Charles Davenport was a renowned and influential scientist. He was also a "racial purist" who inspired the Nazis
BY PAUL MARTIN
Growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the early 1900s, young Carrie Buck impressed those she met as serious and self-possessed, someone whose quiet demeanor hinted at a life filled with challenges. Of humble origins—her widowed mother had given her up to foster care as a child—the stocky, darkhaired girl didn’t let her difficulties get her down. She enjoyed reading the newspaper, liked to fiddle with crossword puzzles, and always made herself useful around the house. She was a bit awkward in social situations, but otherwise she was a thoroughly average teenager. No one had any reason to think differently of her. Then something terrible occurred that changed Carrie’s life forever.
In 1923, when she was seventeen, Carrie Buck was raped by a nephew of her foster parents. The girl became pregnant, and her foster parents—perhaps embarrassed by what their nephew had done—decided to hide the girl away by committing her to the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded, a mental facility in the town of Lynchburg. Carrie’s birth mother had previously been committed to the same institution, accused of being mentally deficient and promiscuous. The same reasons were given for Carrie’s incarceration. It was a classic case of punishing the victim.
Carrie had her baby in the spring of 1924, the same year that Virginia passed a law permitting the involuntary sterilization of those judged to be mentally impaired. The statute grew out of the early twentieth century’s widely influential eugenics movement, a now discredited cousin of genetics that attempted to improve American society by “breeding out” a long list of undesirable traits ascribed to minorities, the poor, and certain immigrant populations. At the same time, eugenicists hoped to foster the increase of good breeding traits by encouraging “high-grade” citizens to go forth and multiply (the word eugenics means “well born”).
It’s no surprise that complacently comfortable white folks conceived and promoted this scheme of biological discrimination. According to eugenicists, if you weren’t of Nordic or Anglo-Saxon heritage, your genes were second rate. Even if you were white, if you happened to be epileptic, mentally ill, illegitimate, unemployed, homeless, a sexually active single woman, an alcoholic, a convicted criminal, or a prostitute—all signs of “feeblemindedness” or “hereditary degeneracy”—you were a threat to the purity of the nation’s gene pool. Eugenicists advocated three ways of dealing with the perceived problem of bad genes: immigration restrictions, the prevention of “unfit” marriages, and involuntary sterilization of “defective” individuals in state care, chiefly mental patients and prison inmates.
Carrie Buck had the misfortune of being the first Virginia resident chosen for compulsory sterilization. Her case became a test of the constitutionality of the state’s new law, a challenge that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. With little justification beyond a family history of poverty and illegitimacy, Carrie and her birth mother were both portrayed as sexually deviant simpletons. Even Carrie’s baby girl was said to be “not quite normal.” Years later, researchers determined that all three family members were of average intelligence, and that the arguments for Carrie’s sterilization were based on faulty, biased testimony. “These people belong to the shiftless, ignorant and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South,” one so-called expert declared—without ever having met Carrie Buck or her mother.
Despite the flimsy testimony presented in the case, the Supreme Court upheld the Virginia law in 1927 by an eight-to-one margin, with justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. issuing this shocking pronouncement: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Shortly afterward, Carrie Buck, a perfectly normal citizen of the United States, was sterilized against her will. It was an outrage destined to be repeated many times over—mostly against poor, uneducated women—as the dark age of eugenics spread across the land in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.
Thousands of activists had a hand in creating the conditions that permitted the abuse of Carrie Buck and others like her, but few bear a greater measure of responsibility than biologist Charles Davenport, a man who spent more than three decades leading the campaign for racial purity in the United States. In essence, Davenport and his fellow eugenicists sought to create a master race of white Protestant Yankees, with all the frightening ramifications that implies. (Imagine the banality of an entire nation of Ward and June Cleavers.) Aside from being morally repulsive, their goal amounted to second-rate science, since biological strength lies in genetic diversity, not sameness.
