Monday Series: “In the Guise of a Friend” IV

Regulation not Legislation: Avoiding “14 Million Sterilized”

Robert Bruce states that as “a student of heredity, Bell could not resist moving beyond statistics to experimentation.”[1] Sheep breeding and heredity experiments on white cats fuelled Bell’s wistful ambition to be an active, publishing and professional scientist. Word of Bell’s breeding experiments eventually reached Charles Benedict Davenport, spokesman of American eugenics and its spiritual head, and the two men engaged in lengthy correspondence. By merging Galtonian eugenics with Mendelian heredity, the new American eugenics under Davenport’s leadership focused as “the science of the improvement of the human race by better breeding”[2] and gave an institutional base for the movement with the establishment of the Carnegie Institution’s Station for the Study of Experimental Evolution (SEE), and the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbour in Long Island, New York. These research bodies sought to apply scientific breakthroughs in heredity and eugenics to human affairs in order to purify the American population. Layers of scientific veneer provided prestige to the movement as the most brilliant minds o the country were recruited into the movement: Harry Hamilton Laughlin, David Starr Jordan (1861-1961), Vernon Kellogg (1867-1937), among others were all active participants.

As well, the American Breeders Association (ABA) Committee on Eugenics served as the nucleus for the ERO, and guided the direction of the movement. The ABA Committee and the ERO represented a virtual “interlocking directorate” of American eugenics, and their leadership in a variety of associations, institutions, and committees would continue to lead organized American eugenics well into the 1930s.[3] With Davenport’s connections, Bell obtained sole autonomy to manage the American Breeders’ Association Subcommittee on Hereditary Deaf-Mutism and the ERO’s Committee on Hereditary Deafness.[4] Additionally, Bell served as Chairman of the Scientific Board of Advisors to the ERO from 1912 to 1917.[5] However, as early as 1915, Bell betrayed some uneasiness about what he called “our eugenic cranks.”[6] While Davenport and the other eugenicists focused their research on the implications of eugenics findings for social policy, Bell’s ideas on heredity and eugenics remained consistently positive.

Opposing any scientific interference with the marriages of “undesirables,” Bell denied that such marriages could significantly affect the quality of the human race, a stark contrast to his earlier anxieties of the threat of a “deaf variety.” Bell the eugenicist during the twentieth century was more interested in the science of heredity than racial ideology, though he still continued to emphasize the importance of education, writing that “individuals have power to improve the race, but not the knowledge of what to do.”[7] By disseminating knowledge about heredity and the consequences of ill-chosen marriages, bell believed eugenics could meet its goal for improving the American population. Accordingly, for Bell, the goal of eugenics was not to “eliminate” the likelihood of hereditary deafness along with other “undesirables,” but rather “meant scientific research and discovery, the dissemination of which might encourage those with ‘desirable’ heredity to marry one another for the sake of their own posterity as well as the improvement of the human race” (emphasis mine).[8]

Bell's letter to Davenport (from the Eugenics Archive)

Turning to eugenics to provide a scientific boost for oralism, Bell eventually realized that his personal views on eugenics were in direct opposition with the direction Davenport and Hamilton sought out for the movement. By enforcing his authority on matters of hereditary deafness, Bell also hoped to influence the eugenicists’ focus on “undesirable traits,” by proving that positive alternatives could produce better outcomes for regulating the American population. Greenwald asserts that Bell’s authority prevented practitioners of negative eugenics to interfere with his work, and in doing so, Bell protected the deaf community from the full force of negative eugenic measures.[9] Yet the confluence of Bell’s beliefs was limited in light of the tremendous popularity and speed of growth of the eugenics movement. In a letter to Davenport discussing the role of the Board of Scientific Advisors to the ERO, Bell writes:

The appropriations approved at the first meeting of the Board related exclusively to undesirable characteristics…—cacogenics not eugenicial: Why not vary a little from this programme and investigate the inheritance of some desirable characteristics…It is the fostering of desirable characteristics that will advance the race; whereas the cutting off of our undesirable characteristics simply prevents deterioration.[10]

Like Galton before him, Bell was a firm believer on the proliferation of desirable traits and spent much of his years as Chairman for the Board trying to promote positive eugenics.

