During the opening decades of the twentieth century, many American biologists were committed to eugenics, a broad, popular, and diverse movement that held that knowledge about heredity would provide the key to social and biological progress. This commitment had a huge impact on the biology curriculum of universities across the country. In 1914 the Journal of Heredity published an article entitled “Eugenics in the Colleges” noting with approval that 44 colleges offered courses in eugenics in a range of different departments. By 1928, 376 college courses on eugenics existed in this country.
Here at Puget Sound, Biology professor James R. Slater taught a course on eugenics from 1920 to 1951. The course catalog description read as follows: Mental Hygiene and Eugenics — A study of the problems of mental physiology, laws of heredity, sex, and racial progress. The questions of responsibility for conduct; mental and nervous defects; crime and delinquency, racial betterment, the relative importance of heredity and environment in the development of the individual, are thoroughly considered. This course gives the sociological aspect of Biology.
The eugenics movement was pervasive in American culture and global in scope and reach. Historians have demonstrated how racist and ableist assumptions pervaded the movement; eugenics inevitably entailed someone in power making value statements about individuals and groups. Those statements had tragic consequences, for they were used as scientific justifications for anti-immigration, sterilization, and anti-miscegenation laws.
This past summer, an African American Studies and Biology major completed a summer research project on whether Puget Sound’s Slater Museum of Natural History should be renamed, given that biology professor James Slater taught a course on eugenics. Inspired by this research, faculty and students in the Biology and Science, Technology and Society Program have organized this symposium to help facilitate a campus-wide conversation about the history of eugenics, how we can understand, assess and learn from this past, and who we commemorate and why. An exploratory email to several experts on the history of eugenics asking whether they would be interested in coming to Puget Sound to help us understand this past was met with an overwhelming response: every scholar replied with an enthusiastic YES.
The goal of this symposium is to ask difficult questions and explore a complex past with an eye to how the challenges and complexities of that past can inform decisions in the present, both with respect to commemorative practices and how we think about the role of science in society. For more resources on the history of eugenics, click the link in the upper right corner.