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Eugenics stand at the Exhibition of Health and Housing, c. 1936

Eugenics stand at the Exhibition of Health and Housing, c. 1936

Credits:© The Galton Institute, London

The term ’eugenics’ was coined by British scientist Francis Galton in 1883. He claimed his ideas could perfect the human race by getting rid of ‘undesirables’ and increasing its ‘desirables’. Galton’s ideas were partly based on the theories of his cousin, Charles Darwin. Darwin demonstrated that evolution changed species, and this could be artificially manipulated. For example, animal breeders could produce animals with particular characteristics.

Galton extended this argument to people, which proved popular. In eugenics many human attributes are determined by inheritance instead of social or political conditions. He argued people were poor, criminal or unhealthy because of their inheritance rather than their upbringing or environment.

Eugenicists aimed to increase positive attributes through controlled breeding. Prominent social reformers agreed with Galton about restricting the reproduction of the ‘unfit’. These included the poor, those with disabilities and the unhealthy. Testing of intelligence, or IQ, was important. Birth control activists, such as Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes, also based their work on eugenics.

Eugenics remained strong through the 1920s and 1930s. Sterilisation of severely disabled people occurred across Europe and the Americas. Eugenics reached extremes under the Nazis in Germany, where sterilisation progressed to euthanasia. Those with severe disabilities were the first targets in the Nazis’ search for ‘racial purity’.

After the Second World War, widespread revulsion against the Nazis saw eugenics largely discredited. However, some disability advocates argue that aspects of science, such as genetic engineering and prenatal screening, still make assumptions about the value of different lives.



DJ Kevles, In The Name of Eugenics: genetics and the uses of human hereditary (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995)

V F Nourse, In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and the Near-Triumph of American Eugenics (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008)

P A Lombardo, Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008)

P M Mazumdar, The eugenics movement: an international perspective (London; New York: Routledge: Athena Press, 2007)

R Clifford Engs, The eugenics movement: an encyclopedia (Connecticut; London: Greenwood Press, 2005)


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