The Eugenics Movement allows for one to discover how science attributes to the foundations of racial and social ideologies within the United States. This article is geared toward an audience who desires to acquire extensive information on how the eugenics affected everyday living and societal hierarchy in America during the 20th-century. The Eugenics Movement defines American culture during the earlier years of the 20th-century through its influence on legislation, medical practices, and social status.

The concept of eugenics begins in 1883. This idea is created by, polymath, Francis Galton. The science of eugenics is illustrated in his piece, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development. The basis of eugenics stems from ideas of Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism refers to the belief of “competition between social groups” that correlates to allowing the most ‘evolved’ to survive[i].  The field of eugenics “aims to use science for human improvement over generations by changing the composition of human populations through favoring the reproduction of certain sorts” [ii]. The goal of eugenics focuses on enhancing the quality of humanity through eliminating undesirable traits and genes. The standard of undesirable traits, created by eugenicists, describe groups of people who are seen as holding the weakest qualities within society. The weakest qualities can include individuals who: does not originate from Western or Northern Europe, is impoverished, possesses a mental or physical disability, has a criminal record, or behaves sexually inappropriate. There are two types of eugenic techniques. Positive eugenics refers to the encouragement to “have above-average intelligence to reproduce, while negative eugenics deters reproducing through a promotion of sterilization “for those perceived to have undesirable traits”[iii] . The United States practices eugenics between the span of the 1900s to the 1970s. There are several, specific elements of American culture that was affected by Eugenics Movement. More specifically, the aspects of organizations, legislation, sterilization, and social events are constructed through the ideology of eugenics.

Main Themes of Eugenics

Organizations, created during the Eugenics Movement, molds the dynamic of eugenic awareness  and education. The first well-known organization centered around eugenics is recognized as the American Breeder’s Association. The organization begins in 1906 under the leadership of Luther Burbank. The goal of the ABA consists of expanding the knowledge of eugenics to the general public. The organization also desires to gain more resources, through selective breeding, in order to create a population that is comprised of genes believed to superior. The ABA’s establishment subsequently leads to the creation of other eugenic-related institutions as time progresses. For instance, the Eugenics Record Office develops in 1910. Harry H. Laughlin leads the organization in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. The Eugenics Record Office serves as an institute that stores information on family heredity, medical history, and pedigree data. The organization would hold conferences annually to gather data and discuss new ideas that would improve the field of research (Refer to Image of Conference Below). ERO strives to achieve two main goals. The goals include: having the opportunity to “study human heredity, and to educate Americans on the importance of eugenics and eugenic policy” [iv]. An organization holding similar aspirations establishes in 1922. The American Eugenics Society provides information on topics, such as genetics or racial improvement toward the general public in order to raise awareness about eugenics. Individuals such as Margret Sanger or John. H. Kellogg, contributes toward the existence of the organization through gestures of research or sponsorship. The efforts of the AES causes the organization’s popularity to increase rapidly by the 1930s. The large support base allows the organization to create social events, such as the Fitter Family contests, that shapes the way American citizens interact with one another. The development of organizations during the Eugenics Movement play a major role in the type of U.S. legislation created during the 20th-century.  

ERO’s Annual Workers’ Conference. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:First Annual Field Workers’ Conference, Eugenics Record Office, Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, New York, June 20 and 21,1912.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:First_Annual_Field_Workers%27_Conference,_Eugenics_Record_Office,_Cold_Spring_Harbor,_Long_Island,_New_York,_June_20_and_21,1912.jpg&oldid=511947438 (accessed April 19, 2021).

Equally important, U.S. legislation passed during the Eugenics Movement impacts the areas of life, such as reproduction and marriage. There are two main types of laws that are formulated during this movement. Sexual sterilization laws and other eugenic legislation both contribute to the legalization of eugenics imposing on the private components of an individual’s life. The court case, Buck v. Bell, grants the state authority to “regulate the breeding of its citizens” [v]. Within this case, Carrie Buck is selected to undergo sterilization due to low IQ scores, demonstrated through generations, and signs of sexual deviance. The case illustrates how eugenics begins to infiltrate the autonomous choice of reproducing through government intervention. Other eugenic legislation includes Virginia’s SB 281 and Idaho’s establishment of a Eugenics state board.

