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Eugenics and the History of Bar Harbor, Maine’s Jackson Labs/How the Inbred Lab Mouse Helps Reprogram the Human Genome

Alex Constantine - May 22, 2010

By Randy Engel | Spero News | April 25, 2010

The Jackson Laboratory - Eugenics and the History of Bar Harbor, Maine’s Jackson Labs/How the Inbred Lab Mouse Helps Reprogram the Human GenomeIn late March, 2010, the Naples Daily News released information on a proposal of the Jackson Laboratory of Bar Harbor, Maine, to build a new facility, an Institute for Personalized Medicine and Research in Collier County, Florida, on 50 acres of land (with more to come) donated by Barron Collier Companies. If the deal goes through, this will be Jackson Labs’ third major genetic/biotechnology venture in the United States. The project carries a price tag of $710 million with costs being absorbed by state, local and private funds as well as the Jackson Labs itself which is expected to kick in $330 million.

Barron Collier Companies of Southwest Florida in partnership with the Domino pizza magnate and Catholic philanthropist, Thomas S. Monahan, is the creator of Ave Maria Town, home of Ave Maria University. The new Institute will be situated off Oil Well Road about three miles from the Ave Maria campus on the southwestern edge of property originally controlled by Ave Maria Development.

Last year, Blake Gable, Ave Maria Town project manager and President of Barron Collier’s Real Estate Division approached Monahan to discern if his firm’s business partner had any objection to the Jackson Labs project, and if not, would he (Monahan), be willing to sell his interest in the land to Barron Collier thereby making the project independent of Ave Maria Development joint interests.

Concern about the morality of having a large genetic research facility so close to Ave Maria University and Town, Monahan is reported to have sought advice from the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) in Philadelphia, which ultimately advised him that they could see no moral impediment to the land transaction.

After the mention of the Jackson Laboratory, which brought up the first red flag when I first read the Naples News story, for reasons that will soon become obvious, the second red flag popped up with Gable’s mention of the NCBC. ...

Over the last three months, with the exception of Avewatch, Jackson Labs has been enjoying unprecedented and uncritical good press. On March 26, 2010, The Ave Herald featured a public relations piece titled “Research at Jackson Labs Has Helped Millions.” On April 10, 2010, Ave Maria University President, Nicholas J. Healy, Jr. was quoted on Naplesnews.com, “If they [Jackson Labs] were to locate here I think there would be very considerable benefits to the entire area. …They will bring well-paying jobs and so on. It will help real estate in the town.”

It appears that the publicists for Jackson Labs have been as equally successful in keeping any media reference to its eugenic history from the Ave Maria community and secular press as they have been in airbrushing out these same references from their own historical records.

The Eugenic History of Jackson Labs Founder

From founder C.C. Little’s early genetics experiments through recent facility expansions, the Laboratory has a long and proud institutional history.

Jackson Lab Milestones

Clarence C. “Prexy” Little (1888 – 1971) caught the pernicious bug of eugenics from one of his Harvard professors, the mammalian geneticist William E. Castle, under whom Little studied and worked on inbred mice colonies as an undergraduate and graduate student. Castle was an organizing member of the Second International Congress of Eugenics (New York, 1921) which in 1922 dissolved into the American Eugenics Society (AES) which was funded by America’s powerful industrial elite. The AES promoted “racial betterment” through positive and negative eugenic programs designed to increase the fit and eliminate the unfit.

After serving in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I, Little became a research associate and assistant director of the Carnegie-funded Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, Long, Island, NY. The Cold Spring laboratory was directed by eugenicist Charles B. Davenport, a founder of the AES. It was the sister organization of the Eugenics Record Office, America’s epicenter for eugenics, funded by the Harriman family and manned by Harry H. Laughlin. Another founding member of the AES, Laughlin gained national recognition for his formulation of a “model sterilization law” which later served as a basis for Nazi eugenics programs. When Laughlin retired from the Presidency of the AES in 1929, Little took over the office.

In 1922, one year before accepting the post of President of the University of Maine, Little became a founding director of Margaret Sanger’s American Birth Control League, the forerunner of Planned Parenthood-World Population. Little was President of the League from 1936 to 1939 and served as Scientific Director from 1925 to 1945. He also served as a consulting editor of Sanger’s racist Birth Control Review which pounded away at the necessity of limiting births of coloured people.

