Finding The Fittest: 35 Photos From The Heyday Of Eugenics

Published May 16, 2017
Updated February 11, 2020

Though the world has tried to forget it, eugenics was a thriving, mainstream science in the years just before the Nazis made it taboo.

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Finding The Fittest: 35 Photos From The Heyday Of Eugenics
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There was a time when eugenics wasn't generally viewed as dark, racist, or evil. Before the atrocities of World War II, eugenics was something that you could bring up over brunch and expect to elicit nods and smiles of support. We've tried to erase this from our past, but eugenics was once viewed as the height of enlightened scientific thought.

Eugenics – the system of measuring human traits, seeking out the desirable ones, and cutting out the undesirable ones – was once practiced the world over. The idea of controlling human breeding to strengthen the evolutionary process wasn't some dark, fringe theory. On the contrary, it was a popular idea.

These "undesirable" traits were often illnesses and deformities. Conditions like dwarfism, deafness, and even things as simple as a cleft palate were viewed as human defects that needed to be wiped out of the gene pool.

Scientists would measure human skulls in an effort to map the parts of the brain that make criminals violent, in an effort to eradicate criminality. Other eugenics proponents would simply suggest cutting entire groups of people our of the gene pool because of the color of their skin. Eugenics books would boast the superiority of the white race, labeling African and Asian people as Neanderthals and Mongoloids that needed to be kept from diluting the white gene pool.

For some eugenicists, controlling breeding just meant keeping people apart. Alexander Graham Bell, for one, railed against immigration and pushed to separate people with the same "undesirable" conditions to keep them from breeding.

These comparatively gentle approaches, though, were rare. Many more pushed to forcibly sterilize or even kill those deemed "unfit" to breed. In America, by the 1930s, 31 states passed compulsory sterilization laws, forcing the disabled and the mentally ill to destroy their own reproductive organs.

This wasn't a crude minority forcing its will on the majority. A poll in 1937 found that two-thirds of all Americans supported forced sterilization.

Sometimes, however, things went even further. A mental institution in Illinois euthanized its patients by deliberately infecting them with tuberculosis, an act they justified as a mercy killing that cut the weak link in the human race.

After these kinds of ideas took root in Nazi Germany and sparked the horrors of the Holocaust, eugenics turned into a dirty word. With the dark conclusion of its philosophy exposed before the world, it became difficult to justify forced sterilization as a tool for the greater good.

History was then subtly rewritten, with eugenics discussed as something that the Germans did and from which the rest of the world could wash its hands clean.

But, as these photos make clear, for nearly 100 years, eugenics was much more than a German idea. The whole world was complicit.

Next, discover how American eugenics helped inspire the Nazis. Then, for another glance into humanity's dark and troubled relationship with race, view these vintage photos taken inside human zoos. Finally, read up on ten fringe sciences that are as fascinating as they are terrifying.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Oliver, Mark. "Finding The Fittest: 35 Photos From The Heyday Of Eugenics.", May 16, 2017, Accessed May 18, 2024.