Friday, January 22, 2016

Primary sources on "social hygiene" and eugenics

We recently hosted a research visit during which I was able to pull a whole host of materials on eugenics and social hygiene movements in the U.S. and Oregon in the twentieth century. The materials, as you can imagine, are at turns fascinating, disturbing, and illuminating for anyone with an interest in social history, Progressive-era movements, genetics and society, the sociology of science... the list goes on!
"A Summer of the Oregon State Survey of Mental Defect, Delinquency and Dependency," 1921
The materials that the researcher used were a mix of national-level publications and Oregon-grown surveys and reports, which were pulled from both our collections and main library holdings.

One of the more ridiculous (in my opinion) passages that I came across as I perused the texts in advance of the research appointment was in the Scientific Papers of the Second International Congress of Eugenics : Held at American Museum of Natural History, New York, September 22-28, 1921. A eugenics advocate argued that the seemingly innocuous ears of a mixed-breed rabbit could be indicative of more serious "disharmonies" present in animals (or, it is implied, humans) of mixed ancestry:
Sorry, adorable bunnies: your asymmetrical ears are a suspicious harbinger of genetic inferiority!
The passage also brought to mind the discussions of "disharmonies" in our current winter exhibit that called upon eugenics to further orthodontic practices in the early twentieth century.

 The web of pseudo-scientific theories supporting eugenics were used to justify all manner of racist immigration policies, sterilization programs, and of course political platforms such as those of the Nazi party in Germany. Though they've been thoroughly discredited today, the cultural echoes of these programs and arguments have long outlived their discussion in serious scientific circles. But don't listen to me, read more for yourself! Here are some of the main primary sources on the subject from OHSU Library and HC&A collections:


Oregon- and Portland-specific: