Leading Eugenicists

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The English scientist Francis Galton applied the idea of evolution to human differences and coined the term eugenics in 1883. In a series of books, he argued that genius and talents are inherited. Galton advocated what is called positive eugenics — improving future generations by encouraging the "best" in society to have more children. In the 1920s, Charles Darwin's son, Leonard, avidly promoted Galton's ideas and became director of the English Eugenics Society.

Charles Davenport was director of the Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor when he obtained a gift from Mrs. E.H. Harriman to establish the Eugenics Record Office (ERO). The ERO became the leading center for eugenics in the United States, training field workers who went out to collect pedigrees of families with interesting traits. Davenport was a prolific writer, publishing an estimated 450 articles — many devoted to eugenics. Harry Laughlin, the ERO's zealous superintendent, was perhaps the most ambitious promoter of laws to sterilize "hereditary defectives" and to restrict the inflow of "worthless" immigrants. Arthur Estabrook, a sociologist and field worker for the ERO, published an influential follow-up of the Jukes family and testified in the lower court case that led to the Supreme Court decision, Buck vs. Bell.

Many eugenicists lamented the supposed contamination of the white race with genes of other races. Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race, and Albert Wiggam's The New Decalogue Of Science popularized the idea of race segregation and sterilization of the "unfit." David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, was a leading advocate of eugenic sterilization and was key in establishing the eugenics committee of the American Breeder's Association. Jordan's student, Paul Popenoe actively promoted compulsory sterilization in California. The Fitter Families Contests, founded by Mary T. Watts and Florence Brown Sherbon, took a positive approach and used state fairs as venues to promote eugenics.

Prominent Americans endorsed the eugenics movement, including telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who published articles on hereditary deafness, and Luther Burbank, an agricultural scientist who bred some of the most successful produce for the American market. Henry Fairfield Osborn, first director of vertebrate paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, used his influential position to attract wealthy supporters and convince the Third International Congress of Eugenics to meet at the Museum.

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