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University of California Press
Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America / Edition 2

Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America / Edition 2

by Alexandra Minna SternAlexandra Minna Stern
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First edition, Winner of the Arthur J. Viseltear Prize, American Public Health Association

With an emphasis on the American West, Eugenic Nation explores the long and unsettled history of eugenics in the United States. This expanded second edition includes shocking details demonstrating that eugenics continues to inform institutional and reproductive injustice. Alexandra Minna Stern draws on recently uncovered historical records to reveal patterns of racial bias in California’s sterilization program and documents compelling individual experiences. With the addition of radically new and relevant research, this edition connects the eugenic past to the genomic present with attention to the ethical and social implications of emerging genetic technologies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520285064
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/08/2015
Series: American Crossroads
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 424
Sales rank: 1,075,411
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Alexandra Minna Stern is Professor of American Culture, Obstetrics and Gynecology, History, and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan.

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Eugenic Nation

Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America

By Alexandra Minna Stern


Copyright © 2005 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-93866-3


Race Betterment and Tropical Medicine in Imperial San Francisco

At six o'clock on the morning of February 20, 1915, San Francisco was engulfed by a cacophony of sounds. To signal the opening of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the fire department rang its bells and whistles, automobilists honked their horns, policemen banged on trolley poles, and, just in case anyone was still asleep, the fife-and-drum corps canvassed the streets. A few hours later, under a bright sky, an entourage of politicians and merchants headed by Mayor James Rolph Jr. and Governor Hiram Johnson led a two-and-a-half-mile-long procession from Van Ness Avenue and Broadway to the marina. At the vanguard of this parade was a small cavalry, followed by six carriages of pioneers, "men that had seen the city grow from a few shacks at the edge of a cove that has long since disappeared." These dignitaries congregated at the Tower of Jewels, beneath a ceiling that depicted the heroic saga of the Panamanian isthmus, from the voyages of the Spanish conquistadors to the U.S. Canal Commission. The president of the fair's board of directors, Charles C. Moore, along with a local rabbi and minister, welcomed the crowd and congratulated the city on its marvelous achievement. Unable to attend, President Woodrow Wilson sent Franklin K. Lane, the secretary of the interior. Deeply impressed by what he saw, Lane intoned to the crowd, "the seas are now but a highway before the doors of the nations," and connected the benevolence of U.S. imperialism to the unstoppable march of westward expansion: "the greatest adventure is before us, the gigantic adventure of an advancing democracy, strong, virile, and kindly, and in that advance we shall be true to the indestructible spirit of the American Pioneer." The fair did not officially commence, however, until President Wilson, three thousand miles away, pressed a golden key linked to an aerial tower in Tuckerton, New Jersey, whose radio waves sparked the top of the Tower of Jewels, tripped a galvanometer, and closed a relay, swinging open the doors of the Palace of Machinery, where a massive diesel engine started to rotate. Minutes later, Moore notified President Wilson via telegraph that the first world's fair to begin wirelessly was under way.

A grand extravaganza that had been envisioned before the devastating earthquake of 1906 and for which planning had begun in 1910, the PPIE was organized to commemorate the completion of the Panama Canal, a project directed by the United States and finished in 1914. Held near Fort Mason in San Francisco, the fair covered 635 acres, a substantial portion of which had been leased from the military. After passing through its turnstiles, visitors entered a vast "city of domes," filled with courts, palaces, towers, pavilions, and concessions, whose epic proportions and evocative style had been designed by architects such as Louis Christian Mullgardt and Bernard Maybeck. An event extolling the myriad technological advances that imbued the twentieth century with the promise of perfection, the PPIE unfolded, sometimes discordantly, as brutal trench warfare killed thousands in Europe. When the exposition closed ten months later, on December 4, with lavish festivities that included a concert by the Philippine Constabulary Band, the reading of a toast sent by President Wilson, the sounding of bugles, and evening fireworks, nearly nineteen million people had passed through the PPIE's turnstiles.

For the fair's coordinators and local elites, the staging of the PPIE in their westernmost city was no coincidence, but rather the culmination of the inexorable and forward march of progress. As one of many promotional pamphlets declared, "California marks the limit of the geographical progress of civilization. For unnumbered centuries the course of empire has been steadily to the west." In keeping with the theme of the advancement of civilization, the PPIE prominently showcased recent developments in agriculture, manufacturing, science, technology, architecture, and the arts. One subject that received an enormous amount of time and space was health and disease, especially the areas of race betterment and tropical medicine. Indeed, the fair's official poster, the "Thirteenth Labor of Hercules," symbolized the intertwined significance of these two concerns and provided an iconography for the apotheosis of empire, race, and sanitary intervention that crowned San Francisco as the Jewel of the Pacific. The "Thirteenth Labor of Hercules" featured a muscular man in his physical prime, seen from the back, as he forces apart the Culebra Cut and the PPIE's iridescent lights shimmer at the Canal's vanishing point. If this figure embodied sheer masculine might, it was also a metaphor for the success of tropical medicine, which strove to rid the world's hot and humid regions of insect- and water-borne diseases in order to make them hospitable for Europeans and European Americans. With its veneration of the extraordinary white body, the poster reflected the racial hierarchies of Victorian anthropology and social Darwinism that had saturated international expositions since the late 1800s and helped ideologically to justify colonial ventures across the globe. The "Thirteenth Labor of Hercules" glorified sanitary engineering in the tropics, at a time when the underlying tenets of race and disease were being reconfigured in light of new theories of human heredity and health.