Little also had a vested interest in the early euthanasia movement. In 1938, he became a trustee of the American Euthanasia Society, which unlike its British counterpart called for both voluntary euthanasia and involuntary euthanasia or “mercy killing” of “defective children.” At this very time, Little was also holding a post as a Rockefeller appointee to the American Society for the Control of Cancer, later renamed the American Cancer Society, and the American Birth Control League, in addition to his duties as founder/director of the Jackson Labs.

The Jackson Labs Promotes Medical Eugenics

Little founded the Roscoe B. Jackson Memorial Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1929, one year after the Board of Regents of the University of Michigan forced his resignation as President of the University because of Little’s position on controversial social issues. Initially, Little’s business revolved around the breeding of laboratory mice for other research institutions. But by the time of Little’s death in 1971, the non-profit (renamed) Jackson Laboratory had expanded to become an international center of mammalian genetic research as well as a key player in the field of Medical Eugenics.

The year 1960 was a pivotal year for the Jackson Labs. It was the year of the first “Bar Harbor Short Course in Medical Genetics” – a summer course for students, physicians and geneticists which united Little’s eugenic philosophy with scientific advances in medical eugenics, later renamed human genetics or medical genetics.

This joint venture was directed by John Fuller of the Jackson Labs and Dr. Victor McKusick, architect and Chief of the Division of Medical Genetics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and a member of the American Society of Human Genetics, which shared a symbiotic relationship with the American Eugenics Society. McKusick’s mentor was H. Bentley Glass, a Director of the AES.

As a newly appointed member of the Medical Advisory Board of the March of Dimes, which had switched from polio research to birth defects research in 1958, McKusick was able to persuade MOD officials that they should finance the Bar Harbor Course.

By the early 1960s, scientific knowledge and technological developments in areas of gene mapping, cytogenics, cell culture and prenatal testing especially the use of second-trimester amniocentesis combined with a liberalization of abortion laws opened the door for mass pre-natal eugenic killing. McKusick established one of the nation’s earliest programs of eugenic abortion at Johns Hopkins directed specifically at Down syndrome children in utero, secured MOD “search and destroy” funding for his like-minded eugenic colleagues, and used his influence at the MOD and Jackson Labs to promote eugenics under the guise of medical genetics.
The “Health by Death” ethic, that is the prevention of genetic disorders by the killing of affected pre-born children who are have the disorder, has always been a major theme of the Bar Harbor Course. Guests speakers and faculty members at the Jackson Labs’ Bar Harbor Course have included well-known advocates of eugenic abortion such as Dr. Rodney Howell, Dr. John Littlefield, and Dr. Orlando J. Miller, all past MOD grantees. ....


How the Inbred Lab Mouse Helps Reprogram the Human Genome

 By Gary Wolf | / Magazine | February 22, 2010

When Little started his work, it had already been observed that many mouse tumors are similar to human ones. And if you took a portion of a malignant tumor from one mouse and transplanted it to others, sometimes the mice with the transplants would get cancer, too. Was cancer an inherited condition? Was it an infectious disease? These questions had been debated for at least 20 years before Little made his mice. But at the turn of the century, a single tumorous mouse cost hundreds of dollars, making it prohibitively expensive to run experiments. Little’s success with inbreeding promised to drive the price way down. If pink eyes could be stabilized in an inbred strain, why not susceptibility to cancer? Little offered a cheap supply of tiny patients to try things out on.

In 1919, a bacterial infection swept through Little’s colony, killing all his mice. But news of his success had encouraged other geneticists, who continued to mate brother and sister, mother and son, searching the genetic landscape for useful variants. Little’s mice, and those of his collaborators, are the direct progenitors of rodents still being used today.

Little, meanwhile, was a prodigy. In 1922, at age 33, he took a job as president of the University of Maine, becoming the youngest college chief in the US. Maine was where many of the top executives of the new Detroit auto companies liked to spend their summers; Little socialized frequently with the elite vacationers, and in 1925 his Detroit friends lured him to Ann Arbor to become president of the University of Michigan. It didn’t go well: Little favored eugenics, women’s rights, and access to birth control; his marriage fell apart; and he tried to restrict undergraduates from both owning cars and drinking alcohol.

Soon Little was out of a job. But his reformist zeal appealed to the utopian industrialists of Middle America. The pioneers of the auto industry were as confident about their ability to remake society as Google executives are today; their assembly lines were a source not only of new fortunes but of new technocratic ideals. In 1929, the year he left the University of Michigan, Little went to the industrialists with a plan to influence human life on a vast scale.

