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Review: Sex, Race and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South, Edward J Larson, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, £13.00, pp 251.

In 1901, a southern physician, John E Purdon, suggested castrating rapists to deter “assaults on women and children by the animalised negroes”. He evidently considered this an enlightened alternative to lynching. There is something rather peculiar about the South’s thought processes, then, not just its institutions. Not surprisingly, Southerners had a quite distinct approach to eugenics, too, as Edward J Larson demonstrates in Sex, Race, and Science.

Society “…must end these animalistic blood-lines, or they will end society”, declared J S Ullman, in his 1915 Presidential address to the Mississippi State Medical Association. Crime and immorality were considered by eugenicists to be closely linked with mental retardation, as testified by the fact that many of those in prison, receiving welfare, or involved in prostitution were people of low IQ.

Henry Herbert Goddard, the Research Director of the Vineland Training School for Feeble Minded Children, New Jersey, introduced the Binet-Simon tests from France, in 1908. Researchers were soon reporting a tidal wave of mental retardation. H H Laughlin, Davenport’s assistant at the Eugenics Record Office, estimated in 1914 that 15,000,000 Americans (the “lowest one tenth”) needed to be sterilised, while Goddard suggested in 1913 that housing the 15,000 feeble minded children in New York City alone would require 30 large institutions. At this date there were 4! The huge potential cost of segregating those deemed defective eventually led American eugenicists to favour sterilisation to cut off the future supply. New marriage restrictions were thought to be of limited utility here because of the (alleged) lack of moral inhibition of the mentally deficient. Nor was birth control regarded as an alternative to segregation because the “wholly and irremediably unfit” would be unable to regulate their own reproduction.

Interestingly, no state institutions for segregating mentally inferior Negroes were ever built in the deep South during the golden age of American eugenics, roughly 1895 to 1945. Only the “white trash” (or “human rubbish”, to quote W L Funkhouser, writing in the Journal of the Medical Association of Georgia, 1937), were targeted for segregation and sterilisation, Larson notes. Although the Southern blacks were generally considered nearer to animality than the whites, most Southern eugenicists did not believe there was any need to improve the inborn qualities of the former, maintaining that they could contribute nothing to the progress of civilisation.

Larson shows how the eugenic discourse neatly dovetailed into public health campaigns to eliminate contagious diseases in the Southern states in the 1920s. Parallels were made between the need to isolate the victims of smallpox and the necessity of segregating the mentally retarded. Attempts to reduce infant mortality and to prevent the birth of mental defectives seemed of a kind. Compulsory reporting and quarantine laws passed in the 1920s in order to eradicate TB provided a useful precedent for eugenicists. So did the statutes to counteract syphilis which 32 US states had passed by 1918, and which mandated medical examination for prostitutes, inmates of prisons and vagrants.

Larson gives us a precise profile of the southern eugenicist. The deep South was a relatively backward region of the US, with a dearth of scientists and other academics, so that mental health officials, faute de mieux, initiated the campaigns for eugenic legislation with the support of private physicians. Eugenics was attractive to these middle class professionals because it justified an enhancement of their social role and power. The paucity of Southern universities also helps explain why sterilisation was generally adopted later in the South than in the North and West, despite the existence of longstanding laws to prevent miscegenation.

The South’s variegated response to eugenics tells us much about the social and ideological forces which supported or opposed the application of science to social problems. A predominantly agrarian way of life encouraged strong family ties and the notion of extended kinship. There was opposition in the South to any interference with parental rights, as evidenced by resistance to compulsory school attendance. Eugenicists, with their demands that mentally defective children be segregated in state homes, were also challenging these sacrosanct Southern notions of family and parental rights. Worse still, they sought to regulate marriage. But indicatively, no Southern state ever imposed eugenic marriage restrictions, unlike most Northern and Western states. The debates preceding the passage of the federal Immigration Act of 1924 also show that most Southern congressmen who supported it did so on nativist not on eugenic grounds. They opposed all immigration, including that of reputedly superior stocks from Holland or Sweden.

Eugenics in the deep South represented a challenge to traditional beliefs. The South was a bastion of evangelical Protestantism. Religion was more significant in the lives of people in this region. Larson suggests that the evangelical Protestant doctrine of “salvation and sanctification for all, solely by divine grace” was hard to reconcile with eugenic notions of “fixed, inherited degeneracy and superiority”. Christianity, according to his interpretation of it, values all life regardless of any apparent defects as to quality, and was therefore the major obstacle to the spread of eugenics in the South. It could be argued, against this view, that the Calvinist notion of an elect is, in fact, analogous to eugenic doctrine. Steve Jones, for one, characterises John Calvin as “the ultimate genetic determinist” (see his In The Blood). Some churches supported the failed 1945 Alabama Sterilisation Statute, for example, as Larson has to acknowledge.

Feminism and eugenics were mutually reinforcing historical movements. Throughout the South, well educated, upper class women (suffragettes, it goes without saying) played a leading role in the setting up of sexually segregated institutions for the mentally impaired. For the members of the influential women’s clubs, negative eugenics was a natural extension of childcare. Campaigners for milk stations and well baby clinics in the South argued that without compulsory sterilisation, efforts to reduce infant mortality would enable the unfit to survive.

Whereas traditional Southerners were suspicious of eugenics, “Progressive” politicians and journalists regarded it as part and parcel of any sensible reform package, no less than compulsory school attendance, limits on child labour, the prohibition of alcohol, the enactment of women’s suffrage and the improvement of prisons, schools and asylums. There seemed to be a strong humanitarian case for institutionalising mentally backward girls, a potentially exploitable group. Most Progressives were urban middle class professionals who believed in applying scientific expertise to problems of human behaviour. Progressivism in general and eugenics in particular, however, had less impact in the South than in the rest of the US because of the relatively small size of the regions’ urban middle class. Whereas Indiana enacted the first compulsory sterilisation statute, in 1907, followed by California, in 1909, similar statutes were not enacted in the South until the 1920s. The belated advent of eugenics was part of the gradual assimilation of this region to the urbanised, industrial order, involving what Weber aptly called the “disenchantment of the world”.

Larson praises the “notable achievements” of the American eugenics movement. This judgement seems rather generous. No Southern state had the resources to accommodate the entire mentally defective population. All the institutions set up for this purpose were overcrowded and under funded, with long waiting lists. Only a fraction of the target population was in practice segregated. The total number of those sterilised, likewise, only scratched the surface of the perceived problem of retardation. In short, the program of the eugenics movement in the South was impractical, even utopian and a failure by its own lights. And from the 1930s onwards, geneticists in the US and elsewhere cast increasing doubt on the “scientific” rationale for compulsory segregation and sterilisation i.e. the notion that “inferior” parents necessarily produce “inferior” progeny and that there are single genes determining feeblemindedness.

Although Larson considers that compulsory eugenic legislation was completely inconsistent with the American ideals of personal freedom and equality, he thankfully abstains from too much “bootless moralising”, (to quote one reviewer, J C Fletcher), although the phrase “rabid eugenicist” is unfortunate. Sex, Race, and Science, despite its lurid title, is generally a coolheaded piece of scholarship. The publication of this invaluable work and of other regional studies of eugenics, notably Eugenics And The Welfare State: Sterilisation Policy In Denmark, Sweden, Norway, And Finland (1996, edited by G Broberg and N Roll-Hansen) indicates that this branch of the history of science is at last receiving the dispassionate attention it requires.

Leslie Jones