The PPIE occurred at a transitory moment, as biology and medicine were becoming beholden to reductionism and a new optics of disease identification and causation. Environmental explanations of human degeneracy and sickness, influenced by neo-Lamarckian doctrines of the inheritance of acquired traits and miasmatic principles of contagion, still dominated in some corners. They were being supplanted, however, by less flexible theories of germs and genes that demanded exact diagnoses and targeted solutions. On the one hand, for more than a decade, tropical medicine, which combined bacteriology, parasitology, and entomology, had concentrated on isolating and attempting to eradicate the etiologic agents of infections caused by microbes, helminthes, and protozoa, and intermediary disease vectors, such as mosquitoes, flies, and lice. On the other hand, biology and the incipient field of genetics were increasingly dependent on Mendelian theories of hereditary transmission and "upward causation" models of molecular interaction. Concomitantly, clinical medicine saw the enthroning of organ-based specialties and the beginnings of subspecialization. The PPIE took place in the midst of this trend toward reductionism, as more malleable conceptions of health and disease were buckling under the power of the microscope to make visible what was hidden to the human eye, the impulse toward quantification, and the elaboration of specific prophylactic measures for specific conditions.

Tropical medicine and race betterment differed in terms of their objects of analysis and the consequences of their hygienic therapies: public health authorities could achieve their goal of ending a plague outbreak by destroying the culpable carriers, rodents, yet eugenicists rarely saw any immediate or even desired results from their attempts at manipulation. Nevertheless, both fields emerged during a reconstellation of the diagnostic, therapeutic, and heuristic role of medicine in modern society. Furthermore, the glue that frequently adhered the two was a shared vocabulary of racial degeneracy and fitness. Thus, in one seamless sentence, scientists at the fair could applaud activities ranging from rat poisoning to better babies contests. Either way, the potential impact of deleterious germs and genes could be contained or controlled. More often than not, the accompanying corollary was a belief in the constitutional and mental superiority of Anglos and Caucasians and the limited reasoning abilities and foul habits of virtually all other racialized groups.

The proximity of race betterment and tropical medicine at the PPIE belies the separation that some scholars have erected between eugenics and public health, contrasting them as incompatible, insofar as the former emphasized the propagation of the "fittest" and the elimination of those deemed degenerate, and the latter strove to save and extend lives by bringing the advantages of health to all. Instead, as the PPIE demonstrates, the early twentieth century was an amalgamable period in which diverse and seemingly contradictory initiatives stood comfortably under the Progressive banners of improvement, efficiency, and hygiene, and were motivated by the idea that the application of wide-ranging scientific knowledge could optimize American society. In the 1910s, thus, public health and eugenics crusaders alike moved with little or no friction between calls for school vaccinations, for the teaching of "scientific motherhood" to women, for classification of human intelligence, for immigration restriction, for the promotion of the sterilization and segregation of the "unfit," and for the passage of marriage laws. Later in the century, academic professionalization and heightened specialization—whether in the laboratory, clinic, or office—would create more defined niches for these various domains.

It was during this transitional moment, in the context of a spectacular tribute to San Francisco's place in the U.S. imperial cartography and under the spell of racial hierarchies, that California's burgeoning eugenics movement coalesced, acquiring a multifaceted agenda and the foundation for developing an ample social radius. At meetings convened during the PPIE, a heterogeneous group of sanitary experts, zoologists, horticulturalists, medical superintendents, psychologists, child advocates, and anthropologists established a social network that would influence eugenics on the national level in the years to come. Furthermore, the exposition provided an arena where well-known Progressives such as David Starr Jordan, Luther Burbank, and Paul Popenoe articulated a hereditarian vision apposite to California, a vision that in short order would become a formidable force in the state's laws, landscapes, institutions, and politics.


Like the World's Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, the PPIE was made possible by industrial and urban expansion that stretched far beyond San Francisco into the resource-rich hinterlands of California and the American West. The fair's water was supplied via aqueducts from remote watersheds, its electricity generated by recently built regional networks of hydropower, and much of its raw building material, such as lumber, felled or extracted in distant forests and fields and then shipped on freight trains along serpentine tracks from the north, south, and east. The overlapping grids of infrastructure that fed San Francisco, helping to make it the most populous city in the U.S. West by 1900, took shape rapidly in the second half of the nineteenth century, propelled by conquest, statehood, and the Gold Rush. In addition, the establishment and fortification of military bases around the bay, which was part and parcel of the heightened U.S. navalism of the 1890s, was a critical dimension of this growth. In the eyes of elite San Franciscans, military preparedness, geographical location, and an indomitable spirit made the city the obvious gateway to the Pacific, particularly to the Philippines, where California financiers pictured untouched gold mines and the lucrative cultivation of export crops. During the 1890s, San Francisco publications regularly beat the drum for an empire launched from California shores. A 1900 editorial in Overland Monthly titled "The Subjugation of Inferior Races," for instance, energetically embraced the colonization of the Philippines as part of a new "national policy" that followed "along the line of British domination" and necessitated "the gradual subjugation of these weaker groups of people by the stronger and more highly civilized powers."

