September 18, 2019

A Creepy Chapter

By 1929, the state of California had forcibly sterilzed 6,255 people for being “moral imbeciles” or “feeble-minded,” in the un-p.c. jargon of the time. “California has the longest continuous record of sterilization of any state in the world,” a pamphlet bragged.

Before the Nazis created their own “racial hygiene” programs, Americans in the first decades of this century were taken with the pseudo-science of eugenics, the selective mating of human beings, according to an exhibit, “Polluting the Pure,” at the Jewish Federation’s Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. The exhibit exposes a creepy but little-known part of our local history.It reveals American pamphlets entitled “Human Thoroughbreds – Why Not”; accounts of Charles Davenport’s research laboratory, sponsored by industrialist Andrew Carnegie; photographs from “perfect family” contests at state fairs.

“The United States was the first country to legally sterilize people for eugenic reasons, and the Nazis took that from us,” says exhibit curator Dr. Michael Nutkiewicz, adding that anti-immigration sentiment fueled the movement.

California, apparently, had the most organized and lively eugenics groups. Their source was a couple of esteemed Pasadenans, E.S. Gosney and Dr. Paul Popenoe, graduates of Stanford and Washington University, respectively, and the founders of the Human Betterment Foundation.On display is their pamphlet, “Sterilization for Human Betterment,” that proudly rattles off the numbers of forced operations at facilities like the Norwalk State Hospital. Bespectacled, distinguished-looking Popenoe, a former editor of the Pasadena Star News, for his part, was acclaimed in an article entitled “Old Time City Editor Earns Fame in Effort to Improve Human Race.”

By the early 1930s, however, eugenics had fallen into disrepute in the U.S., partly because of the advancing civil rights movement, partly because of the disgust over the more virulent policies of the Nazis (evidenced in a section of the exhibit). For decades, “eugenics” was a bad word in America. Yet with the recent advances in cloning and the mapping of the human genome, the questions raised by the old movement are suddenly pertinent. “It’s important to be aware of the historical example of how we’ve used science in the service of social policy,” Nutkiewicz warns. “We’ve got to ask ourselves, ‘How far should we go to improve human life and reshape nature?”

The exhibit runs through July 10 at the Museum Annex, 6010 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 761-8170.