Field Notes and Student Work

Collecting family pedigrees and medical histories was at the root of eugenics research. Eugenics caseworkers often went door-to-door collecting eugenic data, targeting members of "degenerate" families. They also interviewed members of "captured audiences": inmates in prisons, reformatories, and mental institutions. The caseworker was usually aided by a primary subject, or "propositus," who provided detailed information about him or herself, family members, and ancestors.

Just as students today might conduct a field study in a local forest or pond, high school and college students in the 1920s conducted mini-case studies — from "cousin marriages" to mental illnesses. A course held each summer at the Eugenics Record Office instructed college students in methods for collecting eugenic data. Students practiced collection methods on one another, took handwritten depositions from family members, and produced case studies.

These documents preserve a window on a time when little thought was given to having students or caseworkers probe extremely sensitive areas of family history and illness. That the student reports are little different from those of eugenics researchers perhaps illustrates the naiveté of the whole field. Although today there are much stronger provisions to protect personal privacy and confidentiality, information developed by students and trainees is still incorporated into genetics research.


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