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A timely and gripping history of the controversial eugenics movement in America–and the scientists social reformers and progressives who supported itIn Better for All the World Harry Bruinius charts the little known history of eugenics in America–a movement that began in the early twentieth century and resulted in the forced sterilization of than 65000 people Bruinius tells the stories of Emma and Carrie Buck two women trapped in poverty who became the test case in the 1927 supreme court decision allowing forced sterilization for those deemed unfit to procreate From the reformers who turned local charities into government run welfare systems promoting social and moral purity to the influence the American policies had on Nazi Germany’s development of “racial hygiene” Bruinius masterfully exposes the players and legislation behind one of America’s darkest secrets From the Trade Paperback edition


10 thoughts on “Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity

  1. says:

    Well it took me forever to read it because the book is very fat and dry detailed but a thought about uitting it almost never came to my mind and eventually it was a very useful and unusual reading I discovered the most amazing part of our recent history I had no idea about and it was just like finding a missing pazzle in the whole pictureWhat did I know about eugenics before? I was full of absolute crap about it I think that most people only those of them of course who actually know what the word eugenics means are full of absolute crap about it too And you know what? It turned out to be the thing you actually should know very very wellAt least those are the main misconceptions I had before reading this book eugenics is some marginal stuff that only Mad Scientists like in cartoons racists and other jerks care about; it has nothing to do with science I mean real science; it is a very insignificant and crazy thing like black magic or voodoo or astrology; it somehow related to those crazy marginal bigotry things like nazismfascism but it has nothing common with real society and lives of real peopleYou know what? Yeah exactly Just the oppositeEugenics not only was born as a powerful and flowering branch of real science genetics ideas of evolution darwinism but also was considered for some period of time as one of the most modern and progressive area of it It was a massive and very influential movement which involved not only scientists but all the society from presidents to housewives There were times when eugenics was a common word and common idea without which society could not imagine itself from now on like computers nowMoreover eugenics with all the bad stuff it brought to people's minds was a base for some very good changes and achievements in the long run; for example1 it popularized the ideas of genetics and evolution in society a dirty game but nevertheless;2 it was the most important foundation for development of statistics and if you read carefully not about the mathematical side of it you'll discover that almost all the most prominent figures and concepts of statistics were somehow related to eugenics sometimes very directly;3 it was the reason to start studying people's heredity seriously eugenics did it in a wrong way of course but the uestions it raised and the methods it used stirred many useful things for the future;4 it was the reason for developing I tests and the similar various scoring systems;5 it was a very important social weapon for era of liberation from religious dominance of dawning feminism of sexual revolutions and of an active fight against social ineuality; very different people who wanted to change something in society had found something useful and promising in concepts of eugenics and although they did not get it right there it empowered them to make a difference Eugenicists were the first to delve into family histories seeking the hereditary causes of diseases such as cancer alcoholism and Huntington’s chorea Galton himself was the first to study twins and compare the relative influence of “nature versus nurture” His methods of statistical analysis — especially his use of what would later come to be known as the bell curve — revolutionized research in a host of sciences And it was eugenic thinkers who first developed the idea of the “I” or intelligence uotient and the mental tests used to measure this elusive human traitBecause you see eugenics was considered a progressive state of art and epoch changing scientific area which key aim was to fight diseases and poverty in a humane way In particular through massive selection and sterilization of unfit citizens And yes this WAS a humane way for those times when I remind you such unfit citizens as epileptics and mentally ill people were kept in huge hospitalscoloniesother institutions for their whole lives and poor people often literally die starving and freezing to death Eugenics was seen as a mild easy and progressive way to eliminate some of the most daunting diseases and to put under restraint poverty and shameful conditions of living Again I remind you that this was the era when people especially poor and uneducated people knew nothing about decent birth control andor they were under strong religious influences in terms of sex and bearing children andor the woman was a thing which was fucked and raped on an everyday basis so eugenics with its humane selection and sterilization of the most vulnerable and unfit for future citizens seemed then like one of the most bright and genious idea about betterment for all the humanity Better for all the world that's was a real slogan of all this movement So eugenisists were not all cartoonish Mad Scientists It was progressive thinkers intellectuals interested in a sweeping scientific reorganization of society and its morals who first embraced the eugenics creed They were very important and respectable people who sincerely believed that they are fighting evil and making one of the biggest difference in the world They believed that they do a great scientific work they recieved grants they organized large conferences they made speeches they published articles in peer reviewed journals they wrote monographs all this stuff You can compare them to people who propagated first massive vaccinations for example although of course the science soon revieled that vaccination is a scientific stuff and eugenics is not so much However it was very hard to tell in that time when I will remind you another very important thing the whole genetics