As an active participant in the eugenics movement, Bell also constructed a new twentieth century perspective of the deaf that disregarded the notion of deafness as a disability. Whether it was from his observations of the “feeble-minded,” the “criminals,” or other “undesirables,” Bell did not contend that the deaf fell into the same category and could thus be exempt from the same eugenics measures.[11] The deaf were different he insisted, because they had the tools necessary for normalization—oralism—and could thus be educated to avoid contributing to the degeneration of the human race. Jan Branson and Don Miller assert that eugenic measures imposed upon the deaf and other “undesirables” were related in part, to the social construction of deaf people as disabled. Eugenics was a prime ideological force constructing deafness as a medical pathology, but the attitudes and demands from the movement did contribute significantly to how scientists viewed the “unfit.” Building upon Charles Rosenberg’s argument that social attitudes can directly influence the direction of (social) science,[12] it is likely that Bell’s experiences with the eugenics movement and his intimate relationship with the deaf community turned him away from popularized perceptions of the deaf. In doing so, Bell not only shaped, but also deconstructed the notion of deafness as a disability by insisting their “defect” could be “corrected” through normalization.  His feeling of social responsibility and paternalistic stance towards the deaf community also contributed to his need to reinforce a certain conceptualization of the deaf apart from the eugenicists’ classification of “undesirables.” Bell eventually discovered his insistence for positive eugenics could only go so far to deter the ambitions of negative eugenicists.

In late September of 1915, the Hearst syndicate newspapers screamed “14 million to be sterilized” all throughout the country. Already queasy about Davenport’s direction and obsession with defectives, Bell reacted at once, contacting Cold Spring Harbour for some reassurance. Davenport reassured Bell that he would prevent others from believing such a “sensational fake article.”[13] Reminded of his experiences with media misquotes, Bell was hesitantly comforted, and wrote back, “Your note…is a great relief to me, as I was naturally disturbed over the newspaper notices—even though I didn’t believe them.”[14] Yet articles criticizing both the research direction of the ERO and individual eugenicists nevertheless persisted, and by April 1916, Bell had had enough of the public backlash. He sent his resignation to Davenport: “I believe I have now served for three years as chairman. I would very much be obliged if you would kindly present my resignation on the Board and say that it would gratify me very much to have some new member now appointed to the position.”[15] As Black explains the situation, Davenport was shaken up with Bell’s resignation, and persuaded Bell to stay until the end of 1916. Bell reluctantly agreed, Black tells us, “but his connection to the movement was now permanently frayed.”[16] Bell chaired his last meeting for the Board on December 15; after the meeting, Bell severed his association with the movement in a letter to Davenport: “I will no longer be associated with yourself and the other directors. With best wishes for the continuance of the work, and kind regards.”[17]


[1] Bruce, Bell, p.415.

[2] C.B. Davenport, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (London: Williams & Norgate, 1911), p.1.

[3]S. Selden, Inheriting Shame; The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America (New York & London: Teachers College Press, 1999).

[4] The ABA’s Committee on Eugenics categorized the “socially unfit” into ten subcommittees dealing with a pertinent issue requiring qualified scientific expertise. The ten committees were the Committees on (1) Heredity of Feeblemindness, (2) Heredity of Insanity, (3) Heredity of Epilepsy, (4) Heredity of Criminality, (5) Heredity of Deafmutism, (6), Heredity of Eye Defects, (7) Sterilization and Other Means of Eliminating Defective Germ-Plasm, (8), Genealogy, (9) Inheritance of Mental Traits, and (10) Immigration.

[5] The board also included William H. Welch (vice-chairman), Irving Fisher, Lewellys F. Barker, Thomas Hunt Morgan, and E.E. Southard.

[6] Bruce, Bell, p.419.

[7] Quoted in Haller, Eugenics, p.81.

[8] Quoted in Selden, Inheriting Shame, p.1.

[9] Greenwald, “The Real ‘Toll’ of A.G. Bell,” p.38.

[10] A.G. Bell, “Letter to Charles Davenport about Eugenics Record Office” (December 27, 1912). American Philosophical Society, Dav, B:D27., Harriman, Mrs. E.H.

