A Selective Amnesia – Sterilizing The History Of Genetics

We may be in the midst of a critical historical turning point in social justice. The confluence of the Black Lives Matter movement, #MeToo, and the COVID pandemic has led to the re-evaluation and re-surfacing of abuses, injustices, biases, and plain old hatred. Jimi Hendrix’s take on The Star Spangled Banner seems to be the right musical score for the moment.

Perhaps then this is a good time for geneticists to look in our own closet and assess some skeletons that we know are there but seem to prefer to ignore or downplay. A good place to start is with the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG), one of the oldest and largest professional human genetics organizations.

So what is my gripe with ASHG, an organization I admire and respect? It all started when I used an internet search engine to look for the ASHG website to obtain information about the 2020 annual conference. Here is what popped up on my screen:


What caught my eye was the name right there in bright blue in the next to last line – Franz Josef Kallmann. Kallmann – more accurately, co-founder of ASHG, not founder – served as ASHG president in 1952. He is well known for his pioneering research in psychiatric genetics and who during his lifetime was respected by colleagues and a mentor to many.

But there is a darkness in his past. Kallman was born in Germany and eventually trained under Ernst Rüdin, who Adolf Hitler himself described as “the pioneer of the racial-hygienic measures of the Third Reich.” Under Rüdin’s influence, Kallman became an active supporter of Nazi policies and a member of the German Society of Racial Hygiene. In 1935 he gave a talk at the International Congress for Population Science in which he suggested that the mandatory sterilization programs of “defective” individuals should be extended to unaffected relatives of people with psychiatric disorders:

“…in regard to the recessivity and belated manifestations of the schizophrenic disposition, it is desirable  to extend prevention of reproduction to relatives of schizophrenics… and above all to realize this intervention for those undesirable  from the eugenic point of view at the beginning of their reproductive years” (italics added).

Ironically, Kallman, who was raised Jewish but who converted to Protestantism, was forced to flee Nazi Germany because of his ancestry. Even Rüdin couldn’t protect him. Once in America, Kallman, uh, reframed his life story by portraying himself as a victim of the Nazis. Nonetheless, he continued to support radical eugenic policies. As he wrote in a 1938 article, after fleeing Germany:

“From a eugenic point of view, it is particularly disastrous that these [schizophrenic] patients not only continue to crowd mental hospitals all over the world, but also afford, to society as a whole, an unceasing source of maladjusted cranks, asocial eccentrics, and the lowest types of criminal offenders.”

Kallmann remained a lifelong proponent of eugenics and maintained collaborations with Nazi colleagues through the 1940s. He served on the Board of Directors of the American Eugenics Society from the mid-1950s until 1965, the year he died. Furthermore, his views on homosexuality were on par with his views of mental illness, as demonstrated by this quote from an article he authored in the American Journal of Human Genetics in 1952:

“The urgency of such work [on genetic aspects of homosexuality] is undeniable as long as this aberrant type of behavior continues to be an inexhaustible source of unhappiness, discontentment, and a distorted sense of human values.”

I don’t think you can cite that statement as an example of implicit bias.

Kallmann was not an outlier when it comes to individuals associated with ASHG who espoused such policies and beliefs. Two others in particular stand out – William Allan and his protege C. Nash Herndon, who established the country’s first medical genetics clinic in North Carolina and made significant contributions to medical genetics as a clinical practice and as a profession. Herndon was president of ASHG in 1955. In 1961, ASHG paid homage to Allan when they created the William Allan Award in Allan’s memory (he died in 1943) “to recognize substantial and far-reaching scientific contributions to human genetics, carried out over a sustained period of scientific inquiry and productivity.”

Herndon and Allan also played an active role in North Carolina’s robust eugenic sterilization program in the 1940s and 1950s (sterilizations continued through the 1980s). Nathaniel Comfort, in his book The Science of Human Perfection, notes that Herndon described the program as a “gradual, but systematic effort to eliminate certain genetically unfit strains from the local population of Forsyth County. Herndon actually performed some of these sterilizations himself. The program itself was fairly aggressive. As Herndon wrote

“We would see the targeted parents and children there [North Carolina Baptist Hospital]. I.Q. tests were run on all the children in the Winston-Salem public school system. Only the ones who scored really low were targeted for sterilization, the real bottom of the barrel, like below 70.”

Allan, on the other hand, was less concerned about “feeble-mindedness,” which he felt did not have a significant hereditary basis. But traits with a strong genetic basis were a different story.  Writing to Herndon in 1942 he declares: “Good old retinitis pigmentosa we can to go town on, since it is 100% hereditary.”

In addition to being president of ASHG,  from 1955-1959 Herndon served as the president of the Human Betterment League of North Carolina, a branch of the Human Betterment Foundation (a national organization devoted to, among other things,  preventing mental deficiency through sterilization) and president of the American Eugenics Society, an organization founded in 1926 by Madison Grant and Harry Laughlin, two of the most extreme American eugenicists.

