The American eugenics movement after World War II (part 1 of 3) | News Feature | Indy Week

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The American eugenics movement after World War II (part 1 of 3)



Editor's Note: This is the first story in a three-part series examining the American eugenics movement after World War II.

Many believe that after the Nazis' attempts at race purification, U.S. eugenics programs would have died out after the war. But instead, supporters of involuntary sterilization enacted and promoted that policy with even greater ardor. Thanks to Clarence Gamble and many others, North Carolina was a testing ground for the new national campaign, which helps explain the surge in sterilizations here.

In reporting this story, Kevin Begos, a freelance journalist who worked on the original award-winning Winston-Salem Journal series in 2002, had access to documents not available to the Journal at the time. Some of these documents are from private library collections; others were once available through an open records request in North Carolina, but later were withdrawn from the public sphere. These documents are in the sidebar to the right and linked throughout this story.

As readers will learn throughout the series, people from all walks of life supported the eugenics movement. It was common public policy at the time, and its tacit or overt acceptance reflected the social mores of that era, as morally reprehensible as that seems now.

Or is it still reprehensible? Today in Western North Carolina, a nonprofit group offers drug addicts money to be "voluntarily" sterilized. It is dubious whether one could honestly consider this program to be voluntary or ethical, since many people suffering from drug addictions will do nearly anything for money—and that money will likely go to scoring their next fix.

Part 2 of the series analyzes the public relations and advertising campaign of the eugenics movement, while Part 3 scrutinizes involuntary sterilization of the poor and of people of color, including Native Americans, during the civil rights movement.

We welcome your comments. Send letters to or post a comment below. —Lisa Sorg

Dr. Clarence Gamble never had to work a day in his life, wrote an appalling poem suggesting that "lucky morons" in mental institutions welcomed involuntary sterilization, and was a lifelong promoter of eugenics—with five children.

Gamble was a researcher at Harvard Medical School, heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune and a leader in the movement to launch a second wave of eugenic sterilization after World War II.

Many people found Gamble intolerable, and even family members agreed he could be cold and aloof. Yet a longtime fieldworker recalled that "he showed determination and ruthlessness but had goodness exuding from every pore," and Gamble dreamed of making scientific discoveries—then turning the patent over to the public so drug companies wouldn't reap excessive profits. He helped launch and fund the first public birth control clinics in America.

"The part of the trip which gave me the greatest feeling of accomplishment was two days which I spent in the mountains of western North Carolina. There I have been paying a nurse to go from house to house under the direction of a local doctor to offer free birth control supplies to the mothers who want it. She took me to see some of her patients, all of whom spoke with great gratitude of the help which it is giving them and said it was a great thing for the community as a whole." —from one of Gamble's letters.

People have long debated whether Gamble was a force for good or evil, but there is another possibility: that he was both, a tragically flawed idealist. The story of how he helped revive the eugenics movement suggests that he represents a more common picture of America during that era than we care to admit. For how else can we explain all the people who joined his campaign to promote eugenics, long after it had been exposed as junk science?

Victims paid the price until the 1960s and 1970s. A young man in Iowa was sterilized simply because he liked to have sex in Volkswagens. On a June morning in Alabama, a mother was told that her 12- and 14-year-old daughters needed "shots." There were Latina women in Los Angeles and New York who couldn't even read the so-called consent forms. Gay men and lesbians. Cheyenne, Navajo and Sioux women in the West, black women in North Carolina, and in Georgia, poor whites. In New York City a mother asked doctors to sterilize her 16-year-old daughter—just because the girl was going to attend a mixed race camp that summer. In North Carolina parents asked for sterilization after evidence of incest in the family. As public anger peaked, the Weather Underground bombed a federal building in San Francisco in 1974 to protest the government's role in forced sterilization.

Scholars and journalists—myself included—have long used roughly 64,000 as the number for eugenic sterilizations in America, but that is clearly too low. It omits all sterilizations after 1963—precisely the period when minority women were being targeted. A more realistic figure is more than 80,000, with half of those coming after World War II. Even today, addicts in North Carolina can get a $300 cash payment if they agree to be sterilized.

Many have claimed that eugenics died out in America after World War II, but Gamble's story shows that isn't true. "Eugenics doesn't end, really, until the '60s and '70s," says Alexandra Minna Stern, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of Eugenic Nation. Before World War II, eugenic sterilization programs were usually aimed at residents of mental homes or prisons, but by the early 1960s it could happen almost anywhere. The overwhelming majority of victims were poor, guilty only of "promiscuity" or being on welfare rolls. In California and Ohio, judges offered the operation as a condition of parole.

Blinded by the illusions of reducing poverty, eliminating mental illness and saving taxpayers money, people from all walks of life supported this second wave of eugenics. Among them were an Iowa minister, housewives and a judge in Augusta, Georgia, a rabbi in Little Rock, a director of Procter & Gamble, a Nobel Prize winner, a California banker and professors at major universities. Leading journalists helped too, including H.L. Mencken, Walter B. Pitkin (a founding members of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism) and Barry Bingham Sr., publisher of the Louisville Courier-Journal. Social workers from all over the country joined in, and new research shows there was a long history of support for eugenics in the black community.

An obscure group in New Jersey launched the nationwide campaign toward the end of World War II. In one sense the timing couldn't have been worse. The Nazis used involuntary sterilization to terrible effect against those with physical and mental "defects" in the 1930s, and the story of how that policy grew into the Holocaust was about to become widely known. Many scientists, doctors and public health officials already knew that eugenics was junk science—promising great change but delivering little. But in the end, science and the horrors of the Nazi era weren't enough to overcome an even stronger force: the urge to believe that quick, easy solutions can solve our social ills.

The full story of how this second wave of eugenics was organized and financed has been missed even by scholars, most of whom focus on the prewar era or on individual states. For years I missed it too, thinking that North Carolina was a unique case.

"I think this is major because everyone always has been pushing for 'what's the national link'?" in eugenics after World War II, said Paul Lombardo, a professor of law at Georgia State University and editor of the new book, A Century of Eugenics in America. "This is unusual. This is fascinating. I think you've found some brand new information."

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