God and white men at Yale

In the 1920s, leading thinkers—including the greatest economist America ever produced—focused their efforts on eugenics, preserving the Nordic stock, and the problem of “race suicide.”

Richard Conniff ’73, a National Magazine Award winner, is the author, most recently, of The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth.

American Philosophical Society

American Philosophical Society

A state fair exhibit to help educate the public in eugenics. View full image

On a sweltering Friday in June 1921, a 54-year-old Yale economics professor named Irving Fisher delivered a major speech at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island. The pain of the recent war in Europe was still fresh, and Fisher was troubled by the quality of those who had died, and the damage to “the potential fatherhood of the race” by the loss of so many young men “medically selected for fighting but thereby prevented from breeding.”

In light of these losses, the issue, it seemed to Fisher, was that graduates of leading universities were failing to do their reproductive duty: the families “of American men of science” averaged just 2.22 children, versus a national average of 4.66. (Or as he put it, perhaps too lucidly, “The average Harvard graduate is the father of three-fourths of a son and the average Vassar graduate the mother of one-half of a daughter.”) This “race suicide” among “the well-to-do classes means that their places will speedily be taken by the unintelligent, uneducated, and inefficient.”

To prevent that, immigration from certain regions needed to be sharply curtailed, and birth control “extended from the white race to the colored” and to other “undesirable” ethnic and economic groups, ideally under the control of a eugenics committee established to “breed out the unfit and breed in the fit.” Otherwise, “the Nordic race . . .  will vanish or lose its dominance.”

It was strong stuff, and from a seemingly impeccable source. Irving Fisher ’88, ’91PhD, a dapper, balding figure, with a white van dyke beard and rimless eyeglasses, was one of America’s best-known scholars. The New York Times ran long, flattering profiles about his work, and for years the Wall Street Journal published “Fisher’s Weekly Index,” for tracking market prices. The rich and powerful, including congressmen and presidents, sought his advice.

And with good reason: even today, Fisher is widely regarded as the greatest economist America has produced. He devised many of the basic concepts for analyzing the modern financial system and explained them so clearly that, at his death in 1947, the Harvard economics faculty en masse would sign a letter saying, “No American has contributed more to the advancement of his chosen subject.”

But Fisher was also a leading voice of the eugenics movement, which aimed to improve human populations through carefully controlled breeding. The aim, more precisely, was to build up the white northern European population, and discourage all others. This agenda, as it found its way into state laws, would mean evicting other Americans from their homes, depriving them of the ability to have children, and locking them away in institutions.

Fisher didn’t merely lend his reputation to bigotry. He made eugenics a major focus of his life and regarded it as a natural outgrowth of his economics: “national vitality” depended on a productive citizenry, and it was clear to him that healthy living and careful breeding were the best ways to make the citizenry become more productive. To that end, he helped found the Race Betterment Society; was an active member of the Eugenics Research Association, a group of scholars in the field; and served as founding president of the American Eugenics Society, which organized research, lobbying, and propaganda for the movement.

Yale figured prominently in this work. The early meetings of the AES took place in the Manhattan home of an influential friend of Fisher’s from his college years, Madison Grant, Class of 1887. Other university administrators, faculty, and alumni also played an active part, among them the conservationist Gifford Pinchot ’89 and the explorer and geography professor Ellsworth Huntington ’09PhD. The AES later established its headquarters in offices overlooking the New Haven Green, at Elm and Church Streets. In the years leading up to World War II, when it was carefully downplaying the anti-Semitic character of the eugenics program in Nazi Germany, the AES was housed on the Yale campus. The seminal text of the movement was Madison Grant’s 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race, which influenced Adolf Hitler himself.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, eugenics “fell squarely in the mainstream of scientific and popular culture,” according to Yale history professor Daniel Kevles, author of the 1985 book In the Name of Eugenics. Theodore Roosevelt popularized the term “race suicide,” for what he saw as the dwindling of the old Anglo-American stock, and the young Winston Churchill advocated sterilization and labor camps for “mental defectives.” Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger decried the proliferation of “human weeds,” while progressive reformer Havelock Ellis thought that getting the reproductive choices right would require the sexual liberation of women.

Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, had coined the word “eugenics” in 1883 from the Greek for “of good birth.” But it really gained currency after 1900, with the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s work describing how different traits are inherited in pea plants—and particularly after researchers demonstrated in 1907 that Mendelian inheritance plays a role in eye color in humans, too.

Eugenicists inferred—incorrectly, as we now know—that single genes, or “unit characters,” could determine feeblemindedness, insanity, alcoholism, and even broad swaths of behavior like criminality. They also believed that society could now use this knowledge to dramatically improve the species. Huntington, the Yale geographer, described this as the fifth “most momentous” discovery in human history, after tools, speech, fire, and writing. For Fisher, likewise, it was the coming of an epoch: “We could make a new human in a hundred years.”

By the late 1920s, 376 American colleges were offering courses in eugenics. The army of enthusiasts included, at various times, the presidents of Yale, Harvard, Stanford, the American Museum of Natural History, and the universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, and California. State fairs also embraced the eugenic cause. Known for celebrating grand champion sows and other masterworks of animal husbandry, they now added a “human stock” section, where competitors vied for the blue ribbon in the “Fitter Families” contest. A traveling display warned, “Some people are born to be a burden on the rest,” above a light that flashed every 15 seconds to indicate that another “$100 of your money” had just gone “for the care of a person with bad heredity.”

To help make their case, the eugenicists developed elaborate genealogies showing how certain “unfit” families had spread their defective “germ plasm”—that is, their genes—through the generations, at terrible cost to society. The true identities of these families were hidden behind fake names. But the genealogies were often fake, too, and the harsh-sounding pseudonyms like Jukes and Kallikak served as an onomatopoeic way of getting people to feel, as Fisher did, “what awful contamination can be saved the race by a wise application of eugenics.”

Genealogies of prominent Yale and Harvard men often served as a bracing and instructive contrast. Fisher looked at the 1,394 descendants of Jonathan Edwards, Class of 1720, and reported that “something like half have been public men or men of great distinction and good influence in the world.” This biologizing of social superiority provoked one skeptic to publish a detailed account in an academic journal of how manic-depressive insanity ran through the families of Boston’s Brahmins.

Yale was “not luminously worse” than others in perpetuating this “farrago of flawed science,” according to Kevles. But it was bad enough. Proponents of eugenics included Yale president James R. Angell, celebrated football coach Walter Camp ’80, primatologist Robert Yerkes, and Yale medical school dean Milton Winternitz. Stewart Paton, who pioneered mental health services for college students during a two-year stint at Yale in the 1920s, was a eugenicist. So was Rabbi Louis L. Mann, a lecturer at Yale, who told an audience at a 1923 birth control conference that, even in ancient times, the wise men of Israel had realized the necessity of checking the multiplication of the unfit.

But though many scholars and statesmen embraced eugenics, none, writes historian Annie L. Cot, “could rival Fisher, whose struggles in the ranks of the eugenic movement were lifelong.”