Davenport’s offenses went beyond the harm he caused here at home. His lengthy collaboration with eugenicists in Nazi Germany contributed to that country’s brutal racial policies. Today, we rightly reject what Davenport and others like him stood for as white supremacy gone berserk. In his own time, though, Davenport was hailed as a trailblazer, an honorable scientist who studied and taught at our nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning. Davenport’s chilling story demonstrates that when prejudice and public policy mix, the result can be a humanitarian nightmare.
A lanky, goatee-sporting man who favored all-white suits, Charles Benedict Davenport was the product of a puritanical upbringing. He was born in 1866 on his family’s farm near Stamford, Connecticut. In his childhood and early teens, he spent the spring and summer months working on the farm. The rest of the year, he lived in Brooklyn, where his domineering father ran a successful real estate and insurance business. Davenport attended Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, earning a bachelor of science in civil engineering in 1886. In 1889, he received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, followed by a doctorate in zoology in 1892.
Even as a student, Davenport wrote prolifically, which he continued to do after being hired as an instructor at Harvard in 1893. A primary area of interest for the young scholar was the study of heredity and selective breeding in animals, a topic his years on the farm gave him practical insight into. His writing earned him a favorable reputation, and in 1899 the University of Chicago offered him an assistant professorship. In 1904, Davenport left Chicago to become the director of the new Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, a genetics research center funded by the Carnegie Institution. It was the perfect place for Davenport to cultivate his interests in evolution, heredity, and eugenics.
In 1910, Davenport founded the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, a facility that became the epicenter of the American eugenics movement. By compiling detailed “pedigrees” on thousands of families, the office sought to document how desirable or undesirable traits are passed from one generation to the next. In addition to physical characteristics, Davenport and his staff considered a wide range of behavioral and cultural traits to be genetic in origin, including personality quirks such as a love of the sea, a fondness for songbirds, and a preference for city life.
As wacky as that sounds, many of the country’s brightest leaders in education, politics, and business thought it was true. Moreover, those same people were convinced that some character traits are more prevalent in certain ethnic and socioeconomic groups than others. Specifically, they believed that good traits—intelligence, honesty, industriousness—are predominant in middle and upper-class WASPs, and that bad traits—criminality, immorality, shiftlessness—tend to be found in just about everyone else, especially the poor and the disadvantaged.
Englishman Francis Galton—a cousin of Charles Darwin—started this whole spurious exercise in 1883 when he came up with the concept of eugenics. It was Galton who first suggested that society could be improved by encouraging intelligent, successful couples to marry and have children in order to perpetuate their superior qualities. Researchers in Britain and the United States quickly drew a link between Galton’s idea and the genetic mechanisms of heredity outlined twenty years earlier by Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel. Suddenly, the advancement of society through science seemed possible.
Actually, Galton’s concept of pairing individuals who might pass on desirable traits is practiced every day in cultures around the world. Whenever two bright, successful people get married, we look upon it as a “good match.” Many early eugenicists emphasized this simple, positive goal. Where Charles Davenport and his cohorts went astray was to focus on the negative side of eugenics: attempting to eliminate “bad matches” by determining who, in their opinion, should not have children and doing all they could to prevent that from happening.
The negative approach to eugenics flourished in the United States thanks to the financial support of major philanthropic organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Institution, as well as a pool of wealthy backers that included breakfast cereal tycoon John Kellogg and railroad fortune heiress Mary Harriman. Respected public figures the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Alexander Graham Bell supported the aims of the American eugenics movement, and courses in the subject were taught at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, and other top universities. (Many colleges adopted Charles Davenport’s 1911 textbook “Heredity in Relation to Eugenics,” a book filled with inaccurate, oddball opinions about inherited traits within families.)
What’s indisputable about the eugenics movement in this country is that it was driven by racial and class prejudice. At the dawn of the twentieth century, white Protestant Americans feared being overrun by immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, people who traditionally had large families. Groups such as the Race Betterment Foundation and the American Eugenics Society stoked those fears by suggesting that the superior traits of industrious Anglo-Saxons were being undermined by the lazy, degenerate masses showing up on their shores. Charles Davenport articulated the goal of encouraging white Americans to have more children and stemming the invasion of undesirables in his “eugenics creed”:
I believe in striving to raise the human race to the highest plane of social organization, of cooperative work and of effective endeavor.
