Who’s Laughlin Now? Exclusive Interview with Expired Eugenicist Extraordinaire

Not long ago, Genotopia received a comment from Dr. Harry H. Laughlin, a noted eugenicist. This surprised us, because Laughlin died in 1943. Unsure whether he is visiting us from the spirit world or simply undead, we nevertheless fearlessly seized the opportunity to request an exclusive interview with him, which he kindly granted. Well, perhaps kindly isn’t quite the right word…

Harry Laughlin
Harry Laughlin, c. 1929 (from EugenicsArchive.org)

Harry Hamilton Laughlin was a principal architect of the American eugenics movement from 1910 to 1940[1].  Born in 1880 in Oskaloosa, Iowa, he worked as a high school teacher and principal before being tapped by Charles Davenport to run the new Eugenics Record Office, founded in 1910 at what is now Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, on the north shore of New York’s Long Island. Laughlin built the ERO into the epicenter of American eugenics, training “fieldworkers,” collecting pedigrees and other family data, publishing articles both scientific and popular, and lobbying on behalf of the need to prevent the reproduction of the “unfit”—the diseased, the infirm, the antisocial and immoral, and especially the feebleminded, a broad term that could include all forms of subnormal intelligence but which was often applied to those of near-normal IQ. He was a staunch advocate of sterilization, institutionalization, and birth control as means of limiting the numbers of the socially undesirable. In 1922 he drafted a “model sterilization law” that became the basis for California’s sterilization law and which in turn informed the 1933 sterilization law in Nazi Germany. In 1936, Laughlin proudly accepted an honorary doctorate from the University of Heidelberg, a gesture of recognition by Hitler’s Germany of Laughlin’s contributions to eugenic health. Once an inspiration to eugenicists across the land, the ERO sank in reputation through the 1930s and became an embarrassment. The Carnegie Institution of Washington, which administered the Office, shut it down at the end of 1939, sending Laughlin into retirement. He died on Jan. 26, 1943, in Missouri, with his wife Patsy, but childless and with epilepsy. His thanatography will have to await future scholarship…


GT: In the first decades of the twentieth century, you made your reputation as perhaps the nation’s foremost opponent of feeblemindedness. Explain feeblemindedness for us, would you? Why did you see it as the root of so much social evil?

HL: The nation’s foremost opponent of feeblemindedness? Is anybody in their right mind a proponent of feeblemindedness? Let me make it simple for you – feeblemindedness is genetically determined low intelligence. With it comes all the social woes of the inferior classes and races. Inferior minds produce inferior morals, inferior habits, inferior looks, and feckless breeding. And the broods they produce –  well,  with your genetics background you should know that like produces like.  It’s a menace to us all. Society just spirals down the porcelain canyon and flushes out into the Vale of Siddem. The solutions are simple – stop the feebleminded from breeding. You can’t fix their brains, but you can “fix” them other ways. And we must keep the inferior races out of the country so the Great Saxon Stock of this country is not overwhelmed. I don’t know why you can’t see that point, Genodopia. Any bright mind would.

GT: That’s –TOpia, ahem. Is feeblemindedness still a problem now, in the early twenty-first century? If so, how—and what should we be doing about it?

HL: Is it still a problem? Is that a serious question? This has become a country of immigrants from the lowest races – Africa, Asia, Mexico. Do you know that in a few decades, whites will be a minority? A MINORITY? Do you think that mass of defective germ plasm will be able to put a man on the Moon or make great medical discoveries? You can’t make great achievements when you aren’t smart enough for high school and spend your life collecting welfare checks.

