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Eugenics ("well born") was coined by Sir Francis Galton in 1883 (cousin of Charles Darwin).  The term was used to describe  the study of human improvement by genetic control.  People in the eugenics movement aimed to improve the human condition by producing a superior race through genetic selection.  The image on the right (click it to see a larger version) identifies Eugenics as the "self-direction of human evolution" and it purports to integrate information from many disciplines.   The eugenics philosophy was the basis of Nazi Germany's extermination of Jews and other "inferior" races.  Less extreme, but also very disturbing,  practices based on eugenics beliefs took place right  here in the United States.  Influential Americans were successful in implementing various strategies to "purify" the race, including:

  • the sterilization of  inferior citizens  (Virginia statute)
  • deportation of  inferior immigrants
  • tightening of the immigration policy (especially Italian immigration)

A sample of  Important Events:

1907 -Indiana enacts the nations first eugenical sterilization law. To provide the country with examples of  individuals considered of superior quality The American Eugenics Society sponsors "fitter family contests" at state fairs.

1924 - Virginia  passes a eugenical sterilization statute in order to purify the white race. Forcible sterilization under the act was not abolished until 1979. Carrie Buck was the first person (at age 17) to be sterilized under the law. 

1924 - Woodrow Wilson signs the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 effectively halting the greatest era of immigration in U.S. History (not repealed until 1965).   Biologist Henry H. Laughlin was instrumental in developing and passing the act. He was convinced  that the American civilization was being degraded by intellectually and morally defective immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.  Laughlin's report to the 66th congress' committee  on immigration and naturalization in April, 1920 specifically targeted southern Italians and eastern European Jews. To read some of his comments click here.

May 2, 1927 - U.S. Supreme Court upheld Virginia's sterilization act 8-1.   Chief Justice Oliver Wendal Holmes wrote " 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."

1933 - Germany's Hitler passes the  Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Disease  which was very similar to the Virginia statute. As is well known Hitler expanded his eugenics policy to purify the race  by murdering millions in the Holocaust.  (Click here to read about Sora Seiler-Vigorito, a survivor of the Holocaust and the barbaric experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele)

The Eugenics philosophy was seriously flawed. Some of the most significant problems with the Eugenics movement were:

  1. the science of genetics (at the time a newly emerging field) was poorly understood and in the hands of Eugenic advocates it became a pseudoscience.
  2. based on the erroneous attempt to use science to support and set social policy.
  3. eugenics ideas were based on biased data collection and interpretation.

If you are interested in learning more about this ugly scar in human history, there is an excellent site with a wealth of   information, pictures, and original historical documents on the Eugenics movement. This site is  provided by the  Cold Spring Harbor Institute, Long Island NY, the home of the defunct National Eugenics Office.


Some notes on Italian Emigration 


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Last updated: March 23, 2000