The Boston scientific community, in particular, rallied around the eugenics movement. Harvard Medical School faculty, along with Harvard College biologists, social scientists, and economists, exhorted Americans to look to the country’s racial character. Graduates of Boston colleges and universities led the way in propagating theories of race. One them was Lothrop Stoddard, who after graduating with honors from Harvard College in 1905 and receiving both a law degree from Boston University and a Ph.D. in history from Harvard went on to write The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, a 1920 bestseller that reflected the prevailing attitude of the times. A thinly disguised reference to it even made its way into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in the mouth of Yale-man Tom Buchanan. “Civilization’s going to pieces…I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things,” Buchanan says. “Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard?....Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

Eugenics advocates worked doggedly to pass laws that would prohibit the mixing of races. There was no formal federal legislation, but thanks to the movement, laws against interracial marriage that had been first introduced under slavery began to proliferate decades after slavery ended. Forty-one of the original forty-eight states eventually passed such laws. For its part, Massachusetts had no such law on its books by this time—in 1843 it had repealed a ban on whites marrying blacks or Native Americans—but it passed legislation in 1913 that prevented out-of-state interracial couples from marrying within its borders.

14 Children

These fourteen children, competitors in a 1931 “better babies” contest, were judged according to how well they met the criteria for normal development. Such contests, once a popular attraction at state fairs, helped popularize the eugenics movement, which sought to rid society of genetically “inferior” people, including those who were disabled or racially or ethnically suspect.

Eugenicists, of course, weren’t focused exclusively on race. They were also concerned that disabled citizens might produce children who were “incompatible with the American standard of civilization.” In 1927, a carefully selected case, Buck v. Bell, arrived at the Supreme Court after working its way through lower jurisdictions in Virginia. The case involved a poor white girl named Carrie Buck who had been selected for forced sterilization by the State of Virginia. She was described as “feeble-minded” and immoral, and deemed dangerously fertile, having already been pregnant. She would, it was alleged, produce only mentally deficient children. Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the eight-to-one majority opinion in favor of forced sterilization, authoring a sentence that has become part of the folklore of the court: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Associate Justice Louis Brandeis concurred without comment.

As you can imagine, eugenics also figured prominently in the effort to restrict immigration, which was gathering momentum toward the end of the nineteenth century. In 1888 the American Economic Association sponsored an essay contest on “The Evil Effects of Unrestricted Immigration.” The winner was the University of Chicago’s Edward W. Bemis, who wrote unapologetically about the need to keep out “illiterates” and others who could not contribute to American progress. The Immigration Restriction League, founded at Harvard in 1894, expressed similar views, seeking “the exclusion of elements undesirable for citizenship” and “injurious to the national character.”

For eugenicists, then, the tsunami of European immigrants was especially troubling, since many of these new arrivals were Italian peasants from the South or Jews from Czarist Russia. Both groups were despised and racially suspect. So in 1927, as the Supreme Court was legalizing forced sterilization, Congress was passing the final version of the Johnson-Reed Restrictive Immigration Act, which effectively closed the doors of America to everyone from Eastern and Southern Europe. The legislation followed testimony by faculty from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, and the University Chicago that described such people as mostly congenital “morons,” “mental defectives,” and criminal sociopaths, altogether lacking in what was needed to be true Americans. Johnson-Reed established a total ban on all immigration from Arab and Asian nations as well. The year 1927 culminated with the triumphant execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists convicted of a payroll robbery and murder in Braintree, Massachusetts. Sacco and Vanzetti represented all that eugenics experts believed was degenerate in the character and inheritance of those from Southern Europe and other supposedly unsavory corners of the globe.

But even as the movement for racial, ethnic, and cultural purity swept through respectable American society, there was at least one place that it found no traction: Tufts.

 

Nowhere in the curricula of any Tufts school was a course on eugenics ever found. Tufts College did yield to pressures for ethnic quotas in the 1920s and 1930s, but the medical school, with a tradition of accepting immigrant and first-generation applicants, held its ground, receiving a warning from the Council on Medical Education and Hospitals “to conform with prevailing patterns of discrimination.”

Abraham Myerson

Abraham Myerson, M08, chair of neurology at Tufts School of Medicine, spoke out forcefully against eugenics.

In fact, there was one Tufts physician who became an outspoken critic of eugenics. That was Abraham Myerson, M08, chair of neurology at the medical school from 1921 to 1940. Myerson represented everything the eugenics movement detested. He was an East European Jew, born in Lithuania. What’s more, he was a formidable adversary. Acknowledged by the U.S. Public Health Service as one of the country’s neurological experts, he was ready to refute eugenicists’ arguments about breeding and mental problems.

Myerson served as an expert witness on behalf of Nicola Sacco in the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. He also played a role in the Virginia proceedings that led to Buck v. Bell. Part of the state’s case for forced sterilization relied on Mongrel Virginians: The Win Tribe (White-Indian-Negro), a 1926 study of a “degenerate” Virginia community of racially mixed families. Myerson’s critique of this work was unsparing. The study, he wrote in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, is “absolutely unscientific in method”—an “expose of small community moral depravity recorded from the lips of neighbors.” He pointed out that “the most trifling morsels of gossip, with arbitrary interpretations, with no possibility of verification since many of the characters are dead, form the basis of judgment.” And he concluded by calling the book “really absurd and useless.”

 

Still, Myerson’s words did not have much impact. It was not until the brutality of Adolf Hitler and his plans for a master race became clear in the 1930s that American science and social science abandoned eugenics. University departments quietly retired older advocates, and biological research took genetics and the genome into more sophisticated regions. The academy tried to forget.

Meanwhile, the effects of eugenics-based legislation and court decisions lingered. Racial intermarriage was still illegal in much of the country until 1967, when the Supreme Court declared state anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. And though forced sterilization became less common as the twentieth century wore on, Buck v. Bell was never overturned. Approximately seventy thousand Americans wound up being forcibly sterilized.

Sadly, today’s conflicts over immigration show that for many people, race and ethnicity remain major considerations in determining who is and is not worthy of American citizenship.

We may have learned something, though. Recent events on the University of Virginia campus may have taught us, or reminded us, that racism is as American as apple pie, but at least the white supremacists who marched with their torches in Charlottesville were not faculty at elite universities.

Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, has been a professor of German, Judaic studies, and biblical literature and is a former provost of Tufts University.