Tag Archives: ASHG

The American Society of Human Genetics Struggles to Face Its Past

Robert Resta and Diane B. Paul

Robert Resta is a retired genetic counselor and a regular contributor to The DNA Exchange. Diane B. Paul is Professor Emerita at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Associate in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. She has published widely on historical and policy issues in genetics. Her books include Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present (1995), The Politics of Heredity: Essays on Eugenics, Biomedicine, and the Nature-Nurture Debate (1998), The PKU Paradox (with Jeffrey P. Brosco, MD, 2013), and an edited volume (with John Stenhouse and Hamish G. Spencer), Eugenics at the Edges of Empire: New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa (2018).

The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) recently released Facing Our History – Building An Equitable Future Initiative, a report on the role of the organization and geneticists more generally in past injustices, including eugenics, sickle cell screening, and perpetuating inaccurate information about XYY syndrome and racial stereotypes about intelligence. About 3 years ago one of us (RR) authored a three-part series in this space that explored the role of eugenics in shaping the ASHG and the views of its leadership (Part 1Part 2Part 3). Some of that content was cited in the ASHG report.

There is much to be admired in ASHG’s willingness to acknowledge the roles the organization and its leadership played in respect both to eugenics and social injustice generally. However, the report also has several flaws. Here we focus our critique on our areas of interest and expertise – its account of the history of eugenics, which includes assertions that have been widely challenged by historians (without any acknowledgment of their contested status) as well as factual errors and omissions that skew interpretations. Here we discuss a few examples.

The Claim that Revelations of Nazi Atrocities Ended Support for Eugenics

In the summary of report themes (p. 4), the authors write that “after World War II and the realization of how American eugenic policies inspired the atrocities of Nazi Germany, public popularity of eugenics collapsed.” This claim is repeated in the section on “Origins of the American Eugenics Movement,” where readers are told that: “As the public learned how scientists and politicians in Nazi Germany used eugenic ideals to justify the atrocities and genocide they committed during the Holocaust, the public and scientific community became increasingly critical of and horrified by eugenics” (p. 10). But scholars have become increasingly skeptical of the view that World War II (WWII) represents such a turning-point. One source of skepticism is the fact that the trajectory of eugenic sterilization (which continued both in law and practice after WWII) does not even begin to square with this periodization. Another is the fact that many prominent scientists, such as Francis Crick, Linus Pauling, H.J. Muller, Julian Huxley, N.W. Pirie, and Peter Medawar (among others), and such influential theologians as Joseph Fletcher and Paul Ramsay, continued to argue for the need to control human reproduction – often explicitly under the rubric of eugenics — through at least the 1970s. Indeed, at conferences and in scientific and popular books and articles it was commonly argued that the need to control reproduction was now more urgent than in the past given expanded military and medical uses of radiation, resulting in an increasing “mutational load,” and advances in medicine that allowed individuals who would once have died before their childbearing years to survive and reproduce. The vocabulary of eugenics may have changed after WWII, but eugenics continued to play a key role in the writings and beliefs of many leading geneticists and other scholars.

Moreover, whether one thinks that eugenics (eventually) died or has continued in other guises depends crucially on how the term is understood. And understandings of what counts as eugenics have both shifted over time and remain contested. Thus, individuals who would have been considered – and considered themselves – to be critics of eugenics in the pre-WWII period, such as Lancelot Hogben and H.J. Muller, (because they criticized some of the scientific assumptions and/or racial and class biases that characterized establishment eugenics), would, by most current understandings of the term, count as eugenicists (because, among other things, they endorsed the sterilization of those with serious hereditary defects, a position that was then widely taken for granted, even by most self-defined critics). 

Moreover, there is no consensus today as to what policies, practices, and beliefs should be considered “eugenic.” In one perspective, eugenics implies state control of reproduction, whereas in another, eugenics can be voluntary and even actively chosen by individuals influenced by social norms of health, intelligence, and physical attractiveness. From the latter standpoint, far from withering and dying, eugenics continued to flourish in other forms such as marriage counseling, population control, and the once common cost-savings rationale for prenatal testing (preventing the birth of individuals with disabilities), in the 1960s and ‘70s. (Until the 1980s, most studies of the effectiveness of genetic counseling measured its impact on the incidence of disability and/or the reproductive decisions of counselees). Moreover, in the perspective of those who believe that eugenics can be private, voluntary, non-racist, and scientifically up to date, it may also inform such current reproductive genetics practices as prenatal and preimplantation genetic testing. 

That is not to assert that  a broad definition of eugenics that encompasses these policies and practices is correct, only that to claim that eugenics was killed by revelations of Nazi atrocities is to implicitly take sides in what is in fact an intense and ongoing debate.

