Bioethics Blogs

Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age #4, Part 1: The Short Life and Eugenic Death of Baby John Bollinger

Book on eugenics, 1916 edition

[Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age is a blog series exploring the lesser-known ways that eugenics affected and engaged American lives during the first half of the twentieth century.]

In November 1915, Chicago physician Harry Haiselden decided to let newborn John Bollinger die.

Baby Bollinger, as he was called in the many press reports of the time, was born paralyzed on the left side of his body, missing his left ear altogether and the ear drum of his right ear. His right cheek was connected to his shoulder, and he had a curved spine and closure of the intestinal tract. His only chance of survival was immediate surgery.

Obstetrician Climena Serviss called in the hospital’s chief surgeon, Dr. Haiselden, to consult. A firm believer in the doctrine of eugenics, he examined Baby Bollinger and arrived at the conclusion that even if surgery was successful, the child would grow up to be a mental and moral “defective” who would burden his family and society and taint the human race. Indeed, Haiselden believed that it would be morally wrong to allow the baby to live. As he later recounted, he wondered, “Would his mind be clear? Would his soul be normally alive? That I do not know, but the chances are against it.” Haiselden informed the baby’s parents that, in his estimation, the child would be better off dead. In due course, Mr. and Mrs. Bollinger came to agree.

Having made this decision, Haiselden contacted a reporter to share the story, believing that shedding light on such practices would make the case for the betterment of society through eugenics.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.