . Highly readable.' - Hardcover

From the book jacket: In Better for All the World, Harry Bruinius charts the little-known history of eugenics in America—a movement that began in the early twentieth century and resulted in the forced sterilization of more than 65,000 Americans right up into the 1970s.

Comment: In 1927 the Supreme Court upheld Virginia's right to forcibly sterilize "feeble-minded individuals" in Buck v. Bell. Speaking for the majority, Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes made the following statement: "It is better for all the world, 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 ... Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Taking Holmes's words for his title, journalist Harry Bruinius draws on personal letters, diaries, and documents to bring us the lives of the three scientists who developed the theories and practices of eugenics: Francis Galton who, inspired by his cousin Charles Darwin, introduced the idea of intelligence as an inherited trait, and coined the word "eugenics" (derived from eugenes, Greek for "well born" or "good 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.

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.

America wasn't the only country to be caught up in the eugenics movement. The idea was born in England where, apparently, Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw were both proponents, but flourished in the USA; and Nazi Germany's eugenics laws were inspired and modeled on California's 1909 sterilization law.

Despite the title's claim to be telling a "secret history" there are actually a substantial number of books already written about the American eugenics movement, but most have been written with the academic market in mind, not the general public. The title that reviewers expert in the field most reference is Daniel Kevles's In the Name of Eugenics. In the realm of popular history, there was also a 1994 television drama: Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story.

If there is a weakness in Bruinius's retelling it is that he focuses on the individuals' stories at the expense of exploring the issues that drove their often honorable intentions. Also, he does touch on modern-day issues such as genetic engineering (arguably the modern day equivalent of eugenics) but more exploration of the gray areas of eugenics past and present would have been appreciated. For example, no doubt we can all agree that mass genocide, however it might be practiced, is not a good thing; but at the other end of the scale, is a program such as Project Prevention (see sidebar), which some label as eugenics, entirely repugnant either?

This review was originally published in February 2006, and has been updated for the April 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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