was developed without actual knowledge about chromosomes and DNA I still cannot understand how they did it but whatever in that time genetics was mostly descriptional so it is no wonder that we got also such her illegitimate step daughters as eugenicsEven Charles Darwin himself was fascinated about the preliminary ideas of eugenics initially Look what he wrote in a letter to his cousin Francis Galton who Galton was one of the founder of eugenics after publication of his Galton's book Hereditary Genius with first ideas of eugenics My dear Galton — I have only read about 50 pages of your book to Judges but I must exhale myself else something will go wrong with my inside I do not think I have ever in all my life read anything interesting and original — George Darwin’s son who has finished the book and who expressed himself in just the same terms tells me that the earlier chapters are nothing in interest to the later ones It will take me some time to get to these later chapters as it is read aloud to me by my wife who is also much interested You have made a convert of an opponent in one sense for I have always maintained that excepting fools men did not differ much in intellect only in zeal and hard work I look forward with intense interest to each reading but it sets me thinking so much that I find it very hard work; but that is wholly the fault of my brain and not of your beautifully clear style — Yours most sincerely Ch DarwinIn the First International Eugenics Congress which was held in 1912 in London such famous people took part as for example Major Leonard Darwin Charles Darwin’s son and the president of the Congress Winston Churchill First Lord of the British Admiralty Lord Alverstone Lord Chief Justice of England bishops of Birmingham and Ripon the Lord Mayor of London the foreign ministers of Norway Greece France and others Moreover It was one of the largest gatherings of illustrious scientists ever assembled and in the next few days many of them would be presenting a series of papers on genetics eugenics and the possibility of better breeding and Many of the participants felt this was a historic event and that humanity was on the cusp of a great era of progressThe great inventor Alexander Graham Bell was a member of the Eugenics Section of the American Breeders’ Association the first government sponsored organizations on eugenics in the USA and he had stood behind eugenics for over a decade although later after expanding critiue and negative press about eugenics he resigned and ceased his support in this areaIn 1913 the Station for Experimental Evolution and the Eugenics Record Office were recognized as two of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the USAFor a number of years all America participated in “Physical and Mental Perfection Contests” “Better Baby Contests” Fitter Families for Future Firesides which were enormously popular at state fairs across the country in the 1920s and was visiting traveling exhibits sponsored by the American Eugenics Society learning in a popularized manner that “Some people are born to be a burden on the rest” and “Every 15 seconds 100 of your money goes for the care of persons with bad heredity”In 1914 F Scott Fitzgerald wrote a playful song “Love or Eugenics” for Princeton university’s annual Triangle Club Show a vaudeville musical put on every year by one of the oldest comedy troupes in the nationGeorge Bernard Shaw and H G Wells are mentioned here too as eugenic sympathizersIt is also important to uote this letter by Theodore Roosevelt to Charles Davenport one of the most prominent figures in American eugenics My dear Mr DavenportI am greatly interested in the two memoirs you have sent me They are very instructive and from the standpoint of our country very ominous You say that these people are not themselves responsible that it is society that is responsible I agree with you if you mean as I suppose you do that society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind It is really extraordinary that our people refuse to apply to human beings such elementary knowledge as every successful farmer is obliged to apply to his own stock breeding Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed and let all the increase come from the worst stock would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum Yet we fail to understand that such conduct is rational compared to the conduct of a nation which permits unlimited breeding from the worst stocks physically and morally while it encourages or connives at the cold selfishness or the twisted sentimentality as a result of which the men and women who ought to marry and if married have large families remain celebates sic or have no children or only one or twoSome day we will realize that the prime duty the inescapable duty of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong typeFaithfully yoursTheodore RooseveltThat's on the issue of popularity and pervasiveness of ideas of eugenics in that timeWhat was the most obvious result of it in dry figures? By 1927 almost 8500 American citizens had been forcibly sterilized This “official” figure taken from informal surveys by proponents of the procedure and representing only what surgeons chose to report would reach well over 65000 in the decades to comeA less obvious but much striking result was the practice of genocide initiated by Germany on the basis of works of American colleagues Hitler had officially announced the legalized practice of eugenic sterilization in the July 25 1933 Indeed in the first official proclamation of the sterilization statute Officer Gutt cited the example of the United States as justification Of interest in this connection is the fact that in the United States of North America according to the statistics of the Human Betterment Foundation 16000 persons have been sterilized — about 7000 men and than 9000 women up to January 1 1933And American colleagues were fascinated by Hitler And the Nazi proclamation indicated that the Human Betterment Foundation was doing important internationally recognized work Their study it seemed had helped shape this new German program which would be the first to be applied to an entire nation Indeed Germany could now be the first country in the world to institute a systematic program for bona fide genetic engineering “I think the reference to the California work and the work of the Foundation is a very significant thing The matter has given me a better opinion of Mr Hitler than I had before He may be too impulsive in some matters but he is sound on the theory