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Psychiatry and Eugenics

The forthcoming Fall 2012 issue of Penn Medicine will include Part 1 ofMarshall Ledger’s engrossing article on psychiatry at Penn. The article istimed to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Medical Inquiries and Observations, Upon theDiseases of the Mind, by Dr. Benjamin Rush, considered the “father ofAmerican psychiatry.” What I did not expect to find in Ledger’s article was apassing reference to eugenics -– and by pure coincidence, that will make three issuesof Penn Medicine in a row where thatoften-buried topic turns up.

The Summer 2012 issue of Penn Medicineincluded my article on Jonathan Moreno, PhD, the David and Lyn SilfenUniversity Professor, and his timely book TheBody Politic: The Battle Over Science in America (2011). Despite theenthusiasm of the Founding Fathers for science, many Americans have had anambivalence if not distrust of science from the nation’s earliest years. At onepoint, I asked rhetorically: “But why on earth would any right-thinkingAmerican citizen regard science and scientists with distrust?” In an earlierbook, Moreno wrote about the government’s secret experiments on humans, and in The Body Politic he provided several morereasons. Among the most compelling was the support among some scientists andgovernment officials for eugenics and social engineering.

One prominent example is CharlesDavenport, founder of the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor, who hada PhD degree in biology from Harvard. Harry Laughlin, superintendent of theEugenics Records Office, had a doctorate in cytology/cell biology fromPrinceton University. In 1922, Laughlin published a “Model EugenicalSterilization Law” that would have authorized the sterilization of what hedescribed as the feeble-minded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate,diseased, blind, deaf, deformed, and dependent, as well as “orphans,ne’er-do-wells, the homeless, tramps, and paupers.”

This is a grim proposal, but, asMoreno also points out, some of the nation’s leading early twentieth-centuryprogressives, including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Margaret Sanger(founder of the American Birth Control League, which would become PlannedParenthood) “embraced the notion that society’s burden of morally debilitatedpersons could be lessened through selective reproduction” (The Body Politic). Their support for the idea, however, may havebeen less extreme than Laughlin’s, and as Moreno also notes, “Behind theenthusiasm for eugenics lay an impulse to improve social conditions in the wakeof an era of industrialization that brutalized and exploited many.”

In Marshall Ledger’s forthcoming “BenjaminRush and 200 Years of Penn Psychiatry,” we discover that at least one Penndoctor supported eugenics as well. Charles W. Burr, an 1886 alumnus of Penn’smedical school, was a student of Charles K. Mills (MD 1869, PhD 1871). Millsspecialized in the nervous system and became Penn’s first professor ofneurology. Another of Burr’s mentors was perhaps the most well-knownneurologist of the day, S. Weir Mitchell, MD, who served as a trustee of theUniversity of Pennsylvania for 35 years. Burr was appointed professor of mentaldiseases in 1901, and (as Ledger explains) “with that title the Department ofPsychiatry came into being, although with the old terminology.”

Burr was described by a Penncolleague as “conservative.” That may be putting it mildly. In “GovernmentShould Undertake Prevention of Insanity,” printed in The New York Times in 1913, Burr called for “segregation of thedefective classes,” including government-imposed lifetime confinement ininstitutions.  In his opinion piece,Burr spent nearly half his space discussing undesirable immigrants, then cautionedagainst “the intermarriage of races as far apart as the negro and theCaucasian. . . . It leads to degeneracy.”

Whether Burr’s favorable view ofeugenics was instilled and nurtured by his illustrious predecessors is notknown. What is known is that Burr became president of the Eugenics Research Associationin 1925. The association, established in 1921, included as members Davenportand Laughlin.

Those who supported eugenics advocatedboth positive and negative programs.  Thepositive version was to seek to increase reproduction of “fit” stock (in theanimal world) and “fit” humans, which in the latter case might involve taxpreferences and other financial support. We’ve touched on some examples ofnegative eugenics, and as Moreno pointed out, “tens of thousands of people wereinvoluntarily sterilized” in the United States. The most extreme versions, however, were instituted in NaziGermany.  In the Spring 2012 issue of Penn Medicine, Harry Reicher, LL.M.,adjunct professor of law at the Penn Law School, explored the Doctors’ Trial atNuremberg, describing the forced sterilizations, the experimentalsterilizations, and the euthanasia program to deal with those “not worthy ofliving.” The estimate is that more than 350,000 people were sterilized underthe Nazi regime.  In 1936, Moreno noted,Laughlin received an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg.

As Moreno sums it up: “After WorldWar II, the word eugenics acquiredits current bad odor.  Modern geneticistsare loath to accept any association with the movement. Yet the fact remainsthat eugenics was considered legitimate science by influential academics andintellectuals irrespective of their other political views.”

Much as medicine and science havemoved beyond the bloodletting and purging favored by Benjamin Rush 200 yearsago, it behooves today’s doctors and scientists to make sure eugenics remainsan illegitimate science.


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