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October 23, 2012 // By John Shea // Comments

Psychiatry and Eugenics

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The forthcoming Fall 2012 issue of Penn Medicine will include Part 1 of Marshall Ledger’s engrossing article on psychiatry at Penn. The article is timed to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Medical Inquiries and Observations, Upon the Diseases of the Mind, by Dr. Benjamin Rush, considered the “father of American psychiatry.” What I did not expect to find in Ledger’s article was a passing reference to eugenics -– and by pure coincidence, that will make three issues of Penn Medicine in a row where that often-buried topic turns up.

The Summer 2012 issue of Penn Medicine included my article on Jonathan Moreno, PhD, the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor, and his timely book The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America (2011). Despite the enthusiasm of the Founding Fathers for science, many Americans have had an ambivalence if not distrust of science from the nation’s earliest years. At one point, I asked rhetorically: “But why on earth would any right-thinking American citizen regard science and scientists with distrust?” In an earlier book, Moreno wrote about the government’s secret experiments on humans, and in The Body Politic he provided several more reasons. Among the most compelling was the support among some scientists and government officials for eugenics and social engineering.

One prominent example is Charles Davenport, founder of the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor, who had a PhD degree in biology from Harvard. Harry Laughlin, superintendent of the Eugenics Records Office, had a doctorate in cytology/cell biology from Princeton University. In 1922, Laughlin published a “Model Eugenical Sterilization Law” that would have authorized the sterilization of what he described as the feeble-minded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf, deformed, and dependent, as well as “orphans, ne’er-do-wells, the homeless, tramps, and paupers.”

This is a grim proposal, but, as Moreno also points out, some of the nation’s leading early twentieth-century progressives, including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Margaret Sanger (founder of the American Birth Control League, which would become Planned Parenthood) “embraced the notion that society’s burden of morally debilitated persons could be lessened through selective reproduction” (The Body Politic). Their support for the idea, however, may have been less extreme than Laughlin’s, and as Moreno also notes, “Behind the enthusiasm for eugenics lay an impulse to improve social conditions in the wake of an era of industrialization that brutalized and exploited many.”

In Marshall Ledger’s forthcoming “Benjamin Rush and 200 Years of Penn Psychiatry,” we discover that at least one Penn doctor supported eugenics as well. Charles W. Burr, an 1886 alumnus of Penn’s medical school, was a student of Charles K. Mills (MD 1869, PhD 1871). Mills specialized in the nervous system and became Penn’s first professor of neurology. Another of Burr’s mentors was perhaps the most well-known neurologist of the day, S. Weir Mitchell, MD, who served as a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania for 35 years. Burr was appointed professor of mental diseases in 1901, and (as Ledger explains) “with that title the Department of Psychiatry came into being, although with the old terminology.”

Burr was described by a Penn colleague as “conservative.” That may be putting it mildly. In “Government Should Undertake Prevention of Insanity,” printed in The New York Times in 1913, Burr called for “segregation of the defective classes,” including government-imposed lifetime confinement in institutions.  In his opinion piece, Burr spent nearly half his space discussing undesirable immigrants, then cautioned against “the intermarriage of races as far apart as the negro and the Caucasian. . . . It leads to degeneracy.”

Whether Burr’s favorable view of eugenics was instilled and nurtured by his illustrious predecessors is not known. What is known is that Burr became president of the Eugenics Research Association in 1925. The association, established in 1921, included as members Davenport and Laughlin.

Those who supported eugenics advocated both positive and negative programs.  The positive version was to seek to increase reproduction of “fit” stock (in the animal world) and “fit” humans, which in the latter case might involve tax preferences and other financial support. We’ve touched on some examples of negative eugenics, and as Moreno pointed out, “tens of thousands of people were involuntarily sterilized” in the United States.  The most extreme versions, however, were instituted in Nazi Germany.  In the Spring 2012 issue of Penn Medicine, Harry Reicher, LL.M., adjunct professor of law at the Penn Law School, explored the Doctors’ Trial at Nuremberg, describing the forced sterilizations, the experimental sterilizations, and the euthanasia program to deal with those “not worthy of living.” The estimate is that more than 350,000 people were sterilized under the Nazi regime.  In 1936, Moreno noted, Laughlin received an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg.

As Moreno sums it up: “After World War II, the word eugenics acquired its current bad odor.  Modern geneticists are loath to accept any association with the movement. Yet the fact remains that eugenics was considered legitimate science by influential academics and intellectuals irrespective of their other political views.”

Much as medicine and science have moved beyond the bloodletting and purging favored by Benjamin Rush 200 years ago, it behooves today’s doctors and scientists to make sure eugenics remains an illegitimate science.


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