I believe that I am the trustee of the germ plasm that I carry; that this has been passed on to me through thousands of generations before me; and that I betray the trust if (that germ plasm being good) I so act as to jeopardize it, with its excellent possibilities, or, from motives of personal convenience, to unduly limit offspring.
I believe that, having made our choice in marriage carefully, we, the married pair, should seek to have 4 to 6 children in order that our carefully selected germ plasm shall be reproduced in adequate degree and that this preferred stock shall not be swamped by that less carefully selected.
I believe in such a selection of immigrants as shall not tend to adulterate our national germ plasm with socially unfit traits.
I believe in repressing my instincts when to follow them would injure the next generation.
Davenport’s creepy doctrine was worthy of Jack D. Ripper, the mad general in Dr. Strangelove who raved about a communist conspiracy to pollute “our precious bodily fluids.” From today’s perspective, the call for racial purity and selective breeding smacks of Big Brotherism, but large numbers of Americans embraced it, a fact demonstrated in legislatures across the country. In 1907, the state of Indiana passed the nation’s first eugenic sterilization law. By 1935, some thirty states had similar laws on the books, and around twenty thousand involuntary sterilizations had been performed, the majority of those in California and Virginia.
By the time eugenic sterilizations were phased out (most of the laws had either been repealed or were no longer being enforced by the 1970s), between forty thousand and seventy thousand Americans had been sterilized against their will. Roughly 40 percent of those sterilizations took place in California, where the eugenics movement had a cadre of rabid supporters, among them the first president of Stanford University and members of the University of California Board of Regents and the State Board of Charities and Corrections.
In addition to lobbying for forced sterilizations and strict immigration laws (such as the highly prejudicial Immigration Act of 1924), the eugenics movement advocated legal restrictions on interracial marriages. “Race mixing” was a perceived threat to the genetic purity of white America. True to form, Charles Davenport did all he could to convince the world that mixed marriages produced inferior offspring. In 1929, he published a book called “Race Crossing in Jamaica,” a study of racial mixing and its supposedly negative effects. Now cited as a classic example of scientific racism—the attempt to prove racial superiority through pseudoscientific methods—the book drew numerous unfounded conclusions.
Like some minstrel show jokester, Davenport reported that black people excelled at music but trailed whites in complex mental activities. “Browns,” as he called his subjects of mixed parentage, represented “an exceptionally large befuddled class,” a group with many members who “seem not to be able to utilize their native endowment.” Davenport loftily asserted that “the Blacks seemed inferior to the Whites in ability to criticize absurd statements.” (Obviously those blacks hadn’t read Davenport’s book or they’d have found plenty to criticize.) In the end, eugenicists’ objections to interracial marriage produced the desired effect: new antimiscegenation laws were passed and old ones rewritten according to eugenic precepts.
As repugnant as their record was in the United States, American eugenicists hit absolute bottom through their support of Nazi Germany’s infamous “racial hygiene” program. By touting the superiority of Northern European bloodlines, American eugenicists fed Adolf Hitler’s delusion that Germans are members of a master race. Without a doubt, it was madness that drove Hitler to slaughter millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies, homosexuals, and the mentally impaired, but the pseudoscientific claptrap of negative eugenics gave Hitler’s quest for racial purity a veneer of scientific legitimacy, especially in the beginning, when the Nazis sterilized over a quarter of a million German citizens—the first step on the road to the Holocaust.
German scientists repeatedly looked to US race policies for inspiration. In fact, the Nazis based their 1933 law authorizing eugenic sterilizations on a model statute issued by the Eugenics Record Office. At the outset of Germany’s massive sterilization effort, American eugenicists bubbled over with praise, citing the “success” of the program as proof that the smaller numbers of eugenic sterilizations in the United States were inadequate.