By the early twentieth century, San Francisco's coming prominence was being linked not only to accentuated militarism and colonial desires, but also to revived calls for a Central American canal, which would augment trade on the West Coast and extend the geopolitical reach of the United States. Without a navigable passage across the isthmus in the mid-nineteenth century, thousands of gold-seekers had perished, due primarily to epidemic scourges and unforgiving territory, en route to California from the Gulf Coast via Panama. Moreover, when summoned to war in 1898, the battleship Oregon, fabricated in San Francisco's shipyards, had no choice but to proceed fourteen thousand miles around Cape Horn, a voyage that took more than two months. The existence of a Central American canal would forever do away with such obstacles and usher in a technologically modern century.

The construction of the Panama Canal unfolded against the backdrop of the Spanish-American War and the installation of American colonial rule in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, and Hawai'i. Through a series of adroit and manipulative political maneuvers, orchestrated by President Theodore Roosevelt, Panama seceded from Colombia and the Canal Zone was transferred from the French to the United States. In 1903, after the signing and congressional ratification of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, the Isthmian Canal Commission was formed to govern the Canal Zone "in perpetuity" and to oversee the gargantuan assignment of carving a waterway through the rocky, bug-infested jungle. For the next decade, as tens of thousands of West Indian, European, and American laborers excavated more than 230 billion cubic yards, blasted massive boulders, and built dams and locks, the United States attempted to run its newly obtained "unorganized possession" meticulously and methodically. In many ways, the Canal Zone functioned as a laboratory of U.S. colonialism. The daily routines of work and leisure, and their attendant racial and class demarcations, were rigidly scripted and policed. Interlaced with militaristic and moralistic surveillance were rigorously implemented measures of disease prophylaxis that tracked the movement of all living organisms—humans, insects, and rodents. After the waterway opened, many isthmian sanitary engineers returned to the continental United States, bringing the techniques they had honed in Panama to bear on public health ventures; their initial stop was San Francisco.


As soon as the first ditch was dredged in Panama, the San Francisco businessman Reuben B. Hale launched a campaign claiming that his city would be the ideal home for a major exhibition to mark the completion of the canal. The city's merchant associations, along with the Society for the Improvement and Adornment of San Francisco and the California Promotion Society, were persuaded by Hale and endorsed his recommendation. Vexed by aspersions cast on their city from the East Coast, the local elite had become enamored of the "City Beautiful" movement. Eager to imitate the best of Washington, D.C., and New York City, while pointing up San Francisco's captivating topography, the city's business leaders asked the eminent urban planner Daniel Burnham to draft a blueprint for an awe-inspiring metropolis. Burnham drew up an "imperial city" that boasted an acropolis atop Twin Peaks, "colonnaded shelters and temple-like edifices, courts and terraces," nine arterial boulevards radiating outward from the civic center, wide steps that cascaded down hillsides, and elegant and sweeping parkways. The prospects for this Romanesque dreamscape were crushed, however, by bitter infighting among merchants and politicians, and, more calamitously, by the deadly earthquake that rocked the Bay Area and set the city aflame in 1906.

Nonetheless, for many elite San Franciscans, with destruction came the possibility of renewal. Immediately after the earthquake, Hale, Charles C. Moore, the owner of prosperous hydroelectric enterprises and president of the Chamber of Commerce, and William H. Crocker, the son of Charles Crocker and one of the "big four" barons of the transcontinental railroad, redoubled their commitment to hosting a world's fair. Even if Burnham's "City Beautiful" had become financially and politically unfeasible amid the rubble, the splendor of San Francisco could still materialize and be unmasked for all to see at the PPIE. Thus, in 1909, at a dinner convened by Hale at the Bohemian Club, about twenty businessmen reiterated their intentions and formed a board of directors. Moore was named president, and despite fierce competition from San Diego and New Orleans, by 1910 had secured congressional approval for the exposition.


Excerpted from Eugenic Nation by Alexandra Minna Stern. Copyright © 2005 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface to the Second Edition

1. Race Betterment and Tropical Medicine in Imperial San Francisco
2. Quarantine and Eugenic Gatekeeping on the US-Mexican Border
3. Instituting Eugenics in California
4. “I Like to Keep My Body Whole”: Reconsidering Eugenic Sterilization in California
5. California’s Eugenic Landscapes
6. Centering Eugenics on the Family
7. Contesting Hereditarianism: Reassessing the 1960s


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