Philanthropy Daily

Eugenics as Philanthropic "Best Practice"

Senior Fellow Emeritus

As I was pulling together the research for my recent Chronicle of Philanthropy op-ed on philanthropic involvement in North Carolina’s eugenic sterilization program--a program highlighted recently on Brian Williams’ new TV program "Rock Center"--I was struck by this thought:

Were it not for the niggling little fact that it is now understood to be an utter moral abomination, eugenics would be touted today as one of American philanthropy’s most significant and successful undertakings.

For no other project in the 20th century came as close as eugenics to replicating, in the social realm, philanthropy’s model practices and demonstrable successes in the scientific realm, such as the campaign against hookworm or the Green Revolution. By any standard--other than that of human decency--eugenics was a spectacular example of effective strategic grantmaking.

As is often noted, the modern American philanthropic enterprise is grounded in its determination to get to the root causes of problems, as opposed to charity, which merely relieves symptoms. Washington University biologist Garland Allen reminds us this approach characterized the Progressive Movement in general, which received a substantial boost from the first large American foundations at the beginning of the 20th century. (Allen’s essay on the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor is must-reading for anyone grappling with this topic.)

Eugenics, in Allen’s view, may be understood in part as a reflection of the Progressive cult of efficiency.

Applied to the social sphere, efficiency meant correcting problems at their source, not in the aftermath of damage already done. Prevention became a central organizing concept with the efficiency movement. Efficiency also involved knowledge and the use of scientific principles, and it became commonplace to talk of certain kinds of reform as the scientific solution to social problems. . . . The application of rational planning in general, and of concepts of efficiency in particular, required the active participation of scientifically trained experts, professionals whose job it was to bring technical concepts and knowledge to bear on problem solving.

As a movement "based on the concept of rational, scientific planning in the cause of national efficiency," eugenics "aimed at correcting existing social problems--that is, the problem of the ‘defective classes.’"

Charles Davenport, a leading eugenicist and a Harvard-trained biologist, summarized the link between progressive efficiency and the eugenic solution for the "socially defective":

This three or four per cent of our population is a fearful drag on our civilization. Shall we as an intelligent people, proud of our control of nature in other respects, do nothing but vote more taxes or be satisfied with the great gifts and bequests that philanthropists have made for the support of the delinquent, defective classes? Shall we not rather take the steps that scientific study dictates as necessary to dry up the springs that feed the torrent of defective and degenerate protoplasm?

The Eugenics Record Office was Davenport’s answer to this question. Founded in 1910 as part of the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Station for the Experimental Study of Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, the ERO would be readily recognizable today as a full-service progressive think tank, with purposes ranging from scientific and policy research to public education and political advocacy. As the primary independently funded eugenics institution in America, it helped organize and train the vast cadre of professional experts whose job it was to "bring technical concepts and knowledge to bear" on the problem of defective protoplasm, and to make efficient, rational plans for its elimination.

The philanthropies that created the ERO were not only true to the progressive, root-causes philosophy, they also employed techniques that could be lifted directly from the pages of the most recent popular guide to "strategic grantmaking."

Collaboration: Many prominent individuals of wealth early in the 20th century--including Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and his son "Junior," and Mrs. E. H. Harriman, the widow of the railroad tycoon-- were firm believers in the threat posed to the nation’s Anglo-Saxon elites by inferior genes (typically borne by growing swarms of newly arrived, non-Anglo European immigrants). Davenport--who would today be celebrated as a model "social entrepreneur," had his immense skills been devoted to a worthier cause--persuaded their philanthropies to collaborate on the ERO. The Carnegie Institution of Washington hosted it; Mrs. Harriman provided most of its initial funding as well as an endowment; and "Junior" wrote checks for summer training programs. (Mrs. Harriman’s daughter Mary — who would go on to found the Junior League --attended one of those programs.) In the collaborative spirit, Davenport also managed to attract an array of extremely prestigious individuals to the ERO’s Board of Scientific Directors, including Johns Hopkins medical pioneers Lewellys Barker and William Welch, legendary Yale economist Irving Fisher, and inventor Alexander Graham Bell.