Despite the nation’s push for involuntary sterilization, individuals still attempt to preserve their human rights and fight against the legislative branch. In the court case, Frank Osborn v. Lemon Thomson, that occurs in 1918, rules sterilization unconstitutional in New York. Osborn is able to prove that his Constitutional right of being protected equally under the law was violated by the sexual sterilization law passed in his state. The case illustrates how eugenics threatens the existence of one’s constitutional rights by controlling the aspect of reproduction. Also, marriage is significantly affected by laws implemented through the Eugenics Movement. Several legislative acts are passed within the United States to prevent the integration of various races. In 1924, the Racial Integrity Act “prohibited marriage between blacks and whites, and treated Indian blood no differently from black blood” [vi]. The proof of registry and pedigree data were now required to ensure racial purity. Many demonstrated their frustrations of this act through propaganda and paintings. The political cartoon included within this article demonstrates how the Eugenics movements has a negative impact on marriage and interpersonal relationships (Refer to Cartoon below). Legislation that focuses around sterilization or marital status denies an individual the opportunity to find love without constraints of segregation or societal expectations.

Eugenics Restricting Love. Glackens, L.M. Eugenics Makes the World go’round/ L.M. Glackens. June 18, 1913. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. https://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.27955/

Sterilization and medical research serve as the leading methods in which eugenics used to control the American population. Sterilizing consists of a “permanent method of birth control that uses surgical procedures to eliminate an individual’s ability to reproduce”[vii]. Although the medical procedure can be voluntary in certain situations, sterilizations are usually involuntary and determined by  state’s guidelines. Over thirty U.S. states pass sterilization laws to uphold the eugenics ideology of eliminating undesirable genes (Refer to Map Below). For instance, “around 20,000 sterilizations occurred in California state mental institutions under the guise of protecting society from the offspring of people with mental illness” [viii]. The concept of eugenics is also executed in medical practices. Tuberculosis is the disease that continued to infected a large number of American citizens. Albert Govaerts begins to use ERO records to establish a “detailed analysis of heredity of Tuberculosis” [ix]. The research done by Govaerts concludes that individuals who are of African American, Native American, Jewish, or Pacific Islander decent has a greater chance of  contracting tuberculosis versus someone who is from northern or western Europe. A new standard of medical practices are established through the use eugenics. These new discoveries are not only implemented in the training of future physicians ,but also plays a role in the determination of what a suitable marriage looks like. The element of sterilization ultimately allows for eugenicists to infringe on the major choice of an individual deciding to carry out their legacy by producing offspring.  

U.S. States who Sterilized.

Social Events, carried out during the early 20th-century, additionally defines American culture through its evaluation on intelligent and physical features. Eugenicists direct a significant amount of attention toward the level an individual develops cognitively. Through a eugenic perspective, the degree in which one formulates thoughts and performs task correlates to whether or not they strengthen the population as a whole. The Binet-Simon Test, also known as the Stanford Binet Test, is used to examine an individual’s intelligence. If an individual receives a low score, it correlates to the notion of being feeble-minded. The test is designed by Alfred Binet, who created the scale, and Lewis Terman, who constructed the actual assessment. The Binet-Simon test contributes to the degradation of thousands of Americans who did not meet the intellectual expectations established by eugenicists. Such labels leads to a large number of sterilizations and social segregation. For example, “ by 1964, of the 60,000 people in the US who had been subject to compulsory sterilization, mental inferiority accounted for more than half of the victims”[x].

Physical features of American families are also analyzed through a eugenic standpoint. The Fitter Family contests are the events that assess a family’s heredity and health. The concept of these contests stem from Dr. Florence Brown Sherbon and Mary T. Watts, but is sponsored and carried out by the American Eugenics Society. The first exhibit show casing the contest occurs in 1920 at the state fair in Kansas (Refer to Exhibit Below). In addition to giving physical examinations, Fitter Family contests also provides advice and education on parenting and medical practices through a eugenic perspective. Prior to entering a contest, a family endures an evaluation that lasts for over three hours. Aspects such as blood samples, diet, temperament, bodily defects, and IQ scores are recorded by a team of eugenicists present at given fair. Contestants are usually “white, native-born, Protestant, educated, and from a rural background” that do not possess records of carrying unfit genes” [xi]. After examinations, contestants receive a grade based on how closely physical and intellectual qualities aligned with eugenic expectations. Winners are published and given awards. Individuals who did not win are provided with advice on how they can improve themselves and become more suitable. Events such as the Fitter Family contests demonstrates how the Eugenics Movement changes the standard of American home life, health expectations, and physical appearance.

