28 November 2023

Eugenics and migration in USA, 1882-1924

The High Tide of Immigration - A National Menace 
by Louis Dalrymple 
in Judge magazine, Aug 1903 

The term eugenics came from English scientist Sir Francis Galton. In Hereditary Gen­ius (1869), Galton advocated a sel­ective breeding programme in humans, to ensure that quality genes were passed down. His theories inspired prominent US biologist Charles Davenport to es­t­ablish the Eugenics Record Office NY in 1910.

Eugen­ics became a U.S programme to improve the genetic quality of humans. Since the early propon­ents believed that only through sel­ect­ive breeding could humans direct their own evol­ution, I’d been very inter­ested in eugenics’ effect on forced sterilisation. Now examine the movement’s im­pact on immigration into America

Between 1850-1930, the US accepted c5 million Germans, 3.5 million British, 4.5 million Irish and 2.8 million Eastern Eur­o­pean Jews. In fact 1.3 million migrants passed through Ellis Island in 1907 alone. Americans believed a] in the genetic superiority of Nor­­d­ic, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon peop­les, as opposed to Asian, Af­r­ic­an or Eastern European citizens. And they believed b] that the US had rarely suff­ered from crime or disease before those Undesirable Migrants arrived. The famous melting-pot concept was fake! 

In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, then renewed it twice. By excluding all Chinese labourers from entering the U.S, this Exclusion Act largely achieved its goal.

The Immigration Restriction League was the first American body officially promoting eugenics. Created by Harvard Univ­ersity graduates in 1894, the League sought to bar inferior races from ent­ering America, diluting the superior American rac­ial stock. Social and sexual involve­ment with less evol­ved races would pose a biolog­ical threat to real Americans. 

The American Breeder’s Association/ABA (1906) was the first eugenic body in the US, led by Char­l­es Davenport. It was formed to investigate and report on heredity, to emphasise the value of su­p­erior blood and the menace of inferior blood. The Am­er­ican Association for the Study and Prev­ention of In­fant Mortality, from 1909 on, in­vest­igated infant mortality in terms of eugen­ics. They pushed for government intervention, to promote the health of future citizens. The American Breeder’s Assoc­iat­ion est­ab­lished a Committee on Imm­igration Legislat­ion com­mittee in 1911. 

As a result, eugenicists wanted to build a wall around the U.S high enough to keep out polluting peoples. The true, old-stock Americans were seen to be an endangered species! 

Immigrants outside an Ellis Island building, c1900. 
Smithsonian Institute, National Archives 

The Rest­riction League lobbied for a liter­acy test for immigrants, since lit­eracy rates were low among inferior races. By using intel­l­igence testing, eugenicists asserted that middleclass stat­us was a marker of superior status, ind­icative of genetic fit­ness. This re­affirmed the existing cl­ass and rac­ial hierarchies; those deemed un­fit were largely of the lower classes i.e dirty migrants.

At first Davenport favoured restrict­ion of feeble-minded immigrants and sterilis­ation as prim­ary meth­ods. But soon he was caught up in a racialist whirlwind initiated by Madison Grant’s book The Passing of the Great Race. Combining dodgy history, anthropology and genet­ic theory, Grant’s work persuaded Davenport that pure American blood­­ was threatened by entire ethnic groups. The Passing of the Great Race savagely denigrated the peoples of eastern and southern Europe while exalting the Nordics of N.W Europe. 

Davenport also founded The Eugenics Record Office, supported by psychol­ogists Henry Goddard & Harry Laughlin. Founded in Cold Spring Harbour NY in 1911, using corporate money from the Harriman rail roads, Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Institut­ion, they collected fam­ily pedigrees! Harriman money was given to local charities, in order to find immigrants from specific ethnic groups to deport, confine or sterilise. 

Immigrant children examined by city health officer at Ellis Island 
during Typhus Scare. New York, 1911. 

Compare this to Australia, the nation that warmly embraced the obnoxious White Australia Policy in 1913. Many Australians clearly had negative attitudes to those not of British extraction, incl­ Indigenous Australians.

Before WW1 a network of scientists and reformers actively promoted eug­en­ic legislation and projects. c19 million people attended the 1915 Pan­ama–Pacific Inter­national Exposition in San Francisco. This Expos­it­ion extolled this rapidly pro­g­ressing nation, featuring new developments in science, agricul­t­ure, manuf­act­uring, technol­ogy, health care and race bett­er­ment. 

