Leading historians and scholars gathered virtually on Wednesday to discuss the legacy of eugenics in New England and Harvard at a conference hosted by the Harvard 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 leading scientists promoting the eugenics movement.
Wednesday’s conference opened with the central question of how and by whom eugenics is remembered today. The introductory speakers focused on genocides committed against indigenous peoples.
Bryant University professor Michael S. Bryant said European settlers used “a kind of linguistic subterfuge” to justify genocide and theft.
“Scientific racism provided the necessary slang,” said Bryant.
Bryant said the idea that indigenous peoples would inevitably become extinct was widely accepted by Europeans and Euro-Americans until the 20th century. This notion, called extinction discourse, became more prominent with the introduction of scientific racism and merged with the eugenics movement, according to Bryant.
The third session of the conference focused on examining eugenics in Harvard history. According to Paul A. Lombardo, professor of law at Georgia State University, many prominent Harvard scholars were linked to the advancement of the eugenics movement.
Lombardo stated that former University presidents Charles W. Eliot, class of 1853, and A. Lawrence Lowell, class of 1877, actively advanced the study of eugenics. Eliot was vice-president of the first international eugenics congress in 1912 and a member of the organizing committee of the first national conference on breed improvement in 1914.
“Eliot believed that the behaviors – such as murder, theft, counterfeiting and prostitution – were all biological problems that could be addressed through policies such as compulsory eugenic sterilization,” Lombardo said.
Lowell was vice president of the Immigration Restriction League, which helped pass a 1924 law setting quotas for Italian and Jewish immigration based on eugenic ideology, according to Lombardo.
Another guest speaker, Christopher DE Willoughby, a fellow at Harvard’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, said the measurement of the skulls of different racial groups was a key aspect of the eugenics movement that originated in the 18th century, but has become a standard item. of medical education in the 19th century, notably at Harvard Medical School.
According to Willoughby, the effects of scientific racism in education are still seen today in the form of false medical stereotypes about racial groups, especially blacks.
Suzanne P. Blier, professor of fine arts and African and African American studies, said monuments on campus such as the Eliot Bridge and the Lowell House that bear the names of supporters of eugenics are a reminder that the eugenics still has a legacy today.
“I’m hopeful because I tend to be optimistic about these things,” Blier said. “But I also think back on January 6 of white nationalism, the race replacement theory, the anti-abortion movement and what that can mean about what particular populations are encouraged to do. [re]produce and immigration issues.
– Editor-in-Chief Kate N. Guerin can be contacted at [email protected]