Fitter Family Exhibit .”File: Exibicao eugenica.gif,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Exibicao_eugenica.gif&oldid=493141693 (accessed April 20, 2021).

With all things considered, the concept of eugenics involves the manipulation of genetic foundations with motives to construct an ideal population within a region. The Eugenics Movement that occurs in America revolutionizes the functionality of the nation’s culture. Areas such as politics, marriage, education, and health are all affected by the Eugenics Movement’s goal to remove traits that are perceived to be undesirable and damaging to America’ progression. Even though sterilization procedures continue until the mid-20th-century, the movement’s most influential moments come to an end around the 1940s when World War II is won by the Allied Powers. The United States’ decision to disassociate from eugenics occurs once Adolf Hitler implements the science within the Nazi Party. Hitler utilizes eugenics to support the ideology of preserving the Aryan race through eliminating the Jewish population and others he deemed feeble-minded, disabled, or contaminated. Nevertheless, the Eugenics Movement existing in 20th-century America establishes the nation’s civilization through factors of legislation, medical practices, and social status. Despite the movement’s short existence, the customs and behaviors executed during this timeframe institute long-lasting effects that indefinitely alter the way a large percent of the population carries out life and are perceived in society.


[i] David S. Mason, A Conscious History of Modern History, (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 77.

[ii] Robert A. Wilson. “Eugenics”. Eugenics Archive. Accessed April 20, 2021, https://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/encyclopedia/5233ce485c2ec500000000a9.

[iii] Jamie Lathan. “Eugenics Movement in the United States”. Digital Public Library of America. 2018. https://dp.la/primary-source-sets/eugenics-movement-in-the-united-states.

[iv] Erna Kurbegovic, “Eugenics Record Office”. Eugenics Archive. Accessed April, 20, 2021, https://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/tree.

[v] Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (New York: Penguin Books,2016), 201.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Jamie Lathan. “Eugenics Movement in the United States”. Digital Public Library of America. 2018. https://dp.la/primary-source-sets/eugenics-movement-in-the-united-states.

[viii]  “Eugenics”. History. 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/germany/eugenics#section_2.

[ix] Philip K. Wilson, “Confronting “Hereditary” Disease: Eugenic Attempts to Eliminate Tuberculosis
in Progressive Era America 27, no. 1 (2006): 27 , accessed March 10, 2021, DOI: 10.1007/s10912-005-9001-6.

[x] Aida Roige, “Intelligence and IQ Testing”. Eugenics Archive. Accessed April 21, 2021. https://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/encyclopedia/535eecb77095aa000000023a.

[xi] Molly Ladd-Taylor, “Fitter Family Contests”. Eugenics Archive. Accessed April 21, 2021. https://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/encyclopedia/535eebfb7095aa0000000228.


How to Cite: Cierra Malone. “The Eugenics Movement: How the Use of Genetic Ideology Sparks Social Change in 20th-century America,” Digital History at USCA, 2021, https://digitalhistoryusca.com/2021/04/21/eugenics-movement-how-the-use-of-genetic-ideology-sparks-social-change-in-20th-century-america/(opens in a new tab)


Further Readings: Kaelber, Lutz. “Eugenics: Compulsory Sterilization in 50 American States.” UVM.com. The University of Vermont, 2011. https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/.


Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Genetics – The Noun Project.svg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Genetics_-_The_Noun_Project.svg&oldid=455491207 (accessed April 21, 2021).

3 thoughts on “Eugenics Movement: How the Use of Genetic Ideology Sparks Social Change in 20th-Century America

  1. Hey Cierra, I really enjoyed the flow of your article and how you was able to tie in your map and photos. What made you choose this topic?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Cierra, you did such a good job at conveying this topic through the form of an article and I really enjoyed how you emphasized the time frame of the movement while effectively securing its’ importance.

    Liked by 1 person

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