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.


History Carnival

With all the chaos in my life right now, I completely forgot to mention I’m hosting the next edition of the History Carnival, a monthly showcase of blog writing about history. I’m SO sorry!

If you have a great historical piece to nominate, please send me an email or use the nomination form on the site.

Happy history reading!

Navigating the History of Science Blogosphere

I’m writing a piece for the History of Science Society fall newsletter about history of science/medicine blogs and blogging on the blogosphere. It seems lately this has been a hot topic for discussion on the ‘net, especially after the New York Times Article which outlines possible web-alternatives to peer-review. Last year, our favourite history of science blogger, Michael D. Barton, gave a talk at the annual HSS meeting in Phoenix as part of the Committee on Education session, Teaching the History of Science Using the Web. Recently, fellow IHPST students Aaron S. Wright and Jonathan Turner continued the dialogue on posting academic content online. Also, recall Sage Ross and Michael Robinson‘s comments on my post about the internet protecting (as opposed to exposing) original academic records.

There’s something to be said here. A lot of academic bloggers I know blog about their academic lives, research ideas, provide advice, or just provide links to interesting articles around the web to read. In his talk, Michael also showed the results of his informal online survey to popular histofsci bloggers, and one of the question dealt with the content posted:

3. Is your blog specifically a history of science blog, or another blog which has history of science content?

Hos specifically: 8; HoS content: 12

4. Initally, why did you start your blog?

Sharing content (8), research (7), science communication (2), political commentary (2), networking (1), online reference (1), “It just happened!” (1)

For me, sharing content and research are only one of my main reasons for blogging; establishing my place in social media networks is another (especially for future job prospects and technology).

I do wonder: is there a history of science community on the blogosphere? There’s one on Twitter, with folks that advocate and support each other ideas as well as their own (#histsci), but they are all bloggers, or at the very least, individuals interested in the history of science. Is being a blogger a necessary requirement for participating in this community?

I started off my interest in the role of blogging back when I was frustrated about not being able to quickly or properly find great history of medicine blogs. I ended up spending hours and hours and hours…and hours surfing through the internet, and eventually managed to get a decent list of history of medicine and history of science blogs (which you can see on the links section on the right-hand part of the website). Michael also compiled a list of updated history of science blogs and twitter accounts.

I want to go back to the question I asked in my original post on history of science blogs: is there a strong readership for histofsci blogs? Who reads these types of blogs? Particularly, how often do historians make use of blogging sites?

I want to direct you, Dear Reader, to take five minutes out of your busy day and complete this very informal survey. Your assistance is greatly appreciated and I will post results after September 20.

Sermons and Philanthropy

I briefly wrote about the Royal Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear, remarking how Curtis’ efforts to increase the prestige of the RDDE relied on patronage and support from respectable physicians and surgeons. London society had praised the RDDE and applauded Curtis for drawing attention the plight of the deaf and providing the poor and destitute public a much-needed services.

The recognition of the RDDE’s historical value beyond its medical measures is also apparent in its inclusion into London society through the fundraising efforts that were taken on its behalf. Public sermons were often preached to draw attention to the merits of the RDDE and its founder, as well as to aid it financially if necessary. When the RDDE ran into serious financial trouble sometime during the 1830s, a small pamphlet containing a sermon preached in aid of the RDDE was circulated. The pamphlet included an introductory letter written by Henry Sheppard Smyth, the RDDE’s secretary, who declared that a desperate need was required to “awaken the sympathies of meek-eyed Charity.”

The sermon within the pamphlet, preached by Reverend Richard Ponsonby of the St. Martin-in-the Fields-Church, urged the congregation to support their dependent fellow-creatures. Such support, the Reverend declared, is beneficial for a class of human sufferers who “have no voice to speak their misery; and to the accents of friendship they are utter strangers.” Emphasizing that the RDDE represented the vast improvements made in aural surgery and the state of the deaf in London society, the Reverend argued financial support was necessary to evoke the Christian spirit of charity and duty:

To me indeed, it seems difficult to imagine any institution more entirely deserving of your support than which now implores it, whether you consider the wide extent of its influence, or the deplorable state of those whom it purposes to relieve. This humane establishment has been in existence for more than seventeen years, during which time it has been found of unquestionable utility; not confining its benevolent views to the inhabitants of the metropolis, but extending them generally throughout the country (original emphasis).

Ponsonby’s sermon was printed and circulated, clearly emphasizing the extend to which both the RDDE’s patients and the wider public saw the importance of this institution for assisting those “who have no voice to speak their misery.”

Additionally, in the 1830s, a grand fête champétre was organized by a women’s group to be held in Mr. Jenkins’ Grounds in Regent’s Park to raise funds for the RDDE. The event, which soon was held annually, was heavily advertised in London’s newspapers by Smyth, and was often heralded as the social event of the year. The event was also captured in a colored lithography by M. Gauci (fl. 1810-1846), in 1832, a gift to the “Ladies patronesses of the Royal Dispensary” by a William Franklin:

The Regent's Park Fair (from the Wellcome Library Collection)

It seems to me that London society clearly recognized the value of the RDDE and strove to ensure its success and continuance in providing care and treatment for ear diseases.

*Richard Posonby’s pamphlet, A Sermon Preached…in aid of the Royal Dispensary for the Disease of the Ear (London: Published by J.G. and F. Fivington, 1834), is available at the British Library.