and practice of eugenic sterilization”That's about this puzzle in the whole picture one might wonder why fascism and genocide were nor recognized and stopped at the very beginning Sometimes it is much difficult and complicated than it seemsThe role of the USA in eugenics was an absolutely unexpected discovery for me America was and is a cutting edge for science and genetics in particular America became a cradle for eugenics too It was developed and implemented on a big scale in America and it was ADOPTED by Nazi Germany not developed by it mind you but completely accepted and adopted with all the proper references and tributes to great achievements of American scientists eugenic sterilization of those deemed “a shiftless ignorant and worthless class of people” became a legal practice in at least thirty American states and a surreptitious practice in many others After 1927 this American techniue of social engineering became the model for laws in Canada Denmark Finland France and Sweden In 1933 in one of the first acts of the newly elected government of Reichschancellor Adolf Hitler the National Socialist Party enacted a comprehensive sterilization law modeled consciously on American legislation Though the United States was the pioneer in the legal administrative and technical aspects of eugenic sterilization Nazi Germany borrowed its ideas and applied them in an unprecedented way One of the first laws passed by the National Socialist government of Adolf Hitler was the “Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring” and its language and structure closely followed Laughlin’s Model Law In less than two years over 150000 German citizens were forced to undergo the procedure preparing the way for the genocide to come In 1936 when the German sterilization campaign was at its early height the Nazi regime through the auspices of Heidelberg University awarded Laughlin an honorary doctorate for his many contributions to “racial hygiene”It is very important at least to KNOW that America as a whole society created the background for the most horrible atrocities of the 20th century And try to understand why this happened in the first place The sense of power engendered by revolutionary technologies may betray their creators in the end Like a defeated virus that mutates and returns powerful than before nature with its sense of irony mocks the hubris of human strength sometimes turning epic desire and longing to tragedy after the prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials deemed similar German eugenic practices as crimes against humanity or aspects of the crime of genocide most people have been content to dismiss eugenics as a “pseudo science” an idea forever tied to Nazi barbarism The heaviest burden of the story of eugenics and forced sterilization perhaps is this American connection to the master race theories that culminated in the Holocaust Hovering over history is the almost unbearable fact that the horrors of the twentieth century were not an outbreak of barbarism in Western culture They were in many ways the conseuences of thoroughly modern ideas especially the notion that society using the tools of science and technology could eliminate its supposed imperfections Some have used the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe how the horrors of the modern world can be a systematic and bureaucratic phenomenon and how a person need not have the diabolical profundity of an Iago or Macbeth to promulgate evil The industrial bureaucracy of mass murder in Germany reuired a measure of calm rational ingenuity including careful research efficient organization and effective engineering The author describes not only eugenics itself as an area but also those people who created and developed it as people personalities usually from the very beginning reaching deeply into their family history and their personal lives and interests It irritated me initially but as I said later I understood the purpose of it It is very important to understand who where eugenisists and why they did what they did It is very important to get rid of this stereotype about Mad Scientists and evil Doctors Mengeles who wanted to destroy the world and the similar crazy stuff It is very important to learn how the most scary practices can actually be just a conseuence of some very progressive and humane ideas and a heritage of uite decent people's efforts to make a difference in the world How intelligent and kind guys make mistakes huge and terrible mistakes that cost lives and happiness for millions of people and how those guys could even never know about it to the end of their lives believing that they did important and progressive things in the worldWhy eugenics was important for scientists?Because it proposed a completely new level of systematic and analytical study of genetics and its practical application On the one hand uestions about evolution had become uestions about heredity and younger scientists turning away from the merely descriptive and speculative methods practiced by the great Darwin himself were being drawn to analytical statistical and experimental modes of research — like eugenicsWhy eugenics was important for society and social workers?Because it propagated still very important ideas about measures of population control fight against poverty and diseases of national level organized charity importance of intellectual heredity of population and many other great thingsWhy eugenics was important for politics?Well besides all the other things it concerns a very painful even for today issue of emigration and melting pot Especially in the USA you knowWhy eugenics was important for sexual revolution?Because it proclaimed that sex should not have to entail the purpose of procreation — a radical notion for the timeWhy eugenics was important for women?Because it proposed birth control as a general idea also very radical and progressive for that era with many related liberating issues it was radical women feminists and suffragists who were some of the first non scientists to be drawn to Galton’s work over forty years agoWell it was not an ode to eugenics but just a little explanation why it was seen as a normal concept at that time and why it took so long for all the world to comprehend what actually Nazi Germany did on its own level with this conceptMoreover the direct conseuences of eugenics and this practice of forced sterilization are still with us today The people who suffered from this procedure are alive now and many of them want justice and compensation Right now yes


