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A recent article revealing that Massachusetts sterilized more than two dozen teenage boys in the 1920s has brought renewed attention to the role Harvard faculty played in the eugenics movement of the early 20th century.
It’s never been a secret that Harvard affiliates supported sterilization and restricted immigration during the ’20s as a way to help future generations achieve genetic perfection.
But the article in Boston Magazine showed for the first time that sterilization took place in Massachusetts, where state officials castrated teenage boys as part of a study in Shutesbury seeking to “promote sterilization, segregation, selective breeding and immigration restrictions.”
Sterilization laws existed in more than 30 states in the early 20th century, but not Massachusetts.
That’s why the Shutesbury study—evidence that Massachusetts was a “beehive of activity”—is significant, said Welling Savo, the author of the article, who spent over six months researching the topic.
According to her article, about 26 patients—many of them 14- and 15-year-old boys—were selected for sterilization because they were epileptic, socially “defective” or showed signs of regular masturbation or “solitary behavior.”
The article emphasized that Harvard was a major center for eugenic thought at the time. The head of the University’s anthropology department, Ernest Hooton, was a member of the American Eugenics Society, which remained active until the 1970s. The society’s advisory board included nine other Harvard faculty members and its vice president, Charles Davenport, was a Harvard-trained biologist.
The Harvard connections are significant because they indicate the legitimacy of the eugenic movement in the intellectual community, Savo said.
“Davenport was the leader and figurehead of the eugenics movement in the United States,” Savo said. “It was taught as part of over 300 science courses around the country.”
Hooton believed that all social problems had biological roots and that humans should be bred “for a better stock.” He called for “a sit-down reproductive strike of the busy breeders among the morons, criminals, and social ineffectuals of our population.”
Two of Davenport’s Harvard colleagues started the Immigration Restriction League with fellow eugenicists. The League persuaded Congress to impose literacy tests and other restrictions on immigration to weed out people they believed to be inferior.
Everett I. Mendelsohn, professor of the history of science, said members of the Harvard community were not exceptional in their interest in eugenics in the 1920s, although the movement began fading soon after.
“The interest in eugenics was widespread at the time but the practice was less widespread,” he said. “Most biologists, and even those benignly interested, consciously moved away from it when it was taken up by the Nazis.”
Mendelsohn, who published an article in Harvard Magazine in 2000 titled “The Eugenic Temptation,” said that scientists need to learn from the past before moving too fast in modern genetic technology.
“While the current work in human genetic engineering is not malign, there is little doubt that there is an interest in using genetics to correct behavior,” he said. “We need a deep social discussion of how to use genetic techniques.”
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