Claims about Eugenicists’ Beliefs

The report’s authors define eugenics as a belief that undesirable traits “could be eliminated from the population” through selective breeding. Such a definition puzzlingly excludes all “positive” policies and practices, which ranged from free love to the Nazi “Lebensborn” program. Moreover, few if any eugenicists after about 1920 thought that traits could be eliminated from populations. Edward M. East was the first to realize that most deleterious genes would be hidden in apparently normal carriers, who would not be touched by programs of segregation and sterilization. That insight was made much more precise after acceptance of the Hardy-Weinberg theorem, which allowed geneticists to calculate the effects of selection against those affected. Thus, eugenicists understood that traits like “feeblemindedness” could never be eliminated from the population, and that even reducing their incidence would be a slower process than they had once hoped (though they considered that project worthwhile).

Particularly puzzling is the inclusion of abortion in a list of policies meant to restrict breeding by the unfit (p.6). The claim that American eugenicists promoted abortion in the service of ridding the world of undesirables is now commonplace on right-wing antiabortion websites, blogs, and magazines and was central to Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion in the 2019 case of Kristina Box, Indiana v Planned Parenthood. Thomas’s claim that eugenics and abortion were linked from the start was denounced by a raft of historians, who know that, for multiple reasons, prominent American eugenicists had almost nothing to say about abortion and that what they did say was generally highly critical. Thus, according to the Eugenics Catechism issued by the American Eugenics Society in 1926: “Abortion is murder and no eugenist advocates it except to save the life of the mother.” Interviewed by the Washington Post, historian and lawyer Paul Lombardo said: “I’ve been studying this stuff for 40 years, and I’ve never been able to find a leader of the eugenics movement that came out and said they supported abortion.” Why the ASHG would want to give credence to this influential but discredited claim is a mystery.

The Characterization of H.J. Muller

The most egregiously distorted commentary concerns H.J. Muller, who is presented simply as a critic of eugenics. According to the authors of the report: “While some ASHG presidents embraced eugenic ideals and practices, others were critical of eugenics based on its reliance on racism and coercive practices. In 1932, H.J. Muller (ASHG President, 1948), criticized the eugenics movement during the Third International Eugenics Congress, stating that it was ‘the naïve doctrine that the economically dominant classes, races, and individuals are genetically superior.’ In the preface to the first issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, Muller continued to criticize eugenics for its purpose of ‘translating biological prejudice into action,’ by promoting classist and racist ideals that have no basis in genetics.” This is true as far as it goes but is also markedly one-sided and misleading. 

Throughout his life, Muller was a passionate advocate of the need to control human evolution. His sympathetic biographer, Elof Carlson, notes that eugenics was “the leitmotif of Muller’s life.” Muller was also, especially in the 1920s and ‘30s, a critic of some aspects of eugenics under capitalism. But it is worth noting that even in his famous 1932 critique, The Dominance of Economics over Eugenics, from which the report quotes, Muller wrote: “That imbeciles should be sterilized is of course unquestionable.” And indeed, as noted earlier, at that time few if any scientists would have dissented from that comment. 

Perhaps the best-known American proponent of “Bolshevik” eugenics, Muller held that only in a society not stratified into classes – as he believed was true of the Soviet Union and hoped would eventually be true of the United States – could the effects of nature and nurture be separated, and a truly efficacious eugenics program implemented. In 1925, he authored a eugenic manifesto, Out of the Night (finally published in 1935), in which he proposed a program for the mass insemination of women with sperm of men superior in intellect and character, a program that he argued would rapidly raise the level of the whole population. Emigrating to the Soviet Union in 1934, he tried and failed spectacularly to interest Josef Stalin in his proposal and ended up fleeing the country. But in the 1960s, he resurrected a version of that proposal — now called “germinal choice” — to emphasize its voluntary character. His 1949 presidential address to the newly-founded ASHG, titled Our Load of Mutations, argued that an ever-increasing load of deleterious mutations would ultimately destroy the human race as we know it. To counter this degeneration, Muller outlined a scheme where the most burdened 3% of population would voluntarily refrain from reproducing. Thus, Muller’s views illustrate the difficulty of dividing individuals into two mutually-exclusive groups, eugenicists and their critics. Muller was both, as were many of his scientific colleagues.

Why Did It Take So Long?

The report itself makes no new significant contributions to the history of eugenics. The role of ASHG and its leadership in eugenics has been well documented for over 30 years. Why has it taken so long for ASHG to acknowledge this history? One could argue that the time was now ripe for such a reckoning – after all, social justice occupies a large space in the current public dialogue. But that does not explain why the ASHG’s involvement in eugenics has largely been ignored until now. It’s not like the published history was obscure or written in abstruse scholarly lingo. Much of the work in the field is highly readable and readily available through search engines and on library’s shelves. It’s a pity that the ASHG report does not address the question of why it took the organization so long to officially acknowledge this history.

Our critique of the ASHG report is not simply a matter of correcting minor historical details. Although the society is to be commended for making an effort to come to grips with its past, much of its eugenics narrative is dated and simplistic. Without a more complete and nuanced understanding of this history, ASHG cannot truly face its past.

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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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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.





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