Tag Archives: American Journal of Human Genetics

Selective Amnesia, Part 2: Guardians of The Gene Pool

A few weeks ago in this space, drawing on the research of others, I wrote about how geneticists have created a collective memory of eugenics in which they put all the “bad” eugenics behind us after World War II and moved on to the enlightened modern era. I discussed how in fact notable historical figures Franz Kallmann, William Allan, and C. Nash Herndon actively espoused eugenic policies from the 1940s through the 1960s. Here, in Part 2, I highlight more connections between the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) and eugenics to make it clear that support for eugenic policies and beliefs was common among geneticists. Kallmann, Allan, and Nash were not a lone trio of eugenic stragglers who were still mired in a questionable ethical past.

Let’s start by following the money. Post-WWII geneticists may have claimed to reject eugenics, but they had no problem with accepting money from eugenically oriented funding sources. As Nathaniel Comfort notes in The Science of Human Perfection, eugenic organizations were tapped to fund the establishment of the American Journal of Human Genetics. Part of the funding  for the journal was arranged by the eugenicist Frederick Osborn through the Association for Research in Human Heredity, which was formerly the Eugenics Research Association of the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, NY. The remaining funds were supplied by Wickliffe Draper’s Pioneer Fund, established in 1937 to be one of the primary funders of eugenic research (it continued to support racist and eugenic research into the 21st century). There was even discussion of using a picture of Charles Davenport or Barbara Burks (a researcher  in psychiatry who spent several years at the Eugenics Record Office and who has a fascinating biography) for the journal’s frontispiece. During the 1950s, Charles M. Goethe, another wealthy eugenics benefactor, sent small annual checks to the ASHG treasurer to purchase gift memberships for students with high IQs and thus good breeding stock “while he [the student] accepts the responsibility of fathering at least 3 children.” 

Post-WWII geneticists took the racist and elitist policies espoused by the most notorious conservative eugenicists and transformed them into a crusade dedicated to reducing human suffering and ensuring the “health of the gene pool.”  Instead of vitriol directed at immigrants and their “defective germ plasm,” geneticists fretted that the human gene pool was degenerating, i.e., our genetic load, as the result of a trifecta of forces including existing mutations that were already part of the human breeding pool, new mutations induced by ionizing radiation due primarily to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the relaxation of natural selection in humans due to improvements in medical care and living conditions that allowed people with illness-predisposing mutations to survive and reproduce. They sometimes argued that the very future of humanity hinged on keeping the gene pool healthy, along with cost-savings from eliminating mutant genes. Even James Neel, a strong critic of conservative eugenics, titled his 1994 autobiography Physician To The Gene Pool. If the gene pool wasn’t sick or threatened, presumably it would not need a physician to tend to it.

Of the three factors alleged to be threatening to increase the genetic load, medical geneticists could exercise some measure of control over the existing mutation frequency. They argued that if parents were properly counseled then high risk couples would refrain from having children with genetic disorders, thus reducing the impact of genetic disease on the population. Conversely, low risk couples would have more children, improving the overall gene pool. You didn’t have to make people refrain from reproduction by force or sterilization. You just need to wisely educate them and let them see the light on their own.

There was widespread support among the genetics community for this reframed and reformulated eugenics. Below are illustrative quotes by other ASHG presidents (some of which come from a 1997 paper by science historian Diane Paul):

Herman Muller (ASHG President, 1949; Nobel Prize Winner, 1946): “It is shown that the only means by which the effects of the genetic load can be lightened permanently and securely is by the coupling of ameliorative techniques, such as medicine, with a rationally directed guidance of reproduction. In other words, the latter procedure is a necessary complement to medicine, and to the other practices of civilization, if they are not to defeat their own purposes, and it is in the end equally as important for our health and well-being as all of them together.

Sheldon Reed (ASHG President 1956): “People of normal mentality who thoroughly understand the genetics of their problems, will behave in the way that seems correct to society as a whole.”

Curt Stern (ASHG President, 1957): “In the course of time…. the control by man of his own biological evolution will become imperative…”

James F. Crow (ASHG President, 1963): “How far should we defend the right of a parent to produce a child that is painfully diseased, condemned to an early death, or mentally retarded?”

Bentley Glass (ASHG President, 1967; President of the American Association for The Advancement of Science, 1969), writing in 1971: “Whether advice or compulsion is to be used by society in these cases would seem to rest with the severity of the condition. If the prospective defect is one that would leave a baby a hopeless imbecile or idiot throughout life and a ward on society, or cause it to be born without limbs, or make it otherwise gravely defective, avoidance of parenthood ought to be mandatory.”

You might argue angels-dancing-on-a-pinhead that these statements are not eugenic philosophies sensu strictu. Maybe you could make a half-convincing argument to that effect. But that sounds like denial to me. Davenport, Harry Laughlin, and the other pre-WWII eugenicists would have recognized and supported any of the above pronouncements.

But let me be clear. This is not a simple story of ethically challenged geneticists pushing an intentionally evil agenda. These were good people from across the political spectrum who believed they were trying to do good for their patients and society. Just like us. And, just like us, they recognized the psychological and emotional impact of genetic disorders on patients and families. As the historian Marion Schmidt notes, Franz Kallmann, former member of the German Society for Racial Hygiene who advocated sterilizing the families of patients with psychiatric disease, urged genetic counselors to understand patients’ “fears and hopes, defenses and rationalizations” and to develop an “empathetic understanding of the motives and capacities of the person who comes for help.” Foreshadowing  21st century calls for genetic counseling to be conducted as a form of psychotherapy, Kallmann viewed genetic counseling as “short-term psychotherapy aimed at reducing anxiety and tension,” albeit with the ultimate goal of producing “a well-planned family [that was] indispensable as a biological, social and cultural unit from a eugenic standpoint and a unique source of pride and stability for the individual.”

I don’t mean to imply that ASHG is or was  ever an unethical, sinister eugenic organization. However, as the primary professional organization for geneticists, ASHG’s history reflects the history of the philosophy, ethics, and practice of medical genetics. As much as we may want to ignore that history and keep it safely behind us, it is embedded, if you will, in the DNA of the profession.

In the third and final part of this series of postings, I will trace these eugenic threads up to current day practice to help us better understand the complicated and at times antagonistic relationship between medical genetics and people with disabilities, their families, and their advocates. 




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