Bioethics News

Harvard’s dark past as the “brain trust” of American eugenics

Harvard University is the richest, most famous and oldest university in the US – and it won the Harvard-Yale game last year 38-19. But one distinction which it would rather forget is that it was the “brain trust” of American eugenics.

The author of a just-published study on the most famous law case involving eugenics, Adam Cohen, writes that “Harvard was more central to American eugenics than any other university.” (Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, Penguin 2016.)

One of Harvard’s 19th century presidents, Charles William Eliot, was a vice president of the First International Eugenics Congress in 1912. In 1914 he helped to organise the First National Conference on Race Betterment in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr, dean of Harvard Medical School, popular writer, coiner of the term “Boston Brahmin” and father of the future Supreme Court justice, was one of the first Americans to promote eugenics.

A. Lawrence Lowell, president from 1909 to 1933, actively promoted eugenics. During his tenure, many leading academics promoted eugenic theories. Economist Frank W. Taussig believed that “Certain types of criminals and paupers breed only their kind, and society has a right and a duty to protect its members from the repeated burden of maintaining and guarding such parasites.” Botanist Edward M. East warned of the degeneration of the white race. He wrote emphatically: “the negro is inferior to the white.”

Psychologist Robert M. Yerkes developed an IQ test for the US Army which found that about half the men who took it were “feeble-minded”.

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.