American Eugenics

(Above: Scene from ‘The Eugenics Crusade.’ Source: PBS)

The Eugenics Crusade, a documentary about a project to breed a better race of American, debuts on PBS’ American Experience tomorrow, October 16, at 9 pm ET (but check your local listings for exact days/times in your area).

The two-hour film will then be available to stream via the PBS website and on PBS apps, starting Wednesday, October 17.

The documentary seems particularly timely given physicist Stephen Hawking’s posthumous warning about the potential of genetically engineered superhumans destroying the rest of humanity.

Eugenics has been the source of dystopic visions, both fictional (Brave New World, Star Trek) and horrifically real (Nazi Germany). But the concept is far from alien to American history.

Prior to World War II, the eugenics movement, led by Harvard-educated biologist Charles Davenport and others, advocated curing America’s social ills by eliminating those deemed genetically “unfit.” Eugenicists included in this category many immigrant groups, the poor, Jews, the disabled, and the “morally delinquent.”

In the 1920s, these ideas led to severe immigration restrictions and the institutionalization and sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans. Even such noted social reformers as women’s rights activist Margaret Sanger, nutritionist John Kellogg and African-American civil rights advocate W.E.B. DuBois supported the concept of “better breeding” through eugenics.

The eugenics movement fell out of favor in the 1930s as certain genetic theories were proven wrong. But its ideas influenced Adolph Hitler and remain a source of controversy in the US today.

“The eugenics crusade of the early 20th century foreshadows so many of the issues facing us now, rising as it did from fears about demographic changes brought on by immigration, coupled with scientific advances in our understanding of genetics and heredity that led some to question what types of people were worth saving or helping,” said the film’s executive producer Mark Samels.  “We see these debates now with advances in genetic manipulation and ‘designer babies.’”

Michelle Ferrari wrote and directed The Eugenics Crusade and served as a producer.

More information is available at PBS.

About Larry Greenberg

A former local beat reporter and film critic, co-founder Lawrence Greenberg has more than 25 years’ experience as a writer and public relations executive.

View All Articles

1 thought on “American Eugenics”

  1. Why didn’t you name the “many immigrant groups” that were targeted as “inferior” to the Anglo and other Nordic groups (“races,” as they were called, at that time) in the USA ?

    You would do the readers a service, by doing so.


Leave a Comment