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Eugenics on the Farm: Leonas Lancelot Burlingame

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Leonas Lancelot Burlingame started teaching at Stanford in 1909. After receiving his doctorate in botany from The University of Chicago the year before, Burlingame joined Stanford’s Department of Biology, where he regularly lectured on botany and plant sciences. In his free time, Burlingame enjoyed spending time at the cottage he built at Fallen Leaf Lake, near Lake Tahoe, basking in nature’s beauty. Given his academic interests, Burlingame had a certain fascination with the natural world and plants. At Stanford, Burlingame was instrumental in the development of a unified Department of Biological Sciences, bringing together the disparate biological fields and promoting the teaching of general biology courses. But his favorite class, which he taught until his retirement in 1940, was about heredity and social welfare: he taught Stanford students on the importance of eugenics, the science of human improvement through restrictions on reproduction.

This was neither the first nor the last time eugenics would be taught about positively at Stanford. Eugenics, the belief that “unwanted” human traits such as disabilities or unintelligence could be bred out, pervaded American discourse in the early twentieth century. Many prominent scientists and political figures endorsed both theories of eugenics and practical applications of said theories, including Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan. As I explored in my last article, practical applications of eugenics included sterilization laws passed in over thirty states, resulting in the coercive sterilization of over 60,000 individuals who were deemed eugenically unfit. Nazi Germany, also fascinated with eugenics, watched American sterilization procedures closely, basing many of their hygiene laws — the foundation for the Holocaust — on American eugenic statistics and laws. And here, at Stanford University, many of the most prominent scientists espousing eugenics taught, studied and influenced the world. Burlingame was one such eugenicist.

Like many botanists before him, Burlingame drew from his knowledge of horticulture to argue for human selective breeding: If plants could be cultivated to produce juicier fruits and brighter flowers, why couldn’t humans be cultivated to be more intelligent and abler? As historian Alexandra Minna Stern argues in her book “Eugenic Nation,” botanists, animal breeders and environmentalists were regularly drawn to eugenics, hoping to treat humanity in the same manner as their livestock or gardens. If strawberries could be cultivated to be sweet and plump, why couldn’t humans, too, be cultivated to become healthier and abler?

In 1922, Burlingame co-wrote a biology textbook “General Biology” alongside a few other Stanford professors. “General Biology” contained most of the topics one might expect in a biology textbook, including modules on cells, enzymes (delightfully spelled “enzyms”) and gametes. But the book also explicitly discussed the new science of eugenics. Used in classrooms at Stanford and beyond, Burlingame’s “General Biologyintroduced students to eugenics, the need for sterilization and the superiority of the White race. Burlingame and his co-authors taught their students how “the intelligence of the average Negro is vastly inferior to that of the average white,” and that “the desirability of adopting legal measures to prevent the feeble-minded from reproducing is self-evident.” The textbook ended with a chilling final sentence, the essential conclusion that students were expected to draw from the text, perhaps even from biology itself as a field: “It is clear, however, that the sooner serious general attention is paid to racial betterment through eugenics the better it will be for mankind, both in the near and in the long distant future.”

During his tenure at Stanford, Burlingame initiated and taught a class specifically on eugenics, a class which examined social problems in depth through a hereditarian lens. Examining issues such as poverty, intelligence and disability, Burlingame’s class explored how heredity both caused these issues and could be used to solve them in the form of eugenics. After teaching this class for many years, Burlingame published a textbook based on his lectures in 1940: “Heredity and Social Problems.” In it, Burlingame discussed racial intelligence levels and inquired about “Solutions to the Negro Problem,” portraying Black people as a genetic problem to society. After Black people, Burlingame portrayed Mexican people as “the second most serious race problem” due to their “distinctly low mental caliber,” with the Jewish people following closely behind. He saw sterilization of disabled people as an inevitability, writing that “presumably the feeble-minded will either be segregated or sterilized in the not-distant future.” In his textbook — assigned as reading in his Stanford class — Burlingame promoted eugenics and scientific racism in the classroom.

For this class on heredity, Burlingame received and utilized pro-sterilization propaganda from the Human Betterment Foundation, a eugenic organization based in Pasadena founded in part by David Starr Jordan. He also regularly corresponded with the Human Betterment Foundation, giving them advice and constructive criticism on their propaganda. His correspondence with the organization is archived along with other records of the Human Betterment Foundation at the Caltech University Archives. His textbook “Heredity and Social Problemswas also regularly promoted by the American Eugenics Society. In its 1940 newsletter, the American Eugenics Society praised Burlingame’s book, sharing some of its main arguments in favor of eugenics. Burlingame did not just teach students eugenics — he actively worked with eugenic organizations to promote state-performed sterilizations of the unfit. 

Leonas Lancelot Burlingame died in 1950, in the middle of writing another book on population problems. Though this book was never published, I cannot help but wonder what we would find within. After World War II and the Holocaust, eugenics, at least ostensibly, became a taboo subject in the United States, associated appropriately with genocide and mass violence. Would Burlingame’s last book move away from eugenics and the need for state-controlled reproduction programs? Or would he, like many other eugenicists, simply mask his eugenic beliefs in a more palatable language of heredity and human difference? Perhaps it is best that the book was never published. 

Burlingame was not the most important or powerful eugenicist in Stanford’s history. Unlike his fellow Stanford academics David Starr Jordan or Lewis Terman, Burlingame never had a national influence on the eugenics movement, nor did he play a large role in passing eugenic policy. But Burlingame may have been something even more powerful, influencing the way generations of students saw the world: a teacher.

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

Ben Maldonado studies history. His column "Eugenics on the Farm" will be appearing on Mondays every odd week of fall quarter.