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The buttons below link to essays (using the Ruffle Flash Player emulator) that introduce the key events, persons, and social conditions that contributed to the development of eugenics. We suggest you visit these exhibits before searching the images in the Archive. Click here for text-only versions of the virtual exhibits.
he philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This adage is appropriate to our current rush into the "gene age," which has striking parallels to the eugenics movement of the early decades of the 20th century. Eugenics was, quite literally, an effort to breed better human beings by encouraging the reproduction of people with "good" genes and discouraging those with "bad" genes. Eugenicists effectively lobbied for social legislation to keep racial and ethnic groups separate, to restrict immigration from southern and eastern Europe, and to sterilize people considered "genetically unfit." Elements of the American eugenics movement were models for the Nazis, whose radical adaptation of eugenics culminated in the Holocaust.
We now invite you to experience the unfiltered story of American eugenics primarily through materials from the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, which was the center of American eugenics research from 1910-1940. In the Archive you will see numerous reports, articles, charts, and pedigrees that were considered scientific "facts" in their day. It is important to remind yourself that the vast majority of eugenics work has been completely discredited. In the final analysis, the eugenic description of human life reflected political and social prejudices, rather than scientific facts.
You may find some of the language and images in this Archive offensive. Even supposedly "scientific" terms used by eugenicists were often pervaded with prejudice against racial, ethnic, and disabled groups. Some terms have no scientific meaning today. For example, "feeblemindedness" was used as a catch-all for a number of real and supposed mental disabilities, and was a common "diagnosis" used to make members of ethnic and racial minority groups appear inferior. However, we have made no attempt to censor this documentary record to do so would distort the past and diminish the significance of the lessons to be learned from this material.
During a two-year review process, involving a 14-member Advisory Panel, this site has developed an editorial policy to protect personal privacy and confidentiality. For this reason, names and places have been deleted from pedigrees, medical documents, and personal photographs.
American Philosophical Society Library
Archiv zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives
International Center of Photography
National Park Service
Rockefeller Archive Center
Truman State University
University at Albany
University College London
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
University of Virginia
DNA LEARNING CENTER, COLD SPRING HARBOR LABORATORY