Little had been serving as president of the American Eugenics Society. In the decades between the two world wars, eugenics was respectable; its mixture of racism, social Darwinism, and the emerging science of genetics had not yet been discredited by better science, civil rights, and revulsion at Nazi racial cleansing. Little envisioned the inbred mouse as a link between laboratory science and the ideals of eugenics. An auto industry magnate named Roscoe B. Jackson decided to support his dream. When Jackson died suddenly, his family and Little’s other patrons provided the seed capital for Little to move back to Maine and establish his own independent laboratory. “Many if not all of our major ills of today are dependent on the fact that we have not used our intellect in the making of men as we have in the production of machinery,” Little wrote a few years after launching the lab. His tiny inbred “machines” would show what kind of control could be achieved over the evolution of a species when the effects of breeding were understood in detail.

Still, Little did not immediately become the Henry Ford of mousedom. His facility, called the Roscoe B. Jackson Memorial Laboratory in honor of his deceased patron, suffered severe financial stress during the Depression. In her book, Making Mice: Standardizing Animals for American Biomedical Research, 1900-1955, Karen Rader recounts the early history of the Jackson Laboratory and how Little engineered its survival by creating a market for inbred mice in the scientific community. He and his fellow “mousers” were highly influential among the review boards of national institutes, and they encouraged health researchers to use mouse models. Little also took his case to the public, which wanted to see cancer cured, ceaselessly pushing the idea that valid cancer research required experiments using standardized mice.

This created a complex feedback loop that mixed scientific prestige, financial reward, and big promises of a cure for cancer. Of course, Little’s colleagues and successors were doing brilliant basic science. They played key roles in the discovery of retroviral oncogenes, the development of techniques to map the genome and connect genes to traits, and the chemistry of the immune system. More than 20 Nobel Prizes would eventually be linked either to people who worked at the Jackson Laboratory or to the inbred mice invented there. But in time a problem emerged: The stated goal of all this science — curing cancer — proved intractable. While the mouse led scientists deeper and deeper into the complexities of the genome, many basic clinical questions went unanswered. In fact, up until the mid-1980s, most of the advances that have been made against disease — clean water, good nutrition, vaccinations, antibiotics — were barely influenced by Jackson Lab’s mice.

Among the sharpest ironies in Little’s later career is that although the grand public health projects that drove the research bureaucracy failed to deliver, his original eugenics program succeeded — with mice. While social eugenics never managed to produce an ideal human, the perfect control exercised by the mousers over the breeding of their model animal allowed them to deliver subjects that had an enormous range of customized traits. Fat ones, thin ones, blind ones, deaf ones; mice with lung cancer and mice with breast cancer. Almost every university had cages full of them. Scientists tried to cure them. And whenever there was a run of good luck, the treatments would be tried on people.



1) Mendel Newsl. 1996 Feb;(5):1-7. "C.C. Little and the Jackson Laboratory Archives: some notes on the intersecting histories of eugenics, mammalian genetics, and cancer research." Rader K. Department of the History of Science, Harvard University. PMID: 11618892 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

2) Mark S. Lubinsky  - PDF (995.6 KB) 

Scientific aspects of early eugenics

Journal Journal of Genetic Counseling
Publisher Springer Netherlands
ISSN 1059-7700 (Print) 1573-3599 (Online)
Issue Volume 2, Number 2 / June, 1993
DOI 10.1007/BF00962541
Pages 77-92
Subject Collection Biomedical and Life Sciences
SpringerLink Date Monday, January 17, 2005

Abstract   The eugenics movement supported applications of scientific breeding principles to humans, ultimately to encourage a better society, but actually with often disastrous social consequences. Although mostly viewed as quackery today, legitimate scientific considerations of fact and theory had an important role in determining the course of eugenics. A school of eugenics arose formally from attempts to apply Darwinian principles to humans in the context of biometry, a school that used statistical approaches to biology. Biometry emphasized blending inheritance and continuous traits, in marked contrast to the particulate inheritance of unit traits in Mendelism. Genetics was therefore a scientific challenge to eugenics, which was rooted in biometry. A Mendelian eugenics arose in the United States primarily under the influence of Charles Davenport. This paper reviews some of the technical issues involved in the development of this new paradigm, as well as Davenport''s role as a scientist in this process. 

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