  2. says:

    I want to rate this book higher than I am going toThe subject matter I think warrants a read I thoroughly enjoyed reading about this subject and by enjoyed I really mean I was alarmed that this happened and nobody knows about it and would recommend reading on it to EVERYONE The eugenics movement is something that needs to be remembered Not because I think it is something to be particularly proud of but because an uneducated mass risks repeating the past This is something that needs to be avoidedI have given this book three stars because I have all sorts of complaints about the writing style of the author I felt that he talked in circles and repeated himself uite a bit Because of that I had trouble keeping my attention on what he was saying and found myself turning pages without actually retaining what had been said Additionally I feel the author's thesis wasn't clear until the end For the majority of the book I wasn't sure what he was driving at Moreover Bruinius jumps around in time uite a bit and I found myself getting lost as I wasn't aware that we'd gone backward or forward in time With each new character real person from history he introduces Bruinius feels the need to jump back and give the backstory of the character including of the character's parents While I appreciate understanding where each person comes from and felt that ultimately it was important to understand each person's backstory I feel it could have been done betterDespite the shortcomings of the author and his writing I would still highly recommend this book


  3. says:

    This was a tough book for me to ratereview as it is one of the few books I didn’t finish this year The subject matter is so important and part of AmericanFirst World history that is rarely taught but I found the prose very dry and hard to get through We get pretty complete bios of a number of the key thinkers and writers working with eugenics but sometimes that was very confusing at the men sort of got mixed up in my mind and a lot of them worked together at various points I was also a little disappointed that the history of various forced sterilization laws are presented but I didn’t get any sense about when ideas about reproductive rights began being discussed I read a lot of history but I still found it difficult sometimes to fully understand the time period and context in which these ideas were being discussed as rational and needed So very mixed bag and I sort of gave up a chapter into the period where the Nazis were expanding US laws about race preservation It’s got to be a tough read if even Nazis do nothing to get the text moving again


  4. says:

    An enjoyable read Better For All the World is a history of eugenics in America It makes the argument that eugenics as a philosophy is the result of our sense of American exceptialism and our theological background It further traces how Galton Laughlin and Davenport's work informed Nazi eugenic philosophy the Nazis basically copied our eugenics propaganda and laws in their anti Jewish policies and programs In the end it is a call to remember our history in order to prevent its repetition re advancements in technology and medicine It ends with an interesting analysis of the end of natural rightslaw as it has been replaced by liberal democracy's concept of human rights The problem being of course that liberal democracies are run by human beings who are inherantly fallible and if human rights are to be determined by the people and not held to a higher immutable power ie Godnatural rights that it is entirely possible to fall prey to prejudice concerning who is fit to have human rights I would recommend this book to anyone who likes non fiction


  5. says:

    I kept thinking My God why didn't I know this? Why wasn't I taught this in high school? It's a humbling horrifying read I was angered and felt betrayed in some ways I was taught and I focused on WW2 in high school studying it for a year that Nazis were bad and the US were heroes we fought the big bad Nazis and came out shining albeit the Great Depression Now I discover what part we played in creating that monster I've taken several notes from the book and will own it some day and there are far too many to add in this review My head is still reeling from that hard sudden slap to my face I will carry its weight for a long timeI will say that when it DID get to Nazi Germany it lulled a bit but then when interviewing a woman whom was sterilized as a teenager pulled it back up and gave it a human face Very good Very sad Very powerful Very terrifying Congratulations Mr Bruinius One hell of a book


  6. says:

    Want to get really really angry? I sure was when I read this Learn how American eugenecists set the precedents in law that were followed in early Nazi Germany How well meaning scientists thought they could make society better How the US Congress was advised to make immigration uotas as well as to deny any kind of amnesty to people fleeing the Nazis How people in the US were sterilized against their will and sometimes without their knowledge or consent It is a stern warning for the future Weird History


  7. says:

    Interesting topic but a slow read almost like a textbook at times It was sometimes repetitive as well; an excerpt from Oliver Wendell Holmes' Supreme Court opinion in the Buck v Bell case appears at least five times which was annoyingStill it was a worthwhile read about a part of American history I knew very little about


  8. says:

    It's a little overwritten but overall fascinating and really covers the topic well There was a little too much family history and he jumped around and sometimes went into detail about people who weren't that important and I skimmed those parts However overall a satisfying read that adds to my understanding of the American eugenics movement


  9. says:

    I was only seeking to learn a bit about the Eugenics movement in general; instead I learned about the beginnings of social work in the United States and how well meaning scientifically based knowledge can be used to create policy that guides us today a century later


  10. says:

    State sanctioned eugenics programs We inspired the Nazis