The archives of the American Eugenics Movement


The word eugenics immediately makes one think of the racial hygiene programs of the Nazis and the experiments performed by Joseph Mengele on those held in the concentration camps, but far fewer are aware that there was a large and powerful eugenics movement in the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century.

For example, by 1941, no less than 33 states endorsed policies for sterilizing “defective”members of society, such as criminals, the “feeble-minded“, epileptics, the mentally ill and, of course, blacks (and non-whites in general). 

Much of the eugenics research in the U.S. was carried out at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Eugenics Record Office in New York. As well as carrying out research, this office, which was directed by Charles Davenport between 1910-1940, also disseminated “scientific” information about, and promoted, “the improvement of the human race by better breeding”.

Via The Nonist, I found this image archive of the American Eugenics Movement, which has been collected by the Dolan DNA Learning Center at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory with a grant from the National Institutes of Health. As well as thousands of images, the archive holds letters, articles and scientific reports related to eugenics.

It is fitting that the archive is hosted by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, because, as well as being a centre for eugenics research, it was also involved in the mapping of the human genome, which some argue could lead us into a new era of eugenics.



  1. #1 John McKay
    September 30, 2007

    I think a lot of people would be surprised to know that “idiot”, “moron”, “retard”, and “imbecile” were once used as medical diagnostic terms or that women of loose morals were included among “defective” members of society. Even creepier is that some state fairs actually gave ribbons for eugenic breeding. Naturally, buxom, blond, white women tended to win. Later this was replaced by the Miss America contest. Only the last sentence is a joke.

  2. #2 Shelley
    September 30, 2007

    “members of society, such as criminals, the “feeble-minded”, epileptics, the mentally ill and, of course, blacks (and non-whites in general).”

    The addition “understood” qualifier to the above categories was “poor”.

  3. #3 DuWayne
    September 30, 2007

    I am really glad that you posted this. I have been in a few different conversations about this chapter of my country’s history lately. I think that Americans have a strong tendency to want to gloss over, or completely ignore, this and other atrocities we were involved in. I tend to think that these sorts of issues, are among the most important to remember lest we end up down this road again.

  4. #4 Mo
    October 1, 2007

    John – the IQ test was used to diagnose people:

    IQ <20 = idiot
    IQ 20-49 = imbecile
    IQ 50-69 = moron
    IQ 70-80 = borderline deficiency.

    (From here.)

    See Stephen J. Gould’s Mismeausre of Man for detailed discussion.

  5. #5 Roger Anderson
    October 23, 2007

    I am not in favor of sterilization for individuals based on race or intellectual achievement. I am not so sure I am against it for pedophiles, rapists, and those that have received gene therapy which could alter their gametes. As has been said in other places: Just because you can do something, that does not mean you should.

    Now, what is the point of this post? As a student of science you know better that to throw around so many bits and pieces without reason. I’m sure you know the proper use of data to support, enhance, or obfuscate a point.

    Did all 33 states have the same laws? Is it your intention to say that at one time, perhaps when there were only a few more than 33 states that the majority of America or Americans was of the nature of Joseph Mengele?

    Can you define large number? Was it a majority of the citizens or a majority of the elected officials? Perhaps it was just an unopposed minority, like the one that runs the New York Times editorial section.
    Could you define powerful? How many people were put through this program?

    Is your point to attempt damage the reputation of the scientists involved, Cold Spring Harbor, or the United States? You really should provide something more than hand-waving and scandalous language. If the target is the scientists, than name them. You called out Cold Spring Harbor. Did you ask them to comment? Have they commented in the past? If you are trying to say that the US is as guilty as Nazi Germany, then I would ask; “What it is you want from this “revelation?”

    I do agree that we should not try to “gloss over” our mistakes. However, we should not be beaten continually for them either. Slavery was wrong. It still is. Yet more people want to scream about America’s past than do something about the continuation of it today. People decry the Holocaust and let Darfur continue. Every August the United States is criticized for having dropped the atomic bomb, and yet few say anything about the 100,000’s of lives lost trying to end the war before that point.

    OK – so what is the reason to bring this up?

  6. #6 Ben Richards
    November 25, 2008

    John Glad’s site detailing the history of this idea.

  7. #7 Jim
    March 2, 2009

    (and non-whites in general) ??????

    The Celt and Latin were considered inferior and this was stated as such in English text books as early as the mid 19th century.

  8. #8 Barbra Scurley
    September 25, 2009

    I don’t know If I said it already but …This blog rocks! I gotta say, that I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read….Barbra Scurley

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