International Eugenics

Although the term "eugenics" was introduced by Francis Galton in 1883, the first organized eugenics movements emerged in Germany, Britain, and the United States during first decade of the 20th century. Subsequently, other movements were founded in France, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Russia, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, and Japan. During the interwar period (1919-1939) the most prominent international connections were between American and German eugenicists.

The Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor, New York became the central clearinghouse for the international movement, but each national movement had its own social agenda. To a greater or lesser extent, each national movement shared concern for the apparent increase in inherited mental degeneracy and for the supposed negative effects of race mixing. While Mendelism was at the center of eugenics research United States and Britain, it was adopted to a lesser degree in Scandinavia and Germany. Russian and French eugenicists rejected Mendelian inheritance in favor of the neo-Lamarckian concept of inheritance of acquired characters. This, coupled with the Catholic Church's prescription against reproductive controls, led the French and their Latin American counterparts to concentrate efforts on environmental and public health — rather than selective breeding.

In terms of legislation, involuntary sterilization laws set several primarily Protestant countries apart. The first sterilization law was passed in Indiana in 1907, and the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of eugenic sterilization in the 1926 case of Buck v Bell. Eugenic sterilization laws, in large part based on American precedents, were subsequently passed in Alberta, Canada (1928), Sweden and Norway (1934), and Germany (1934). In Germany, sterilization was a prelude to eugenic euthanasia.

Eugenicists established an international network that allowed them to keep in touch with each other's work and cooperate in planning meetings, legislative proposals, research, and propaganda efforts. Major international eugenics congresses were held each decade in London (1912) and in New York (1921 and 1932). Professional journals included Eugenical News (published by the ERO), Journal of Eugenics (published by the Galton Laboratory in London), and Archiv für Rassenhygiene (published in Berlin).

National societies were organized under the banners of international groups, notably the Pan American Eugenics Organization and the International Federation of Eugenics Organizations (IFEO). The IFEO worked through a number of sub-committees — including ones on human heredity and race crossing. ERO director Charles Davenport was succeeded as IFEO president by German psychiatrist Ernst Rüdin, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Genealogy in Munich and the German Society for Race Hygiene. Other influential international eugenicists included Eugen Fischer (director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Medical Genetics and Eugenics in Berlin), Herman Lundborg (director of the Swedish State Institute for Race-Biological Investigation in Uppsala, and Alfred Jon Mjöen (a Norwegian eugenicist who helped found the American Eugenics Society).


 

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