Strategic grantmaking based on empirically sound theories of change and logic models: Central to the eugenic enterprise were elaborate genetic charts showing the direct, scientifically indisputable, causal link between defective genes and bad social outcomes. The ERO compiled literally hundreds of thousands of these records covering individual families, particular social traits, and even whole cities. Unlike so many ethereal, attenuated, and far-fetched "theories of change" behind today’s philanthropic projects, the eugenic theory of change was brutally clear, simple and direct: dry up the defective gene pool through institutionalization and sterilization, and the social problems they cause would diminish. Had they been compelled to put eugenics into a logic model, it might have gone this way: the input is the rounding up and institutionalization of the feeble-minded; the output is the sterilization and release of now safely non-reproducing defectives back into society; and the outcome is a sharp decline in the mayhem they and their progeny would otherwise have caused, plus readily calculable savings of taxpayer and charitable dollars not spent in futilely relieving the symptoms of feeble-mindedness.

Public education through cutting-edge media strategies: Here, the ERO truly excelled. Both Davenport and the agriculturalist hired to run the ERO, Harry Laughlin, were relentless and articulate advocates of eugenics in every imaginable public forum, using every available means of public relations. Through the ERO and other eugenics organizations, they published countless books, newsletters, and articles. The eugenics movement more broadly mobilized every form of media to carry their message to the public, ranging from touring eugenics exhibits to "fittest families" contests at state fairs to newfangled contraptions like motion pictures. (The Black Stork was a film from 1917 starring a physician who nobly euthanizes a defective newborn).

Public policy advocacy: ERO director Laughlin enjoyed a level of influence among state and national lawmakers that contemporary philanthropists can only dream about. His guide to model eugenics laws was deeply influential in the design, implementation, and legal defense of state sterilization statutes, which were eventually adopted in some 27 states. In a striking early example of philanthropic "public-private partnership," Laughlin was officially designated an "expert eugenics agent" by a congressional subcommittee while still on the CIW payroll. As such, he provided the scientific research justifying the Immigration Act of 1924, which severely restricted the inflow of "defective" nationalities. He even played a role in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, supplying expert witness supporting Carrie Buck’s diagnosis of feeble-mindedness, even though he had never met her. The case infamously upheld the constitutionality of mandatory sterilization in 1927, with Justice Oliver W. Holmes proclaiming that "three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Global outreach: With the assistance of the ERO, the eugenics movement took root in nations around the world. Germany in the 1920s and 30s was particularly fruitful soil for the teachings of Laughlin and Davenport, and the Rockefeller Foundation was a generous funder of the state scientific institutions with programs in eugenics, as Edwin Black documents in his exhaustive and authoritative War Against the Weak. The ERO’s publications likewise extolled Germany’s work in addressing the problems of racial purity. In recognition of his contributions to eugenics, Nazi-controlled Heidelberg University bestowed an honorary Doctor of Medicine degree on Laughlin in 1936.

Flexibility and adaptability: Once the results of the German race-purification project became clear after World War II, the eugenics movement faced a public relations crisis. But it rolled with the punches, transmuting into population control and genetics, with the make-over generously funded by major American foundations like Rockefeller and Ford. Indeed, as my Chronicle of Philanthropy op-ed pointed out, the shape-shifting of eugenics into medical genetics at the Wake Forest medical school helped keep sterilization going in North Carolina well into the 70s, thanks to the support of long-time Carnegie Corporation trustee Frederick Osborn, whom one of the Rockefeller clan would later tap to be the first president of the Population Council.

The fact is that eugenics, with its determination to eliminate "bad seeds," was the closest possible analogy in the social sciences to natural science successes like Rockefeller’s later Green Revolution, with its effort to propagate "good seeds." That is precisely what made it so compelling to efficiency-minded progressives, and why it came to have such vast influence over public policy.

Given these features of the eugenic project, and absent the nasty turn it took in Germany, its story no doubt would be endlessly repeated in academic analyses and popular celebrations of philanthropy, highlighting every brilliant foundation maneuver which presciently deployed "best practices" only now being rediscovered by contemporary grantmakers.

I suppose it is to the credit of philanthropic studies that no one (at least to my knowledge) has suggested that we should momentarily bracket the ends at which eugenics aimed, in order to study, admire, and replicate its powerfully efficient and demonstrably effective philanthropic means.

But what has been philanthropy’s response to its neck-deep involvement in eugenics? That’s a story for another posting.