Let me ask you ASHG membership and leadership, is Kallmann the name you want to represent your organization every time someone uses a search engine to find your society’s home page? Do you want an award named after someone, no matter how prominent, who so actively pushed for eugenic sterilization? Do you at least want to have something on your website that addresses these matters?  As a non-member, it’s not for me to tell you how to handle this, but don’t you think you should do something? Yes, I know I am judging the past by today’s standards. I am sure that Kallmann, Herndon, and Allan thought they were doing good, not bad; they probably never thought to ask for forgiveness. History and people are complicated. No one is a saint, not even the saints. No doubt in 50 years someone will look back with a similarly critical eye on how the genetic profession practices today. But advocating for mandatory sterilization in Nazi Germany and North Carolina and expressing professional disdain for homosexuality crosses ethical lines in any era. And don’t tell me that because it happened some 60 or 70 years ago, it no longer matters. We don’t live in the past but the past will always live with us.

None of this information is new. All of this has been written about before by scholars and researchers. I have been reading about it for decades. None of it required delving into obscure archives or interviewing historical figures. You can pretty much find it all with a couple of hours of PubMed and Google searches. It’s out there for anyone to see. Perhaps out of ethical convenience, though, the inaccurate story that we like to tell is that all that bad eugenics stuff took place before World War II, everyone got horrified by the Nazi atrocities, the underlying genetics was bad, then everyone saw the light, and all that bad stuff was behind us to serve as a moral lesson for future generations. Nice story, but wrong on the details. Many prominent geneticists remained active proponents of eugenic policies for decades after the war. They just didn’t call it eugenics or portrayed it as kinder, gentler eugenics. Or just ignored it altogether. It’s time to stop ignoring.





Filed under Robert Resta

16 responses to “A Selective Amnesia – Sterilizing The History Of Genetics

  1. Ann Jeffers

    Bravo! Thank you, Robert, for pointing out a link between Nazism and eugenics in the US. It went both ways. Hitler was known to quote Charles Savenport, Harvard Professor of Biology in the early 20th Century, to support the ideology of racial purity.

  2. Ann Jeffers

    Davenport, not Savenport. Typo

  3. Kathleen Rossello

    Yup. Genetic counseling field was born of eugenics. We should never forget that.

  4. Beth Balkite

    Excellent piece Bob. I honestly did not know the true history of these geneticists. ASHG should think hard about your words.

  5. June Peters

    Thanks for the reminder Bob of another aspect of our shared eugenic professional history. I’d like to share the Kallman, Herndon, Allen facts more widely. Whats the protocol from DNAEX? Thanks again, June

    On Fri, Jun 12, 2020 at 7:45 PM The DNA Exchange wrote:

    > Robert Resta posted: ” We may be in the midst of a critical historical > turning point in social justice. The confluence of the Black Lives Matter > movement, #MeToo, and the COVID pandemic has led to the re-evaluation and > re-surfacing of abuses, injustices, biases, and plain old” >

    • Elizabeth Balkitr

      As a long time member of ASHG I forwarded the article to the current president of the organization requesting the organization discuss the information/history.

  6. June Peters

    Thanks Bob for another reminder of where we come from. I can confirm the sterilization was still being raised with “selected” families in the early 70s. The underlying denial, shame and guilt shaped practice in seen and unseen ways until Disability RightsCivil Rights, Me too, and now BLM advocates shone brighter lights into our dark corners.
    Question- What in my own professional life would I like to keep out of the light?
    Question- should the Allen award go the way of the Confederate generals?
    Question- Are reparations in order?
    Thanks, june

  7. Bob – thanks for this post. I never knew any this (the details of Kallman’s past, etc) and I’m horrified. The role of eugenics in the origins of GC is something most of us want to forget/ignore, but we shouldn’t and we can’t. Most of us had to take some sort of medical ethics course in graduate school and while I remember the details of the Tuskegee study and other major violations of human rights and ethical standards, it doesn’t feel like enough. I hope current/future GC training programs will find more ways to incorporate this information into our training.

  8. Thanks for the thoughtful post—and the cite! I want to throw in a plug for my former PhD student Marion Schmidt, whose book, Eradicating Deafness? is just out from Manchester University Press. For anyone interested in learning more about Kallmann see her Chap 3, devoted to Kallman’s work on the genetics of deafness in the 1940s. https://www.manchesterhive.com/view/9781526138187/9781526138187.xml

  9. Robin Troxell

    Thanks Rob for this post. We need to know acknowledge where we’ve been to know where we want to go.

  10. Katie Jones

    Yes. Well done.

  11. Monica Alvarado

    Bravo Bob Resta for shedding light on this important and shameful past, and for giving us all an opportunity to engage in these uncomfortable and necessary conversations.

  12. Pingback: Selective Amnesia, Part 2: Guardians of The Gene Pool | The DNA Exchange

  13. Pingback: Selective Amnesia, Part 3: We Are Judged On Our History | The DNA Exchange

  14. Neil Smith

    I am not sure my fellow patients with Kallmann syndrome are that aware of the story of Franz Kallmann. I am not sure I am too comfortable with the association the name “Kallmann” can have.

    It does not help that Kallmann syndrome causes delayed / absent puberty and infertility which can be very embarrassing conditions to have. It is not unknown for medical conditions to change their names over time but it is not always an easy process.

  15. Pingback: The American Society of Human Genetics Struggles to Face Its Past | The DNA Exchange

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