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Harry Laughlin's eugenic crusade to control the 'socially inadequate' in Progressive Era America

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Harry H. Laughlin, champion of eugenic sterilization, immigration control and an idealized eugenics-based world government, became superintendent of the newly founded Eugenics Record Office (ERO) in 1910. For thirty years, he co-ordinated the gathering and use of family pedigree information in order to maintain a healthy reproductive stock among the American peoples. He expended considerable energy categorizing the 'socially inadequate', a group that included the feeble-minded, the insane, criminals, epileptics, inebriates, as well as those suffering from tuberculosis, leprosy, venereal disease, blindness, deafness and physical deformities. Subsequently, he provided state legislators with the number of 'social defectives' within their respective constituencies. With the support of fellow eugenicists, he used statistical methods and genetic principles to persuade the majority of state legislatures that reproductive sterilization was the 'least objectionable' and the 'most cost-effective' solution for eliminating the socio-economic burdens created by the 'socially inadequate'. His rhetorical power helped him gain considerable public support and persuade many Americans that these efforts were well within the mainstream of Progressive Era science. Wilson argues that it would be prudent to review Laughlin's work at the present moment, when the services that the ERO provided are again or soon will be required in the application of Human Genome Project research to the population. Although the use of the term 'eugenics' has fallen out of favour, the theme of selective breeding remains, and birth control, prenatal testing and genetic screening all retain elements of Progressive Era eugenics. Contemporary medical genetics encompasses a vast range of initiatives that, like eugenics, is propelling us towards the elimination of hereditary disease, deformity and deficiencies.
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Keywords: Eugenics Record Office; Harry H. Laughlin; eugenics; genetics; immigration control; socially inadequate; sterilization; stigmatization

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Penn State's College of Medicine in Hershey, Pennsylvania

Publication date: 2002-01-01

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