New England Legacies of Eugenics Reflection

August 2021

 

Science needs to be handled with care or it can quickly be misused. This year we have seen in the US and globally tens of thousands needlessly dying because science has been taken for granted, or even flat-out denied. The roots of a lack of getting facts right and misinterpreting what should be clear did not begin with Covid, however. The legacies of eugenics are still very much with us today and has helped to fuel or feed into discussions that have gone on within the past few months, within American politics and public debate. The president only recently spoke to a Minnesota crowd proclaiming their ‘good genes’ before deriding refugees and attacking three congresswomen of colour. In a campaign built on fear and threats targeting certain communities, such a moment did not generate the shock it would have just a few years ago, but rather was fully in keeping with the new state of American politics. With 72 million voting for Trump, such rhetoric and ideas sadly appear to have resonated with a lot of the population. Now more than ever is the time to address the resurgence of this eugenics.

One can trace much of the dissemination of eugenics nationally and internationally back to New England. Standing in front of an exhibition designed to celebrate “The Average American Male”, with an idealized statue sculpted from measurements of the ’50 strongest men of Harvard’, Henry Osborn delivered the following words to open the Second International Eugenics Congress (1921), in words that mirror Trump’s own: “In New England a century has witnessed the passage of a many- child family to a one-child family. The purest New England stock is not holding its own. The next stage is the no-child marriage and the extinction of the stock which laid the foundations of the republican institutions of this country.”  Today in the wake of the devastating mortality figures and suffering of the pandemic, of economic hardships, in a nation more ideologically divided than it has been in living memory, and with the foreboding of an escalating environmental crisis, the threat of an extinction that Osborn imagines is with us today in a very  different form. It is now more important than ever that we learn the lessons from the past on how to make sure we maintain our humanity through such a moment, and understand the national and international responsibility that New England institutions play in ensuring these lessons are learnt.

In 2021, an international programme of events is planned which will lead up to a conference marking the centennial of the Second Congress at the American Museum of Natural History, in September 2021. Part of this programme of events will be a series of virtual reflections looking at New England’s legacies of eugenics (held on either the week of the 2nd or the 16th August, or 6th September). These reflections from across New England, will explore how the discussions, scientists and advocates, institutions and research carried out across the six states has helped to define, to shape and promote eugenic ideology and practices through time, in New England, the United States and internationally. Although focused on eugenics, these reflections will also demonstrate that while the mid-19th century term ‘eugenics’ is now often consigned to historical discourses, the ideas and principles are not limited to such a timeframe.  Rather many of the key assumptions of the eugenics movement have survived and remain an unacknowledged but potentially damaging component of modern science, medicine and popular opinion. Eugenic ideas, built on and utilising underlying notions of history and race, have posed and continue to pose a  threat of ‘the other,’ of cultural genocide and prejudice.  The ideas that sparked the work of the 19th and 20th century New England eugenicists dates back to the foundation of New England and continues to this day.

 

This project brings together historians, scientists, and advocates to reflect on the scope and the hidden implications of the continuing heritage of eugenics research in New England.  We will look at how the roots of the strong research focus on eugenics in New England began long before the Pilgrim Fathers made landfall at Plymouth Rock. Using the notion of extinction discourse as a framing, we will consider how thinking and practices carried out on Native American nations, helped to lay the foundations and plant the seeds for the later adoption of eugenic ideologies through the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, through recent incarnations of eugenics, and ways in which New England institutions are grappling with and setting about addressing these legacies today. They will identify the lessons to be learnt from this for approaching the numerous challenges we face tomorrow.

 

These different reflections will be held virtually over a week in August 2020, and over the week there will then be contributions, taking the form of biographies, local histories, art interpretation, education workshop, etc., exploring different moments within the chronology of New England’s eugenic legacies. Each reflection will be selected from a different state, making six reflections in total, plus an initial (‘pre-state’) event hosted by the Pequot Museum. These will then be drawn together in a keystone event held virtually at Harvard bringing together these different reflections and looking at Harvard’s own eugenic shadows and the role it can play in addressing these.

 

As well as being broadcast live, these regional reflections will accommodate a virtual exhibition that will build on the foundations of the virtual element of the international ‘We Are Not Alone’ exhibition. Pages exploring images/artefacts of these different explorations into eugenics influences and histories will be mapped onto a map of New England. Over the course of the week, these different exhibition pages will be unlocked one by one simultaneously with the live reflections (recordings of which will be embedded onto the page), meaning that by the end of the week and the Harvard keystone event, there will be a complete mapped exhibition across New England. We hope that this will encourage further reflections around this in the future and help to build and promote a collective vigilance in the face of a resurgent eugenics.

Organisors: Suzanne Blier (Harvard University), Michael Bryant (Bryant University), Charlene Galarneau (Harvard University), Evelynn Hammonds (Harvard University), Nora Groce (UCL), Benedict Ipgrave (Birkbeck College/UCL), Natalie Kofler (Harvard University)

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