To 'Keep Its Stock Pure': A History Of Eugenics At Harvard

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In 1912, the first International Eugenics Congress met in London. Two years later, in 1914, the Congress's vice president went on to organize the "First National Conference on Race Betterment" in Michigan.

That man who championed the forced sterilization of the so-called "feeble-minded," and called for "the suppression of moral defectives" was named Charles William Eliot. He also happened to be president emeritus of Harvard University.

As writer Adam Cohen notes, Eliot and Harvard lent considerable legitimacy and clout to the global eugenics movement. The university was the "brain trust" of 20th century eugenics, Cohen writes, but the "role it played is little remembered or remarked upon today."

Cohen pulls back the curtain on that history in new book, "Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck."


Adam Cohen, author and co-editor of The National Book Review. He tweets @adamscohen.


Harvard Magazine: Harvard’s Eugenics Era

  • "But in part because of its overall prominence and influence on society, and in part because of its sheer enthusiasm, Harvard was more central to American eugenics than any other university. Harvard has, with some justification, been called the 'brain trust' of twentieth-century eugenics, but the role it played is little remembered or remarked upon today. It is understandable that the University is not eager to recall its part in that tragically misguided intellectual movement—but it is a chapter too important to be forgotten."

The National Book Review: What The Supreme Court's Infamous 1927 Eugenics Decision Tells Us About Filling Justice Scalia's Seat

  • "In 1927, in Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that a poor white woman from Virginia should be sterilized for eugenic reasons. The opinion, written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., did not merely uphold sterilizing Carrie Buck – it issued a clarion call to the nation to sterilize many more 'manifestly unfit' people to prevent them from reproducing. America had to sterilize those who 'sap the strength of the State,' the Court insisted, to avoid 'being swamped with incompetence.'"

Fresh Air: The Supreme Court Ruling That Led To 70,000 Forced Sterilizations

  • "All told, as many as 70,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized during the 20th century. The victims of state-mandated sterilization included people like Buck who had been labeled 'mentally deficient,' as well as those who who were deaf, blind and diseased. Minorities, poor people and 'promiscuous' women were often targeted."

This segment aired on March 8, 2016.


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