C. C. Little and the American Eugenics Society

Across the street from the Lurie Biomedical Engineering building (which houses my academic Department) is the Bentley Historical Library. Within its hallowed walls (or nearby) are lots and lots and lots of University archives. Included in those archives are Clarence Cook Little’s (“C. C. Little’s”) correspondence. By dipping our toe into that correspondence, we can see some of the passions and pursuits that occupied the mind of the man at the top (he was the 6th President of the University of Michigan, from 1925-1929).

Found within that correspondence, is a pamphlet from the American Eugenics Society from 1927 (smack dab in the middle of Little’s presidency).

Within that pamphlet we are told of the mission of the society. As reported the aims included the promotion of eugenics based research, education, legislation, and administration.

Among the several committees the Society put together (including but not limited to committees on “organization”, “selective immigration”, “the history and survey of the eugenics movement”, “popular education”, “finance”, “biologic genealogy”, “crime prevention”, “”cooperation with clergymen”, “research”, “cooperation with social workers”, and “cooperation with physicians”), sandwiched between the “Committee on Legislation” and the “Committee on Eugenics and Dysgenics of Birth Regulation”, was one “Committee on Formal or Scholastic Education” chaired by none other than “Pres. C. C. Little”.

Specifics of the “formal education” mission of the Society include:

  • “encouragement and training of professional eugenic field workers and investigators in the scientific aspects of eugenics”;
  • “educate physicians to recognize the relation of disease to innate constitutional qualities”;
  • “it should be insisted that eugenics be one of the fundamental considerations” in medical departments focusing on hygiene;
  • “instruction in biology and eugenics”;
  • “have eugenics associated with sociology”;
  • “In introductory biology, or in zoology courses not preceded by biology, and in ethics, eugenics should command at least five per cent of the course”;
  • “Education as to the supreme importance of biological factors in human life should eventually be extended through the entire school system, down to the elementary grades. Pupils in these grades arc in the most impressionable when eugenic ideals can be most firmly established. The essential facts of eugenics should become as familiar as the multiplication table. hygiene and race hygiene should be linked together in the pupil’s mind and the greater importance of the latter emphasized.”; and
  • “square eugenics with rational democratic ideals, by exposing false claims of class superiority and espousing equal opportunity demonstrate intrinsic merit”.

Following these and other detailed plans to make eugenics a palatable notion to the masses, the author(s) of the pamphlet go on to make the case that eugenics is “eminently practical”. And in a statement that sounds as if it could have been plucked from the current cultural ether on the matter, an anonymous associate of the Society is quoted as claiming that “You will never be able to make eugenics popular until you can make the man in the street feel the pinch of the defective classes on his pocketbook”. 

As all that is old is new again, let us not forget that we have history as counsel for our future endeavors. Put another way, are we ever really having a “new” conversation about “who ought to be here” or is such a discussion part of the dialogue which started millennia before us? If we answer well, we might have millennia yet ahead to ponder further.