Why America’s Quest for a Superior Human is Left Out of History

Eugenics—a mishmash of the Greek words for “well” and “born”—is a term that conjures up images of Adolf Hitler and Nazi concentration camps. You might not have learned in your history class that the U.S.’s eugenics program was one of Hitler’s inspirations.

“The Eugenics Crusade,” a riveting and gut-wrenching new episode of PBS’s “American Experience” series, tells the hidden story of the racist and classist effort to control human breeding in America, often without the consent of the people whose reproduction was controlled. Through the U.S. eugenics program, tens of thousands of people were sterilized.

The episode discusses everything from the activism of John Harvey Kellogg (yes, the cornflake dude) to America’s acceptance of birth control, both connected to the United States’ pursuit of “fitter” families.

The unsettling story carries a reminder.

“We can run right up to the very edge of reprehensible, because of society, and come back from it,” said Michelle Ferrari, producer and director of “The Eugenics Crusade.”

Ferrari talked with Rewire about her inspiration for the film and the most surprising things she learned while making it.

A ‘Fitter Families’ award

Ferrari “had a long-time interest in eugenics” spurred by a childhood experience. When she was growing up, Ferrari’s grandfather had a trophy he won at a “Fitter Families” competition. At those events, which took place at fairs in the 1920s, human families were judged like livestock and information about eugenics was disseminated.

Ferrari and her grandfather never discussed the trophy at length, but it “piqued curiosity (about eugenics) that followed me into college,” she said.

Sterilization without consent

In 1936, heiress Ann Cooper Hewitt sued her mother. Why? In a sordid money grab, her mom arranged for her to be sterilized without her knowledge. Cooper Hewitt’s father’s will stipulated that if she died without having children, her mother would get her inheritance.

When Cooper Hewitt underwent emergency surgery to have her appendix removed, she was inundated with questions without knowing why. When she didn’t answer many of them correctly, a surgeon—who saw her incorrect answers as an indication of low intelligence—proceeded to sterilize her.

At first, there was talk of framing “The Eugenics Crusade” solely around Cooper Hewitt’s story, Ferrari said, but the team “decided to go for a more panoramic view.” Still, much of the episode focuses on her experience. At the time, she was an unlikely person to be forcibly sterilized. She was rich and white. She wasn’t a prison inmate and she didn’t have a disability. There’s also a lot of information available about Cooper Hewitt, which isn’t the case for many of the women who were sterilized as part of the eugenics movement, Ferrari said.

A missing paper trail

The case of Carrie Buck is another outlier. Buck was sterilized while institutionalized for being “feebleminded,” after she gave birth to a child conceived when she was raped. She was the first of about 8,300 people sterilized between 1927 and 1972 under Virginia’s eugenics laws.

“There’s very little paper trail about most of the victims of sterilization, particularly in the period before World War II,” Ferrari said. The information that was written down is often contained in sealed patient or inmate records.

However, information about Buck’s case is available because it was used as the basis for a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding her involuntary sterilization in 1927. The case paved the way for thousands more forced sterilizations in the country.

A “race betterment” exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. Photo courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Besides wanting to end the lineage of people who doctors, often dubiously, claimed to be mentally handicapped, eugenics advocates also pushed for purity of race and ancestry—nonwhite, immigrant and poor people were most commonly targeted for forced sterilizations.

Because there’s not a lot of public information available about forced sterilization in the U.S., some American histories intentionally omit information about the eugenics movement, Ferrari said.

“Eugenics in the U.S. and around the world was very, very tied to the development of genetics as a science,” she said.

But genetic research wasn’t established enough to have its scientific history written until after World War II, when the atrocious link between eugenics and Nazi Germany was already known, she said. That’s why the history of genetics in the U.S. is largely told without much mention of its roots in eugenics, even though American eugenics pre-dates the movement’s ties to Hitler.

Eugenics isn’t ancient history

Contrary to popular belief, “American eugenics actually never went away,” Ferrari said.

In present day, we see it “in an aspirational, medical context,” she said. The message has morphed to reflect a focus on “improving life at an individual level rather than at a societal level,” she said.

U.S. laws no longer protect forced sterilization. However, between 2006 and 2010, more than 130 women in California prisons were sterilized illegally, in violation of the state’s informed consent law, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Reducing the echo of eugenics

While working on this project, “the big surprise for me had to do with eugenics in the realm of immigration policy in the U.S.,” Ferrari said.

“The extent to which eugenicists were able to mold and shape the argument for curbing immigration in the 1920s was quite astonishing to me.”

These policies drastically reduced immigration to America for about 40 years, and caused Anne Frank’s father Otto’s plea to emigrate with his family from Nazi-occupied Holland to be denied.

“Much of the language used in those arguments is being echoed today,” Ferrari said.

To counter this, she recommends we continue to “educate ourselves about… genetic influence.” Remember that “race is a social construct–you can’t see it at the level of the gene,” she said.

“The Eugenics Crusade” premieres Oct. 16 on PBS. Check your station’s schedule for broadcast dates and times or stream online at PBS.org.

Rachel Crowell

Rachel Crowell is an Iowa-based writer exploring science and math. Rachel lives with Delilah, a golden retriever a stranger once called “the cutest thing in America.” Outside of STEM topics, Rachel also welcomes writing opportunities on everything from art to finance. Follow them on Twitter at @writesRCrowell. Reach them at [email protected]