Adolf Hitler himself had followed the eugenics movement in this country for years. In 1916, American attorney, conservationist, and arch-bigot Madison Grant published The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History, a landmark work of scientific racism that exalted people of Nordic ancestry. Hitler called the book his “Bible,” and he wrote Grant to tell him so. Hitler was also aware of the 1927 Supreme Court ruling that gave legal sanction to eugenic sterilizations (a ruling, by the way, that’s never been overturned). Nazi leaders would later cite the Court’s decision in their own defense at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunals.
Charles Davenport’s complicity with German eugenicists stretched throughout his tenure at the Eugenics Record Office. His affinity for biological fascism was coldly laid out in Heredity in Relation to Eugenics—a shocking set of principles not uncommon in America at the time: “The commonwealth is greater than any individual in it,” Davenport wrote. “Hence the rights of society over the life, the reproduction, the behavior and the traits of the individuals that compose it are . . . limitless, and society may take life, may sterilize, may segregate so as to prevent marriage, may restrict liberty in a hundred ways.” Hitler couldn’t have said it any better.
Davenport’s Cold Spring Harbor facility functioned as the hub of international eugenics activities, and its influential journal Eugenical News enthusiastically endorsed the German movement at every opportunity. As president of the International Federation of Eugenics Organizations, Davenport worked with leading German eugenicists such as Ernst Rüdin, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Psychiatry and a major architect of Hitler’s heinous racial policies. Following his retirement from the Eugenics Record Office in 1934, Davenport continued to support German eugenicists—even as the Nazis began the systematic annihilation of millions of “inferior” Europeans, the darkest blot on Davenport’s career.
By the time the United States entered World War II, in 1941, most American eugenicists had finally distanced themselves from their German counterparts, but a growing number of scientists and members of the public were already turning against eugenics. The Eugenics Record Office had closed its doors in December 1939 in the face of criticism about its aims and methods. By the end of the war, as the Nazi concentration camps were liberated, every American was made sickeningly aware of the horror that had been wrought in the name of racial purity—a fatal blow to the eugenics movement in this country. The ugly spectacle of negative eugenics was finally recognized for what it truly is: racial and class prejudice, pure and simple.
Some outrageous scientific claims were made during the heyday of the eugenics movement. One of the notions the American Eugenics Society tried to plant in the public mind was the idea that “what you really are was all settled when your parents were born”—as if genetics alone determines our essential character. The truth, of course, is that we’re each molded through a complex interplay of inherited traits and environmental influences—the long-debated nature versus nurture equation. We also have the power to help shape ourselves through our own conscious efforts. The great promise of life is that any person of any background has the potential to succeed or fail, to soar intellectually or to remain a prisoner of ignorance. As Iowa-born politician and future US vice president Henry Wallace said when he spoke out against eugenics in 1939: “Superior ability is not the exclusive possession of any one race or any one class. It may arise anywhere, provided men are given the right opportunities.”
Charles Davenport died before the end of World War II (he passed away in February 1944), so he didn’t live to see the final dismantling of his dream, as the discriminatory laws he’d supported were rolled back starting in the 1950s. In all honesty, the eugenics leader was a pitiable man. Nervous and completely lacking in empathy, he was so sensitive to criticism that he retreated into a shell of moody silence when anyone attacked his work. His habit of dressing in white as a symbol of racial purity was a disturbing characteristic. But the saddest thing about Charles Davenport is that such an intelligent human being would turn his mind to such an ignoble purpose. If Davenport hadn’t become embroiled in the lunacy of eugenics, he would be remembered for his legitimate academic accomplishments. As it is, any good he did has been interred with his bones.
Today, the old-fashioned expression of positive eugenics—matchmaking—still flourishes, although now it’s moved online. Meanwhile, more complicated issues regarding genetics—genetic engineering, cloning, biotechnology, gene therapy—have replaced eugenics as topics of public interest. And while we can celebrate the fact that the bigoted, immoral pseudoscience of eugenics has been consigned to history’s junk heap, regrettably the white supremacist attitude that shaped much of Charles Davenport’s career lives on in the beliefs of diehard social Darwinists—an outlook as persistent as a noxious weed, a kudzu of the mind.