We might still be able to reclaim this country if we are willing to take drastic measures, the same ones I proposed a hundred years ago. Strict immigration control – we only grant citizenship to the whitest and the brightest. We clear out the illegals who are already here. And for the rest, there is the Sharp Solution. Pay them to be sterilized. God bless Harry Sharp.[2]

GT: Ouch. Not long after your death, Sheldon Reed of the Dight Institute for Human Genetics in Minnesota coined the term “genetic counseling.”[3] He did so in part to differentiate “nondirective” genetic advice from the sometimes-coercive methods you and your colleagues employed in your eugenic program. In recent years, however, we have seen a backlash against nondirectiveness in genetic counseling. Do you see this as a positive development?

HH: Sounds like a bunch of double-talk to me. Reed was at heart a eugenicist. He just thought that if you laid out the facts for parents they would choose not to have a feebleminded kid. Nice Guy Eugenics.  It was doomed to failure because Reed missed a basic point – feeble minds cannot understand complicated information. And even if they could, their unbridled enthusiasm for sexual intercourse would not let them refrain from producing broods.  Reed was nudging, but successful eugenics calls for shoving. This is Genetic Warfare, my friend.

GT: That really is strikingly modern-sounding.

HL: And as I understand it, this nondirectiveness is just a bunch of psychology mumbo-jumbo. The backlash against it is the wrong kind of backlash. These new genetic counselors think that their patients have no responsibility to society, only to their own private lives. Well let me tell you, making babies is a very big public responsibility, and genetic counselors need to tell their clients that society does not need any more problems than it already has. That’s the right kind of backlash against nondirectiveness (what a ridiculous term!).

GT: Makes you wistful for the good old days before Nuremberg, doesn’t it? Where do you see hope for eugenics today? What’s going on in human genetics that gives you satisfaction?

HL: I sure wish we had this technology back in the day. The newspapers are filled with stories that link these genetic discoveries to crime, depression, alcoholism, political beliefs, moral failings.

GT: Even the gene for thalassophilia, which your boss was so ridiculed for after both your deaths, has been found.

HL: This is exactly what all the ERO pedigrees showed, but now there is hard biological proof. The DNA evidence is so overwhelming that people will have to see the eugenic light. And I understand that pretty soon we can all have our entire genetic blueprint scanned for a few well-spent dollars. We can start incorporating this genetic sequencing into every aspect of society – in marriage, in assigning children to the proper educational tracks so we don’t waste money trying to make gold out of lead, in deciding who can immigrate into the country, in getting people on the right career tracks, in tracking criminals before they commit crimes…. we have the possibility of a Galtonian Utopia within our grasp.

GT: An old saw of your day was that eugenics was “the self-direction of human evolution.” Are we closer to that goal now, in the early twenty-first century? Do you think we will ever truly achieve it?

HL: We can – we MUST – direct our evolution. Otherwise we face a genetic and evolutionary implosion, a return to a race of brutes cowering in caves, frightened of the dark. Nuclear nightmares look like pleasant dreams in comparison.

GT: You are a religious man, are you not? Isn’t playing God a game for atheists? How do you reconcile “playing God” with your God?

HL: God wants us to live to our full potential, to be more God-like, to be in his image. Do you think God looks like a Juke [4] or a Dugdale? That is why he gave us these great gifts of intelligence and wisdom and morals. Only with wise breeding can we be in God’s image.  Eugenics is not “play”, my friend. It is a theological imperative.


[1] Philip K Wilson is working on a full-length biography of Laughlin. He has been a great help to me in framing the questions for this challenging interview. See “Harry Laughlin’s eugenic crusade…” for more insightful analysis of Laughlin. See also Dan Kevles’s In the Name of Eugenics

[2] See Elof Carlson’s and Jason Lantzer’s chapters in Paul Lombardo, ed., A Century of Eugenics in America (2011)

[3] Reed, Sheldon C. “A Short History of Genetic Counseling.” Social Biology 21 (1975): 332-39; Resta, R. G. “The Historical Perspective: Sheldon Reed and 50 Years of Genetic Counseling.” Journal of Genetic Counseling 6, no. 4 (1997): 375-77.

[4] Ed. note: or one of the Whites?


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