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God and White Men at Yale (Part 1)

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 30, 2012

Irving Fisher

This is a piece I wrote for the Yale Alumni Magazine, about the remarkable role that university played in the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century.

On a sweltering Friday in June 1921, a 54-year-old Yale economics professor named Irving Fisher delivered a major speech at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island. The pain of the recent war in Europe was still fresh, and Fisher was troubled by the quality of those who had died, and the damage to “the potential fatherhood of the race” by the loss of so many young men “medically selected for fighting but thereby prevented from breeding.”

In light of these losses, the issue, it seemed to Fisher, was that graduates of leading universities were failing to do their reproductive duty: the families “of American men of science” averaged just 2.22 children, versus a national average of 4.66. (Or as he put it, perhaps too lucidly, “The average Harvard graduate is the father of three-fourths of a son and the average Vassar graduate the mother of one-half of a daughter.”) This “race suicide” among “the well-to-do classes means that their places will speedily be taken by the unintelligent, uneducated, and inefficient.”

To prevent that, immigration from certain regions needed to be sharply curtailed, and birth control “extended from the white race to the colored” and to other “undesirable” ethnic and economic groups, ideally under the control of a eugenics committee established to “breed out the unfit and breed in the fit.” Otherwise, “the Nordic race … will vanish or lose its dominance.”

It was strong stuff, and from a seemingly impeccable source. Irving Fisher ’88, ’91PhD, a dapper, balding figure, with a white van dyke beard and rimless eyeglasses, was one of America’s best-known scholars. The New York Times ran long, flattering profiles about his work, and for years the Wall Street Journal published “Fisher’s Weekly Index,” for tracking market prices. The rich and powerful, including congressmen and presidents, sought his advice.

And with good reason: even today, Fisher is widely regarded as the greatest economist America has produced. He devised many of the basic concepts for analyzing the modern financial system and explained them so clearly that, at his death in 1947, the Harvard economics faculty en masse would sign a letter saying, “No American has contributed more to the advancement of his chosen subject.”

But Fisher was also a leading voice of the eugenics movement, which aimed to improve human populations through carefully controlled breeding. The aim, more precisely, was to build up the white northern European population, and discourage all others. This agenda, as it found its way into state laws, would mean evicting other Americans from their homes, depriving them of the ability to have children, and locking them away in institutions.

Fisher didn’t merely lend his reputation to bigotry. He made eugenics a major focus of his life and regarded it as a natural outgrowth of his economics: “national vitality” depended on a productive citizenry, and it was clear to him that healthy living and careful breeding were the best ways to make the citizenry become more productive. To that end, he helped found the Race Betterment Society; was an active member of the Eugenics Research Association, a group of scholars in the field; and served as founding president of the American Eugenics Society, which organized research, lobbying, and propaganda for the movement.

Yale figured prominently in this work. The early meetings of the AES took place in the Manhattan home of an influential friend of Fisher’s from his college years, Madison Grant, Class of 1887. Other university administrators, faculty, and alumni also played an active part, among them the conservationist Gifford Pinchot ’89 and the explorer and geography professor Ellsworth Huntington ’09PhD. The AES later established its headquarters in offices overlooking the New Haven Green, at Elm and Church Streets. In the years leading up to World War II, when it was carefully downplaying the anti-Semitic character of the eugenics program in Nazi Germany, the AES was housed on the Yale campus. The seminal text of the movement was Madison Grant’s 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race, which influenced Adolf Hitler himself.  (To be continued.)

One Response to “God and White Men at Yale (Part 1)”

  1. dianabuja said

    Nice blog. I’m working up a little blog for my site on Eugenics use in 19th C. colonialism (in Africa) and in egyptology. Looking forward to part 2:

    dianabuja.

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