Eugenics refers to methods of improving the hereditary qualities of a race or breed. Some critics of eugenics have argued that in the hands of a powerful government it would be used to make genetic alterations to control potential criminal and antisocial behavior.

Eugenics literally means “well-born” and describes efforts to improve society by breeding better people—by encouraging the reproduction of people with “good” genes and discouraging those with “bad” genes. At least fourteen countries, including the United States, enacted some form of eugenics practice in the early twentieth century.

The practice of eugenics in the first half of the twentieth century in the United States led to the compulsory sterilization of 60,000 “feebleminded” people in thirty-three states, and indeed, compulsory sterilizations continued to be legal in California until the 1970s.

The U.S. Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell (1927), allowed (in its words) the sterilization of the feebleminded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf, deformed, dependent, orphaned, tramps, homeless, and paupers as a means of bettering society.

The Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor in New York was the headquarters of eugenics research in the United States from 1910 to 1940. Here, scientists promoted their racist ideals under the guise of science, convincing the U.S. Supreme Court and more than twenty states that their ideas were valid.

Other organizations involved in the eugenics movement included the American Breeders Association, the Race Betterment Foundation, and the American Eugenics Society. Such organizations promoted the myths of genetic causes of a wide range of psychological and behavioral disorders. Eventually, the Public Health Service and the Surgeon General aligned with the eugenics movement.

As eugenicists produced their science, universities including Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown offered courses in eugenics. By 1928, approximately 20,000 students were enrolled in almost 400 courses at universities in the United States.

At the same time, laws were enacted restricting immigration into the United States, requiring sterilization of the “feebleminded,” and forbidding interracial marriages. Very wealthy people not only stood behind the validity of eugenics but also encouraged it.

These people included David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, Mrs. E. H. Harriman, who gave $15,000 to the Eugenics Record Office, and corporate giants John D. Rockefeller and John Harvey Kellogg. The Pioneer Fund, a nonprofit grant foundation in New York, still gives grants to researchers studying potential applications of eugenics.

The science of the eugenics movement was motivated by social forces. The idea of eugenics was first used to promote the legitimacy of the ruling class in England in the late 1800s, based on the notion of Social Darwinism. Sir Francis Galton posited that the ruling class passed on its leadership qualities to its offspring; thus leadership stayed in the family. Its most extreme version was promoted by Adolph Hitler in Mein Kampf, and eugenics became a part of Nazi ideology.

The eugenics movement in the United States developed at a time of social and economic difficulty. The influx of large numbers of immigrants into U.S. cities at the beginning of the twentieth century led to rapid urban and industrial growth, and increased competition for scarce jobs.

The resulting social problems led to fear of the poor and the foreign and resulted in attempts to control these groups. Social ills were blamed on individuals with “bad genes” rather than on the structure of U.S. capitalistic society.

The study of criminality began with the so-called Chicago School of Criminology, which emerged largely as a result of environmental and social conditions, including extensive foreign immigration, that materialized at the turn of the twentieth century in Chicago.

From 1860 to 1910, the city’s population doubled every ten years, and by the turn of the twentieth century the city’s population was over 2 million inhabitants, largely as a result of immigration from Europe. With new immigrants in an overcrowded environment, official rates of crime and disease escalated. Thus, it is not surprising that efforts to reduce crime and control the population occurred mostly in these areas.

Eugenicists studied family trees in order to trace traits that they thought were passed from one generation to the next. Mental tests designed to identify immigrants with bad gene pools at one point designated more than 75 percent of all Russian and Polish immigrants as “feebleminded”; few noted the degree of absurdity in such claims.

Well-known research produced by Richard Dugdale and Henry Goddard seemed to justify the practice of eugenics. Richard Dugdale was asked in 1874 by the Prison Association in New York to inspect county jails; as a result, he became intrigued by the high incidence of kinship among inmates.

He used his own funds to conduct an extended investigation of one large kin group living in and around Ulster County, New York, whom he dubbed the “Jukes.” Dugdale eventually uncovered a family of some 709 descendants of a Dutch immigrant named Max.

In 1875, Dugdale reported his findings to the Prison Association and eventually wrote “The Jukes”: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease, and Heredity. Dugdale located six members of the “Jukes” family in a county jail and traced the genealogy of the family back over 200 years.

In so doing, he discovered that a large number of the family members were poor, ill, and involved in prostitution and had illegitimate children; these activities supposedly cost the state of New York millions of dollars per year.

Criminologists now assert that Dugdale’s study had a major impact on attitudes about the causes of crime at the time, even though it was based on unreliable information and was plagued by value judgments and unsupported conclusions. Indeed, many interpret the Jukes study as an effort to convince society that poverty and crime are the inevitable results of bad stock.

In fact, Dugdale was a public health reformer who wrote in support of treatment for physiological disorders to cure social ills, rather than promoting “solutions” such as sterilization or worse. Nevertheless, many used Dugdale’s findings to support a eugenics movement aimed at improving society through restrictions on immigration and forced sterilization.

The Kallikak family is a fictitious name given to another family studied by U.S. psychologist Henry Goddard. Goddard collected data for a longitudinal study that would contrast the descendants of one “upstanding man” and his upstanding Quaker wife with the descendants of the same man and an illicit “tavern wench.”

Kallikak is a pseudonym that comes from two Greek words, good (kallos) and bad (kakos). Goddard assigned this name to the family to help illustrate the effects of “moronic breeding” (“moron” was a term used to describe people with a mental age between eight and twelve years).

Previous to his study of the Kallikaks, Goddard and his assistants had worked with the staff at Ellis Island to identify “morons” attempting to immigrate to the United States. Their work at Ellis Island had supposedly given them sufficient expertise to classify mental capacity by sight.

Goddard located the descendants of the “upstanding man” and the “tavern wench” (kakos) living in poverty and compared them to the “legitimate” descendants of the married couple (kallos). As Goddard expected, the results of the study confirmed that the kakos line were much more likely to be troubled or in trouble than the kallos line.

Goddard published the results of his study in The Kallikak Family (1912), but in fact he had doctored photos of the kakos line to give the individuals a more depraved and sinister appearance, for example, by painting dark circles under the eyes of small children.

The science of eugenics was flawed in many ways. For example, the methods used to study ethnic and racial variation in various behavioral traits were poorly defined and difficult to measure. Surveys filled out by professionals working inside institutions and advocates of the eugenics ideals contained falsified data and dishonest findings.

Other data were collected from school principals of children and friends and acquaintances of adults. Often, the only evidence presented by eugenicists was anecdotal, drawing conclusions about entire ethnic and racial groups based on stories about a particular family or individual.

Key concepts of study were poorly and subjectively defined according to middle-class white standards that immediately biased findings against some racial and ethnic groups. The main proposition of eugenicists, that genes caused a wide range of behavioral problems in individuals, was illogical and simplistic. Other larger level factors in society were ignored as important for understanding human behavior.