Prominent historians and scholars convened virtually on Wednesday to discuss the legacy of eugenics in New England and at Harvard in a conference hosted by Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
The event — the first in a series of three conferences this fall — marked a century to the day of the Second International Eugenics Congress, a 1921 gathering of prominent scientists promoting the eugenics movement.
Wednesday’s conference opened by posing the central question of how and by whom eugenics is remembered today. The speakers in the introductory session focused on genocides committed against Indigenous people.
Bryant University professor Michael S. Bryant said European colonists employed “a kind of linguistic subterfuge” to justify genocide and robbery.
“Scientific racism supplied the needed argot,” Bryant said.
Bryant said the idea that Indigenous peoples would inevitably become extinct was commonly accepted by Europeans and Euro Americans into the 20th century. This notion, referred to as extinction discourse, became more prominent with the introduction of scientific racism and merged into the eugenics movement, according to Bryant.
The third session of the conference shifted the focus toward examining eugenics in Harvard’s history. Many prominent scholars at Harvard were tied to the advancement of the eugenics movement, according to Paul A. Lombardo, a law professor at Georgia State University.
Lombardo said former University presidents Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, and A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, actively advanced the study of eugenics. Eliot served as vice president of First International Congress of Eugenics in 1912 and as a member of the organizing committee of the First National Conference on Race Betterment in 1914.
“Eliot thought that the behaviors — such as murder, robbery, forgery, and prostitution — were all biological problems that could be solved by policies such as compulsory eugenic sterilization,” Lombardo said.
Lowell was vice president of the Immigration Restriction League, which was instrumental in the passage of a 1924 law that set quotas for Italian and Jewish immigration on the basis of eugenic ideology, according to Lombardo.
Another guest speaker, Christopher D. E. Willoughby, a fellow at Harvard’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, said the measuring of skulls from different racial groups was a key aspect of the eugenics movement that arose during the 18th century, but became a standard part of medical education in the 19th century, including at Harvard Medical School.
According to Willoughby, the effects of scientific racism in education are still observed today in the form of false medical stereotypes about racial groups, particularly Black people.
Suzanne P. Blier, a professor of Fine Arts and of African and African American Studies, said landmarks on campus such as the Eliot Bridge and Lowell House that bear the names of supporters of eugenics serve as a reminder that eugenics still has a legacy today.
“I’m hopeful because I tend to be an optimist on these things,” Blier said. “But I also reflect back on January 6th, on white nationalism, on race replacement theory, on the anti-abortion movement, and what that may mean about what particular populations are being encouraged to [re]produce, and issues around immigration.”
–Staff writer Kate N. Guerin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.