There WERE some scientific critics, most focusing on eugenicists’ methodology, which defined every human charact­eristic as genetic, never environment­al. Yet there were 376 separate courses the US’s leading universities which included eugen­ics in the curriculum. 

Even feminists advocated reforms eg Nat­ion­al Federation of Women’s Clubs; Woman’s Ch­ristian Temperance Un­ion; National League of Women Voters. Birth control heroine Margaret Sang­er believ­ed birth cont­rol could prevent un­wanted bab­ies from being born into a miser­able life. Eug­enicists rec­ognised the polit­ic­al and social influence of women in the Deep South between 1915-20, and used it. 

Influential eugenicist witnesses for the House Committee on Immig­ration and Nat­uralisation in 1920 argued that the national gene pool would be polluted if undesirable migrant numbers contin­ued. This caused the U.S to pass laws creating a hierarchy of national­ities, rating them from the most desirable peoples down to the least. In passing the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924, eugenicists played an important role in the Congressional debate as expert advisers regarding inferior stock from eastern and southern Europe. The Act, based on the racial superiority of old-stock white Americans, strength­en­ed the existing laws for years.

And migrants already in the country could be targeted. Since pov­er­ty was associated with prostitution and mental idiocy, women of the lower classes, immigrants or women of colour were the first to be deemed promiscuous. These women were sterilised or were confined. 

In the early C20th, the U.S accepted many Southern and Eastern European im­mig­rants, the peo­ple most loathed by Prot­est­ant, white old-time Am­er­icans. So rest­rict­ions on immigration passed during the 1920s were clearly motiv­ated by eugen­ics’ more rac­ist goals. But once migration to the U.S largely ceased in 1924, rub­bishy mig­rants could no longer be blamed for crime and disease in the US. 

You might like to read The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics and the Law,  by Daniel Okrent, 2019 


Train Man said...

Did the Eugenics Movement explicitly influence the White Australia Policy?

DUTA said...

I know nothing of genes - quality genes or otherwise.
I believe in God's creation of the world. God gave each race a territory. Man has violated this order by migration and war, bringing about togetherness.
Racial conflicts in a country are a never-ending topic as this togetherness does not appear in God's 'book', and so, there's no lasting solution to it.

Parliament of Australia said...

Train Man

The Immigration Restriction Bill, which enacted the white Australia policy, started in the House of Representatives in 1901, soon after the Federal Parliament opened. The Bill was one of the first substantive pieces of legislation to be introduced and one of the most extensively debated pieces of legislation before Parliament. There was almost universal support for the immigration restriction of non-Europeans to Australia, with most parliamentarians advocating absolute exclusion; others supported the admission of small numbers of coloured labourers to work in the tropical north. Rare opposition, when expressed, came from members of the Free Trade Party.

Eugenics were not explicitly mentioned but Australia was represented at 1st International Eugenics conference in London in 1912 by a South Australian politician/medical practitioner.

Parliament of Australia
Chapter One: Federation and the Geographies of Whiteness

Hels said...


I totally understand that migrants do not always leave their country by choice and that the recipient country does not always accept the migrants by choice. But it should have nothing to do with race.

Let me give you just one example. Whiteness operated as a cultural ideal critical to the formation of an Australian national identity. Through propagating fears about the loss of the white nation-self, the Parliament sought to transform whiteness into a normative national category; Federation sought to "indigenise whiteness" (Parliament of Australia). This makes no sense to me.

DUTA said...

I'm not against migration , and certainly not against the diverse ethnicities that make up the world, but I don't like to live in the dark, I want answers, and my belief in God provides them. It helps me understand why racial conflicts in a country are never ending, and there is no lasting solution about it. God has created separatism, and if one wishes togethernes, one's got to struggle a bit with reality. That's all.

jabblog said...

It's all too easy to slip into the eugenics frame of mind when people start to criticise how other people live and bring up their families. What gives anyone the right to say that others should be denied life or the opportunity to procreate? Why should anyone think they have the right to exclude other people from their country if they are seeking a new, better way of life? I don't understand it - just about all of us are descended from settlers and invaders.

Jo-Anne's Ramblings said...

I have heard the term eugenics but know bugga all about it so found this post interesting although really not something I think is, was or maybe never will a good idea parts of it may be ok but generally I don't think so

Andrew said...

Humans interfering with animal breeding has been a disaster at times, with some dog breeds so defective it requires more human intervention to breed out the bad defects they already caused. Who knows where selective human breeding would have ended, and the consequences.

Margaret D said...

Planned breeding - didn't realise the USA did this way back. Pity.
Nice article and I enjoyed it Hels.

Hels said...


