|Date(s):||January 1, 1883 to December 31, 1914|
|Location(s):||England | United States|
|Tag(s):||Eugenics, Medicine, Francis Galton, elite|
|Course:||“The History of Medicine and Public Health,” Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis|
The 19th and 20th centuries saw a rapid influx of revolutionary ideas and innovations, but very few were as morally frightening as the eugenics movement. Coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, the term “eugenics” became popularized in the 20th century, especially after Galton’s 1901 publication “The Possible Improvement of the Human Breed Under Existing Conditions of Law and Sentiment.” Galton’s ideas refuted the impractical nature of implementing eugenics into society, aiding to convince the “elite” that eugenics was the quintessential mechanism to improve the human race. The elite consisted of the wealthy, the educated, and the “gifted,” and while Galton’s words definitely resonated, the potentially immoral nature of eugenics, including ideas of genocide and elitism, was troubling. Galton appeared to have very few qualms about the movement’s ideas, but the question remained--how could he persuade the elite, especially those with doubts, to adopt the eugenics movement?
Galton drew inspiration from his half-cousin Charles Darwin’s theories on genetics and natural selection to convince the elite of their duty to improve mankind. Biologically speaking, mankind was much like every other organism in that its genetic disposition and talents varied from individual to individual. If society proliferated certain breeds of dogs and horses, why can’t it also do the same with humans? Eugenics could be implemented by financing the education of precocious children and influencing marital practices. The easiest way to proliferate the spread of “good” genes would be for like to marry like, especially within the gifted classes. Children birthed from the “highly valued” would likely be more genetically superior and thus yield lives of higher civic worth. To encourage the formation of early marriages and subsequent highly productive childbearing, Galton claimed the “...tendency among cultured women to delay or even to abstain from marriage...has to be reckoned with.”
His ideas were very influential in the medical community. Dr. William Polk argued in 1912 that many parents were already unknowingly practicing positive eugenics by discouraging their children from marrying those deemed unworthy, such as those with low intelligence or afflictions. He asserted that parents and educators should continue this practice by intentionally teaching children to marry wisely and to avoid the costly teacher of experimentation in one’s youth. Galton also claimed, “...an enthusiasm to improve the race is so noble in its aim that it might well give rise to the sense of a religious obligation.” Inspired by Galton, Dr. Caleb Saleeby further advocated in the early 20th century for eugenics by asserting that racial perfection should be idealized just as much as individual perfection is. Galton’s appeals were greatly influential in convincing the elite, particularly medical professionals, of the practical implementations of eugenics, pushing the eugenics movement into mainstream ideology. For example, the eventual atrocities of many states’ eugenic laws in the United States and the Nazi regime drew much of their inspiration from these works. Genetic perfection was attainable; it only required the efforts of the elite to accept and carry out their divine duty.