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Eugenics on the Farm

David Starr Jordan, a notable eugenicist, was the first president of Stanford University. (Wikimedia Commons)

David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford University, was one of the most prominent eugenicists of the early 20th century. In the name of eugenic progress, Jordan promoted the sterilization of unwanted populations, led and founded eugenic advocacy groups, and fought against the immigration of “inferior” populations to the United States. With his popular influence and widespread networks, Jordan was a kingpin of the American eugenics movement, bringing eugenicists together and securing funding for their research. It is therefore no coincidence that Stanford has an extensive history entangled with eugenics and race science.

Since its foundation, Stanford has been home to many key eugenic researchers, including David Starr Jordan, Lewis Terman, Ellwood Cubberley and many others. Even as recently as the 1970s, eugenicists have taught at Stanford — for example, William Shockley, notable physicist and professor, obsessively attempted to prove the intellectual superiority of the white race. Many of our campus buildings still bear the name of notable eugenicists. Over the course of this year, I will use this column to explore this history, examining the ways eugenic and scientifically racist thought manifested themselves at Stanford, the myriad of Stanford affiliates who have endorsed this line of thought, and the painful legacies of eugenics in the United States and abroad.

As students at an elite university, the history of eugenics is deeply relevant to us. Stanford and the Graduate School of Education (notably named after Cubberley, a eugenicist) played a fundamental role in the application of eugenic theory to the university, affecting many aspects of how we understand higher education — who is gifted, who deserves access to the university and who is excluded through systems of educational standardization. Even today, the National Association for Gifted Children uncritically cites Lewis Terman and Francis Galton (“the father of eugenics”) as key figures of their movement. If we want to end the structural inequality of education, exploring this genealogy is the first step. 

Before getting into Stanford’s history, let’s first cover what eugenics is. Eugenics is the science of improving the human race through selective breeding, often seeking to control who can and who cannot reproduce. After the term was coined in 1883 by English scientist Francis Galton, eugenics quickly gained traction in the United States. Proponents of eugenics sought to a) promote the “fit” members of society (white able-bodied people) to reproduce at higher rates, and b) discourage or forcibly limit the reproduction of “unfit” members of society (people of color and disabled people). These approaches are known as positive eugenics and negative eugenics, respectively. 

The history of eugenics in the United States is one of harm and oppression, of state-endorsed violence against the most vulnerable members of society. Between 1907 and 1937, 32 U.S. states passed sterilization laws in the name of eugenic progress. These laws forcibly sterilized unwanted populations: prisoners, disabled people, “feeble-minded” people, and other eugenically unfit populations, with people of color being disproportionately impacted. State governments performed upwards of 60,000 eugenic sterilization procedures on their unwanted populations between 1907 and 1963. The State of California alone performed 20,000 (one-third) of those procedures. Into the 1970s, public clinics and hospitals targeted poor Black, Latinx and Indigenous women for coercive sterilization, often threatening to revoke their welfare benefits if they did not comply. By the 1970s, The Indian Health Service had sterilized at least 25% of all Indigenous women in the United States. Even as recently as between 2006 and 2010, the State of California performed almost 150 sterilization procedures on imprisoned women without informed consent. 

The eugenics movement also had a transnational impact — eugenicists from across the globe exchanged ideas with each other in their mission to perfect the human race. Many countries, such as Canada and Sweden, had their own eugenic laws, limiting the reproduction of unwanted groups. Inspired in no small part by American eugenic research and sterilization laws, Nazi Germany sought to eliminate its unwanted populations, leading to the genocide of 11 million Jewish people, Slavic people, disabled people, queer people and other groups during the Holocaust. It is impossible to know how many human lives were harmed by eugenic logic and a belief in racial progress.

This column will examine in detail the role Stanford played in the history of eugenics. Each article in this year-long series will explore one prominent eugenicist or eugenic theme at Stanford and discuss their larger influence. To do so, I will be drawing from many excellent historians of eugenics — Alexandra Stern, Daniel Kevles, Nathaniel Comfort, Paul A. Lombardo, Wendy Kline, Stefan Kühl, among others — as well as my own research into the histories of eugenics and of Stanford University. 

I will intentionally be referring to eugenics as a science, as opposed to a pseudoscience. This is not to imply that any of the axioms or theories of eugenics are factually accurate. Rather, it is to anchor eugenic thought historically in the sciences, to show its connection with claims of objectivity and rationality. Eugenics, for all practical purposes, was a science: scientists studied eugenics, scientific journals published eugenics, and students of science learned eugenics. Given the context of Stanford University, and given the context of Silicon Valley, it remains especially vital to remember the violence enacted in the name of science and narratives of progress.

I do not recount this history to assign guilt. Though Stanford today is the same institution as Stanford 100 years ago, the people I will be discussing have been dead for decades, along with the administrators who empowered them. Nevertheless, their ideas have outlived them. This legacy runs deeper than the names of eugenicists that appear on buildings: it is structural, shaping and constraining how we understand ability and education. That is the legacy I aim to uncover. 

Stanford may not be unique in this matter (many other universities are currently grappling with their own histories with eugenics). However, Stanford students can gain much from understanding the role their university, their home, played in one of the most harmful ideologies in human history. To end, I’ll quote a few words from Leilani Muir, a survivor of eugenic sterilization by the Canadian government in the 1950s, on the importance of remembering the legacies of eugenics:

“I think it is great that this story is being kept alive, through other people, through young people. Because they can stop this from happening again if they stay involved.”

Contact Ben Maldonado at bmaldona ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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