A Note from the Longmore Institute:
When Professor Rohlfs approached us about her students’ research related to the history of teaching eugenics at San Francisco State University, we were intrigued. As followers of our work know, the stories of disability and genetics have been and continue to be interwoven. We’re delighted to share the fruits of their labor, which offer a sobering look at our university’s past, as well as insights for future scientists. Below are comments from the professor followed by a detailed account of how the students conducted their research and what they discovered.
By: Richard Tam*, Jasmeen Kaur*, Cynnie Tam, Milton Reynolds, and Rori Rohlfs
* indicates equal contributors
In this political moment, we are seeing a resurgence of eugenic reasoning (policies based on a judgement about the inherent value of people of different groups) support a broad range of policies concerning topics from immigration and incarceration, to accessibility and student loan eligibility criteria. This reasoning is underpinned by a belief in genetic determinism that is apparent through a preoccupation with genetics, from genetic ancestry testing to overstating the predictive value of polygenic risk scores. These narratives still invoke the language of deficiency or lack of fitness which is predicated on the devaluation of not just those with disabilities, but anyone who doesn’t fit an increasingly constrained notion of who and what is normal.
The rise in trope of racial nationalism encircling the globe, also suggest that these ideas are being reasserted elsewhere to the detriment of many. In this context, improving public understanding of science history will help us better respond to these attacks. We can begin to get this background through self-examination, and study of rich resources about the ongoing history of eugenic sterilizations in California, or the timeline of eugenics implemented through medicine. Our understanding will not only help our academic mission to co-create with our students a supportive university environment that enables critical scholarship that furthers social justice, but empower us to recognize and dismantle eugenic reasoning and policies.
In my position as an undergraduate genetics instructor, I attempt to bring the history of eugenics and its connection to genetics to the attention of my students who are future scientists, health care professionals, teachers, and more. I say “attempt” because every year I learn and revise this curriculum. In 2017, I ended the class saying that because of the eugenics movement’s entanglement with science, I strongly suspected that eugenics was taught at our very own university. However, I lacked evidence to back that up. I invited any interested students to help me search for that evidence, and three stepped forward: Richard Tam, Jasmeen Kaur, and Cynnie Tam.
I came to an awareness of the sobering role played by eugenics much later than these students: as a graduate student when I had nearly earned a PhD in Genome Sciences, that I learned about science’s role in generating the fundamental ideas that were weaponized by the eugenics movement. My experience of advancing in genetics education without learning about eugenics continues to be the norm.
At its root, eugenics classifies individuals as fit and unfit, desirable and undesirable, and proceeds to support fit or desirable individuals, while suppressing the unfit or undesirable individuals. Innate to eugenics is a judgement about the desirability of an individual rooted in that person’s body. In the eugenic framework, disability is not valued as diversity, but condemned as unfit. Beginning in the late 1800s in England and the United States, the first wave of the eugenics movement sought to enforce norms of ableist white supremacy by violently restricting reproduction and immigration of disabled people, people of color (particularly women), and other groups. The Progressive Era eugenics movement was sparked and supported by prominent geneticists and academics including and David Starr Jordan, founding president of Stanford University. These close ties to academic science brought a sense of validation to the movement’s goals and methods.
It is deeply troubling that we, scientists, are unaware of our own history. We cannot assert that genetics has entirely departed from eugenics when we don’t know what we claim to be departed from. If we want to learn from past ways that science has caused harm, we must know what happened.
We are undergraduate students at San Francisco State University (SFSU) who took a Genetics course (BIOL 355) during the spring of 2017. The class included a module that taught eugenics history.
Many students at the time had never heard of eugenics. While some students weren’t surprised to learn about another mechanism of racism and ableism, others of us were shocked to learn that the original eugenics movement did not lose important cultural and political status until well after the 1950s. Even after that, many of the same ideas were still supported with different justifications. We see this continuing even today.
It was even more shocking to learn that the San Francisco Bay Area, generally known for its progressiveness, had a strong eugenics movement. Based on what we had learned in class, three of us students became interested in exploring the history further.
Knowing that the eugenics movement was politically mainstream, and that the Bay Area was a stronghold of the eugenics movement, we sought to find out if eugenics was taught at our school. If so, when did SFSU stop offering the class?
Our investigations led us to some startling discoveries.
“Eugenics” was a key course San Francisco State University until 1951
In order to discover if our university ever taught eugenics, we went to the library archives. This is where the bulk of our research was done. At the archives, we examined the course bulletins and schedules that our university kept from 1901 to 1980, and kept track of the biology course offerings each semester. We also looked at some issues of the student newspaper at the time, “The Golden Gater,” which helped us see how the campus responded to current events and how each department underwent change.
We found that eugenics (course number 103) was taught in the Biology Department at SFSU from 1926 to 1951: the class persisted six years beyond the end of World War II. This was one of just twelve upper division elective courses offered which could be used towards graduation credit. The course description – “Study of the facts and problems of human heredity and possibility of race betterment” (Figure 1) – is completely aligned with the aims of the broader eugenics movement in the United States.
At first, eugenics was taught by Professor Effie McFadden, a Stanford graduate, and later by Professor Edith Pickard. At the time, SFSU was San Francisco State Teachers College, and eugenics must have been considered an important subject for future educators. Teaching eugenics to educators, who presumably passed their education on to K-12 students, seems like a way to instill and maintain eugenic values for another generation. While we found this startling, it is in line with SFSU’s original mission to help establish social norms, that ultimately fostered scientifically endorsed ableism and racism.
“Eugenics” may have lived on as “human genetics”
According to the bulletins, the class was no longer available after 1951. Despite combing through SFSU student newspaper articles for any hint about what led to the curricular change, we are unsure about the specific reasons the class was removed. However, we did notice that in 1952 a new graduate studies course appeared: Human Genetics (course number 203). The course description was “Principle of inheritance as applied to man; the role of heredity and environment; population genetics.” This course and the one it replaced had the same prerequisites, and the course descriptions were very similar except for the replacement of “race betterment” with “population genetics.” The change didn’t seem to accompany a broader change in course offerings (Figure 2).
There is a lot that we remain curious about. Did the course content differ between eugenics and human genetics, and if so, how? Was calling the class “Human Genetics” just a more palatable way to teach the same principles?
While we don’t yet have all of the answers, we see value in reckoning with the history of eugenics on our campus. We hope that by understanding the original course ideology and purpose, and can raise questions about if and how current courses perpetuate these older ways of thinking, and more generally how current science courses relate to our social environment.
“Eugenics” course description. The course description for “Eugenics” as photographed from the 1926 to 1927 San Francisco State Teachers College bulletin of course offerings.
Fig 2. Changing course offerings. For each course listed at least once between 1950 to 1955, the listings are shown for each academic year. “Eugenics” and “Human genetics” are highlighted.