Harvard & Eugenics

By Atom Bergstrom

Atom’s Blog

According to Radio Boston (“‘To Keep Its Stock Pure’: A History of Eugenics at Harvard,” Mar. 8, 2016) …

“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.'”


Adam S. Cohen (“Harvard’s Eugenics Era: When academics embraced scientific racism, immigration restrictions, and the suppression of ‘the unfit,'” Harvard Magazine, Mar.-Apr. 2016) wrote …

“In August 1912, Harvard president emeritus Charles William Eliot addressed the Harvard Club of San Francisco on a subject close to his heart: racial purity. It was being threatened, he declared, by immigration. Eliot was not opposed to admitting new Americans, but he saw the mixture of racial groups it could bring about as a grave danger. ‘Each nation should keep its stock pure,’ Eliot told his San Francisco audience. ‘There should be no blending of races.’

“Eliot’s warning against mixing races — which for him included Irish Catholics marrying white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Jews marrying Gentiles, and blacks marrying whites — was a central tenet of eugenics. The eugenics movement, which had begun in England and was rapidly spreading in the United States, insisted that human progress depended on promoting reproduction by the best people in the best combinations, and preventing the unworthy from having children.”


Charles William Eliot was a vice president of The First International Eugenics Congress at the University of London in 1912.

The Congress was dedicated to building a global eugenicist movement, and was attended by 400 or so members, including Winston Churchill, Leonard Darwin, Arthur Balfour, Alexander Graham Bell, Sir William Osler, etc.


Charles William Eliot’s cousin was a eugenicist too — T.S. Eliot (1888-1965).


Donald J. Childs (Modernism and Eugenics: Woolf, Eliot, Yeats, and the Culture of Degeneration, 2001) wrote …

“For Eliot, eugenics was a natural extension of the study of biology and heredity. Employing the work of biologists like Lamarck and Darwin to De Vries, Henri Bergson had introduced Eliot to an intoxicating combination of biology, philosophy, and mysticism in Creative Evolution (1907), inviting human beings to reclaim an intuitive oneness with the Life Force that had been forsaken in the embrace of practical intellect. A few years later, in Josiah Royce’s seminar at Harvard (1913-14), Eliot encountered a more scientifically and philosophically scrupulous discussion of biology and evolution. Inevitably, seminars included discussion of heredity and eugenics. The class considered the work of Galton, Pearson, and Davenport, questions of the relative influences of environment and heredity (they discussed the infamous Jukes family), and the possibility of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. One of the most regular contributors to the seminar discussions on these topics was F.A. Woods, who had already published Mental and Moral Heredity in Royalty (1906). At Harvard in 1915, Eliot took a course with the eugenicist William McDougall. As Robert Crawford notes. Eliot attended the latter’s ‘lectures on “Mental Evolution” which dealt with primitive man and the biological theories of Darwinian pangenesis, Weissman on germ-plasm, De Vries on mutation, and Mendel on heredity.”


David Taub (“Eugenics: The Godfather of the tragic mythology of racism in the Western World,” The Island News, Dec. 16, 2020) wrote …

“Sadly, the great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. led the fight to legalize enforced sterilization of the ‘unfit;’ he was a dedicated believer in Eugenics. Then the dam burst, and three years after the Buck v. Bell decision, 30 states had adopted sterilization laws and approximately 36,000 people were sterilized. By the elimination of enforced sterilization by 1981, over 70,000 had been done.

“Regrettably, America’s invention of Eugenics had world-wide impact. Germany’s sterilization laws were almost word for word based on the American Eugenics model. The Nazi’s ‘final solution’ that became the genocidal Holocaust, murdering more than 6 million ‘defective/inferior Jews,’ was Nazis taking Eugenic principles to its ultimate conclusion — extermination.”


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