[11] Bruce writes: “Bell did yield to the assumption, which all those around him took as axiomatic, that ethnic groups somehow differed inherently in temperament and intelligence, as well as in superficial physical characteristics. But he considered such presumed differences irrelevant to the inheritance of deafness, which was his chief concern. And to the end of his life he escaped the fatal delusion of more and more eugenists that they knew just what those supposed ethnic differences were, quite without benefit of scientific study, and could sort them out as “desirable” or “undesirable.” Bell never singled out any specific ethnic group as “undesirable,” though it was commonplace in his day for self-styled eugenicists to stigmatize the Italians, Jews, Slavs, and others. In his published writings on eugenics, he alluded only vaguely and causally to restriction of immigration on eugenic grounds, and then only to the extent of insisting that careful, objective studies ought to be made before any groups were presumed to be “undesirable” by heredity and therefore shut out [my emphasis]” (Bell, p.418).

[12] C.E. Rosenberg, “Science and American Social Thought.” In Science and Society in the United States, eds. David D. Van Tassell and Michael G. Hall (Homewood, Illinois: The Dorsey Press, 1966), 135-162.

[13] Davenport, quoted in Black, War Against the Weak, p.101

[14] Bell, quoted in Black, War Against the Weak, p.101.

[15] Bell, quoted in Black, War Against the Weak, p.104.

[16] Black, War Against the Weak , p.104.

[17] Bell, quoted in Black, War Against the Weak, p.105.


Monday Series: “In the guise of a friend:” The Eugenics Gaze of “Alexander the Aggressor”

Welcome, to a new Monday Series! I wrote this paper for Dr. Mark Solovey (IHPST) for his class on the History of Social Science (April 2009). In this paper, I focus on Alexander Graham Bell as an example for examining the complexities and conflicts within the eugenics movement in the United States during the early 19th century. Bell was opposed to legal measures for negative eugenics aimed at the deaf, yet at the same time he supported “voluntary” checks on marriage and procreation–i.e. positive eugenics. In particular, I examine in this paper how Bell sought to separate the deaf from other groups considered to be “defective.”

Enjoy, Dear Reader! And as always, I welcome your thoughts.

“In the guise of a friend:” The Eugenics Gaze of “Alexander the Aggressor”

Alexander Graham Bell (1849-1922) speaking into a prototype model of the telephone, 1876


“The whole subject of eugenics has been too much associated in the public mind with fantastical and improbable schemes for restricting marriage and preventing the propagation of indesirable characteristics, so that the very name “Eugenics” suggests, to the average mind, insanity, feeble-mindedness &c and an attempt to interfere with the liberty of the individual in his pursuit of happiness in marriage. If we make the promotion of desirable marriages our chief aim, and regulate interference with marriage to a subordinate position, the public will gain a truer conception of the aims and purposes of the persons engaged in eugenical work.”

-Letter from Alexander Graham Bell to Charles Benedict Davenport, Dec. 27, 1912.

“Behold, then, the crowning achievement of Alexander the Aggressor, in the invention of the telephone! This is a performance for which with the hearing world he no doubt deserves credit. But the previous and later history of the dealings with the Children of Silence makes us almost believe it was prompted, not by scientific ambition, not by any desire to serve his fellows, but by a pure deviltry which found delight in inventing something which none of the deaf might use!…As a contrivance for making the deaf man feel small, the telephone beats the world!”

C.R. Barns at the 11th Convention of the National Association of the Deaf, 1916.

In a paper presented to the National Academy of Sciences on November 13, 1883, Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) provided statistical evidence to support the claim that if the laws of heredity hold suit, then “the intermarriage of congenital deaf-mutes through a number of successive generations should result in the formation of a deaf variety of the human race.”[1] By examining records of institutions for the deaf across America, Bell found deaf intermarriages “to be not the exception but the rule,” and insisted proper remedial measures were needed to “lessen or check this tendency.”[2] Published as Memoir upon the Foundation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race (1884), Bell’s paper became the exemplar of hereditary statistics for American eugenicists in the Progressive Era.