If a nation is dedicated to uniting all its citizens in equality and dignity, eugenics are irrelevant and racial conflicts in that nation need not be unending. Firstly a multi-national community is a richer community to live in, via different cuisines, music, languages, educational institutions, sports, literature etc. Secondly if the government and its institutions are dedicated to mutual understanding, any clash can be resolved in the courts like other breaches of the law are.

If migrant numbers have to be limited, eugenic predictions about inferior or undesirable peoples suff­ering from crime, disease or mental weakness...are useless. Reuniting families is a fair reason to accept people as migrants, or to offer security for families escaping war.

Hels said...


yes! It is important to note that eugenic studies started off respectably i.e researching practices that could improve the genetic quality of a human population. It only became a nasty way to control migration once the science took on political or social preferences eg Japanese, Mexicans and Nigerians should be excluded because their genes are inferior.

Hels said...


I must acknowledge that many nations will exclude potential migrants if they have long term physical or mental conditions that require institutional care and can never be gainfully employed. In such cases, the institutionalised individuals could cost the new host nation endless money with no benefits.

Note that needing expensive, long term care may not have been a genetic issue; rather it may be due to a car crash.

Hels said...


I recently heard an excellent podcast on inbreeding, especially in the Hapsburg family. I was immediately worried about my labrador dogs, paying a fortune because I insisted on accredited breeders who could guarantee the paternity of the puppies. Next time, I might think a bit more carefully about any lab puppy I want.

And Dan Snow's podcast agreed with you "Who knows where selective human breeding would have ended, and the consequences?"

Hels said...


Sorry for repeating myself. Since lit­eracy rates were low among inferior races, eugenicists asserted that middleclass stat­us was a marker of superior status, ind­icative of genetic fit­ness. This re­affirmed the existing cl­ass and rac­ial hierarchies; those deemed un­fit were largely of the lower classes i.e dirty migrants to be kept OUT.

Excluding potential migrants was one issue, but did eugenics damage unfit people INSIDE the USA. Many political leaders accepted that they promoted the improvement of the human race through governmental intervention. By promoting selective breeding, they contributed to the intellectual underpinnings of state-sponsored discrimination, forced sterilisation and genocide (National Library of Medicine).

mem said...

Its a very fraught topic . So much harm has been done by religion and a simplistic view of so called "gods will" and by racism . They, I would contest ,are the major causes of war , not people moving about . The human race would still be in Africa or wherever they started on the basis that people stay where they are supposed to be !

hels said...


I agree that god's will and racism got confused with science and medicine. The knowledge about genes, including dominance and recessiveness, was essential; the mandatory sterilisation of "handicapped" children was not.

diane b said...

It sounds a bit like Nazi Germany when they wanted to breed the Aryan race. I had never heard of Eugenics before. Call me ignorant but it is a ghastly idea.

National Library of Medicine said...

diane b,
modern eugenics came from late 19th century social darwinism, with all its metaphors of fitness, competition and rationalisations of inequality. Much later in Nazi Germany, eugenics prompted the sterilisation of several hundred thousand people then helped lead to antisemitic programmes of euthanasia. The association of eugenics with the Nazis is so strong that many people were surprised at the news that Sweden sterilised 60,000 people from 1930s-1970s.

The intention was to reduce the number of children born with genetic diseases and disorders. After the turn of the century, eugenics movements in fact blossomed in the United States, Canada, Britain, Scandinavia and elsewhere. Eugenics was therefore not a Nazi patent.

National Library of Medicine

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Eugenics is a very old idea. How many fairy tales or myths embody the idea that an infant was adopted somehow by peasants (or switched in the hospital, or whatever) but the superior-race child grew up to be beautiful, kind, intelligent and (mostly if male) a natural leader? Also note that the superior-race people are quick to take credit for anything good that grew from them, but never responsibility for the bad that they evolved. A couple of examples from the U.S., but their equivalents are all over the world: Industrialists "modernized" the world and its economy, but they never even acknowledged the problems of the pollution they caused. Also, the early American farmers who settled westward were "sturdy pioneer stock" and "the backbone of America" but the fact they they farmed poorly and just wore out one plot of land after another, leaving a trail of erosion and sterile land never bothered them--they just moved further west to destroy more land.

Hels said...


I think if scientists wanted to know about Tay-Sachs, cystic fibrosis, albinism, muscular dystrophy or haemophilia, knowledge of genetic inheritance might have been very useful.

But genetics won't help nations exclude immigrants who may become poor farmers, poor industrial workers, most criminals and most psychopathology.