Does History Shape Society’s Attitude Towards Genetics?

I visited D.C. as an undergraduate student and spent a majority of my time wandering around various Smithsonian museums.  I got to see Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Kermit the frog, and Apollo 11 artifacts.  There was one exhibit that left a lasting impression on me which was the Deadly Medicine:  Creating The Master Race exhibit at the Holocaust museum.


From 1933 to 1945, Nazi Germany carried out a campaign to “cleanse” German society of individuals viewed as biological threats to the nation’s “health.” Enlisting the help of physicians and medically trained geneticists, psychiatrists, and anthropologists, the Nazis developed racial health policies that began with the mass sterilization of
“genetically diseased” persons and ended with the near annihilation of European Jewry.

To relate this history, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has assembled objects, photographs, documents, and historic film footage from European and American collections and presents them in settings evoking medical and scientific environments. Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race provokes reflection on the continuing attraction of biological utopias that promote the possibility of human perfection. From the early twentieth-century international eugenics movements to present-day dreams of eliminating inherited disabilities
through genetic manipulation, the issues remain timely.”  (

The Genetics Revolution seems to focus so much on the future that we forget about the past.  Who are we to say the past does not affect us on some level?

Eugenics is, unfortunately, real.  Is this why so many people are concerned about The Genetics Revolution?

I know eugenics is a very sensitive subject but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it.   I think it is important for us to explore the history of genetics and the impact it has had on society.  I don’t know about you, but I have met several people who immediately assume genetic counselors encourage some form of eugenics.

Do you ever feel like in a sense the past is holding us back in terms of the public fully accepting The Genetics Revolution?

The reason why I’m bringing this up is because this exhibit will be visiting my town for a few months.  I hope to do a follow-up post about it from the perspective of a genetic counselor.  I hadn’t even started to apply to genetic counseling programs when I first saw this exhibit.

I also see this as an opportunity to educate the public about misconceptions that might be out there about genetic counseling.  There has been a lot of buzz about this exhibit.  I’m open to any suggestions as to how I can use this exhibit as a platform to educate the public and to increase awareness in genetics.

Thoughts?  Suggestions?  Comments?


Filed under Kelly Rogel

4 responses to “Does History Shape Society’s Attitude Towards Genetics?

  1. Kara

    This was a great exhibit! I came to DC when it was here also as an undergrad. I was doing research for my senior thesis on the reasons behind why the physicians did all the experiments on the prisoners. At this point I had already applied to genetic counseling programs and was trying to tie together my history thesis with my love of genetics. I bought the companion book for the exhibit, I was so impressed!

    I think Eugenics is such a touchy subject that most people want to forget about it, just like any other part of the past that we are not particularly proud of. However, I agree, that keeping it in our memories and continuing to learn about the past is essential to avoid repeating the same mistakes we’ve made already!

  2. Tricia Page

    I visited the Holocaust Museum while in D.C. a number of years ago. At the time, I was already a practicing genetic counselor. I remember being struck by the similarities between the instruments and charts used to determine whether people “fit” the Nazi’s ideal criteria, and those that are routinely used in genetics clinics to document dysmorphic features. It was eerily disturbing to say the least.
    I agree with the author that we should not forget this past and the lessons that can be learned from it. While we will likely always be haunted by eugenic ghosts, this is no reason to shy away from openly embracing the promise of modern genetics. The motivations of genetic counselors and geneticists today are overwhelmingly focused on relieving human suffering when possible. In this way, we couldn’t be more different from those who came before.

  3. Rachel

    Definitely the Nazi thing is holding back the genetic revolution in the USA. In Israel, by contrast, there are zero hang ups about using genetics to the fullest.

    We should all remember that having a healthy baby, even a “genetically healthy baby” is not a bad thing. It is a repressive government’s control over a woman’s uterus that is bad. As long as we stick to being pro-choice we will be on the right side of history.

  4. Melissa

    I went to an all-female Catholic college, and it was in my sophmore year genetics course that I learned about genetic counseling. A nun taught the course (I’ve always found the irony of that amusing). I remember that we discussed historical development of genetic testing, and when I asked her whether patients were given pre-test info and provided post-test counseling, she told me about genetic counseling as a profession. She informed me that GCs exist to try to keep genetic testing options in the patient’s control to prevent eugenics (or any unauthorized use of genetic test results) from taking over.

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