Bell’s Memoir was published at a time of rising interest in the study of human heredity. At the same year, Francis Galton (1822-1911) applied heredity and selective breeding to humans, publishing his monograph on “eugenics” in Inquiries into human faculty and its development. Defining “eugenics” as “the science which deals with all the influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race,”[3] Galton argued the quality of the human race could be improved by encouraging reproduction amongst the “good stock,” and discouraging reproduction from the “bad stock.” While eugenics attracted moderate attention in Galton’s Britain during the nineteenth century, it saw a surge of popularity and scientific application once it crossed the Atlantic at the turn of the century. With the zealous participation of Charles Benedict Davenport (1866-1944), eugenics found an intellectual home for ideologies of biological determinism during the first thirty years of the twentieth century. Heralded with the idea of an ideologically purified America “purged of past sins and guarded against future menace,” the American eugenics movement reflected much of the nativist, reform-oriented liberalism and racism of the Progressives.[4] As a social philosophy, eugenics was conceived as a scientifically grounded reform approach and a benign application of science to humanitarianism that called for social problems to be measured and quantified. It is important to note that the movement was not a single phenomenon propagating complex ideas about heredity, social welfare and public policy. Rather, as historians Mark Haller and Daniel Kevles have argued, the movement was a series of stages that served as a sort of secular religion for scientists dreaming of a vigorous and healthy society.[5] Based on ideas of normalcy and anxieties about the degeneracy of the nation resulting from immigration, eugenics was an extremely nimble ideology that influenced decisions on sterilization policy, education curriculum and created to what Lennard Davis calls “the eugenics gaze:” a commitment to the importance and manipulation of heredity as a means for achieving racial and national improvement.[6] It was through heredity Bell found scientific support for his arguments on a “deaf variety.”

Tying Bell’s work on eugenics and oralism is therefore significant for understanding not only Bell’s personal views on eugenical measures, but also the intertwining of ideas about hereditary deafness and eugenics in twentieth century America. Bell felt a natural sympathy for the isolation of the deaf. Inspired by the success of oralism—the use of speech and lip-reading over sign language as primary communication—in his mother and wife, Bell years striving to significantly transform the public perception of the deaf in America. While scholars of deaf history have long recognized the influence of eugenics in Bell’s thoughts, to a large extent, the literature on Bell in general (or “mainstream”) history and deaf history has been kept separate, without much overlapping in arguments or uses of sources.[7] Despite his eugenical work and prominent positions in the American Breeders’ Association Committee on Eugenics and the Eugenics Record Office, Bell’s role has been significantly undermined in the history of the American eugenics movement. Brian Greenwald’s dissertation is the most comprehensive discourse on the dual image of Bell as an educator of the deaf and as an eugenicist. Greenwald argues that while Bell’s views on eugenics and his alliance with various eugenicists were in conflict with his personal familiarity with the basic humanity of deaf people, Bell nonetheless served as an “effective buffer” between the scientific and deaf communities.[8] In doing so, Bell protected the deaf community from the full force of harsh eugenics measures, including legislation restricting marriage, and sterilization, even while weakening the community through his advocacy of oralism. In Memoir, Bell explains his paternalistic stance: “[m]any people have the idea that [the deaf] are dangerous, morse, [sic] ill-tempered, &c. Then again people do not understand the mental condition of a person who cannot speak and who thinks in gestures. He is sometimes looked upon as a sort of monstrosity to be stared at and avoided” (Bell’s emphasis).[9] Normalization through oralism could spare the deaf from further mistreatment from the hearing society.

The two chief interests of Bell’s life, education and eugenics, merged together over the issue of deaf intermarriage. While the eugenics movement’s main aim was to translate science into public policy, Bell turned to eugenics to enforce and further his educational approaches for the deaf. In this paper I argue that oralism served two of Bell’s agendas for integrating the deaf into hearing society and reducing the likelihood for a “deaf variety.” First, by subscribing to ideas of heredity of his time, Bell saw in oralism an opportunity to “normalize” the deaf by removing them from their isolation from society as well as from the “instinctive prejudices” of hearing society.[10] As Robert Bruce explains, this “needless isolation of the deaf touched [Bell’s] compassion and sense of justice,” and thus Bell turned to eugenics as a means for breaking down that isolation.[11] Secondly, through his eugenics gaze, Bell’s research aimed to reinforce a certain conceptualization of deaf people, one which relied on what Harlan Lane refers as “technologies of normalization:” procedures and technologies that reify socially rejected differences as a treatable biological condition.[12] In Bell’s case, oralism and eugenics both served this purpose, by removing from the deaf barriers to their integration—sign language, residential schools, associations, and the like—and replacing with guises of “normal” behaviour, such as speech and lip-reading, thus rendering the deaf different from other “undesirables” categorized by eugenicists. Bell thus relied on oralism as an alternative to sterilization and restrictive legislation measures championed by negatives eugenicists in the likes of Harry Hamilton Laughlin (1880-1945). Therefore, for Bell, oralism would allow for the “healthy integration” of the deaf into society and the decline of the “deaf variety” of the human race.


[1] A.G. Bell, Memoir upon the formation of a Deaf variety of the Human race (1884), p.4.

[2] Bell, Memoir, p.45.

[3] F. Galton, “Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aims,” The American Journal of Sociology 10 (1904): 1.

[4] N. Ordover, American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p.7.

[5] M. Haller, Eugenics: Hereditarian Attitudes in American Thought (New York: Rutgers University Press, 1963; D.J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (London & Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995). Haller describes the movement in three stages: the “Preparation Period” from 1870 to 1905, the “Influential Period,” from 1905 to 1930, and the “Downhill Period,” which occurred after the 1930s with the emergence of the Nazi association with eugenics. Besides a few other books on the general history of American eugenics, there have been some articles and books meticulously examining specific issues that arose from the movement. Kenneth Ludmerer’s Genetics and American Society (John  Hopkins University Press, 1972)  also acknowledges both internal (e.g. revival of Mendelism) and external (e.g. economic unrest) influences contributed to attitudes towards eugenics and the growth of the movement. Steve Selden’s Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism and America (New York & London: Teachers College Press, 1999) and Nancy Ordover’s American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy and the Science of Nationalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003) explore how perceptions of race influenced the direction of America eugenicists. Gerald Allen has also persuasively argued that the fundamental ideas of eugenics were not the product of either the rediscovery of Mendel’s Laws or the Progressive “social movement.” Instead, he presents the eugenics movement within the complexities of moods and tensions of economic and social reform that followed labor and social unrest resulting from periods of economic depression. G. Allen, “Eugenics and American Social History, 1880-1959,” Genome 31 (1989):885-889.

[6] L.J. Davis, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body (London & New York: Verso, 1995), p.46.

[7] In Silence of the Spheres: The Deaf Experience in the History of Science (Bergin & Garvey, 1994), Harry Lang acknowledges that Bell was a man of scientific inclination whose view of the world was influenced by Darin, while Douglas Banyton criticizes Bell’s Social Darinism, arguing that Bell’s findings were unfounded and based on a faulty understanding of genetics (“‘A Silent Exile on this Earth:’ The Metaphorical Construction of Deafness in the Nineteenth Century,” American Quarterly 44.2 (June 1992): 216-243). In the history of eugenics, on the other hand, Bell is cast to the background of the movement, placed in the shadows of more prominent figures such as Davenport, Laughlin, and David Starr Jordan, though there are a few exceptions. In his meticulously researched War of the Weak (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003), Edwin Black discusses Bell’s uneasiness with the Eugenics Record Office’s constant focus on negative traits, but Black only glosses over the story and fails to tie Bell’s work as an eugenicist with that of his oralism. Haller has characterized Bell as a respected participant in the movement, but he implies Bell was in favour of legislation interference with deaf intermarriages in evidence for the contrary. Likewise, Charles Rosenberg has also argued Bell was more interested in the science of heredity than the racial ideology associated with eugenics (No Other Gods: on Science and American Social Thought (John Hopkins University Press, 1997)).

[8] B.H. Greenwald, “Alexander Graham Bell through the Lens of Eugenics, 1883-1922,” PhD Dissertation, George Washington University, 2006. There is a long list of literature among scholars of Deaf studies and Deaf history over the proper distinction between “deaf” and “Deaf.” While “deaf” commonly refers to any individual with a degree of hearing loss, the use of capital-D has come to signify individuals who have forged with the deaf community and identify themselves with sign-language and are thus culturally distinct from the rest of society (what scholars of deaf history call “mainstream” society). However, the recognition—and acceptance—of a separate and distinct deaf culture that became Deaf culture did not arise until the 1960s and 1970s with the acceptance and integration of American Sign Language. Thus, in keeping with proper historical terminology, unless otherwise directly quoted from sources, I will be using “deaf”  or “deaf-mutes” to refer to all aspects of deaf community, culture, and individuals, whether or not they identified themselves as a separate cultural group.

[9] Bell, Memoir, p.45.

[10] Bell, Memoir, p.43.

[11] R.V. Bruce, Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest for Solitude (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973), p.379.

[12] H. Lane, “Do Deaf People have a Disability?” in Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking. Eds. H-Dirksen L. Bauman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), p.287.