Raising the Man Crop

The University’s history of eugenics and its rotting legacy

Illustrator: Max Smith

Illustrator: Max Smith

The miraculous amount of food required to feed the U.S. would not have been possible a century ago—not without the numerous advances in technology, science, and animal husbandry. We owe a considerable amount to the science of breeding—everything from our food to the small corgis we carry around in purses. And yet, when the same concept is applied to humans, the ethics of the act becomes infinitely more complicated. Put simply, the term “breeding” becomes “eugenics.”

The well-intentioned positivity crumbles as soon as we call it’s called by its real name: forced sterilization.

Eugenics was a genetic solution to a wide host of social issues and moral degeneracy. Through the sterilization of certain people they deemed criminals, deviants, and the “feeble-minded,” society attempted to remove the problems altogether.

In the 2008 talk “Race and Eugenics: Minnesota and the University of Minnesota” in the “Deadly Medicine” exhibit, scholar Mark Soderstrom called eugenics a “socially powerful” movement that attempted to soothe many middle class anxieties rising from the shift away from self-employment.

“Politically, eugenics had influence at the highest levels,” Soderstrom said. “It linked dreams of national salvation to the rising corporate economic model and promised a role for the white bourgeois men and women to become surrogate parents to the nation.”

As the agricultural based society gave way to the standardization of industry, society clung to these notions of breeding.

Contemporary belief has since diminished eugenics to a pseudoscience, and demonized those, like Nazi Germany, who endorsed its practice. But the movement gained traction across the U.S. long before World War II. With an exceptionally strong grip in the Midwest, the first eugenics sterilization law was passed in 1907 in Indiana. As the cleansing treaded north, Minnesota—and the University of Minnesota specifically—became a key location for sterilization.

 

The Local Enthusiasts

It comes as no surprise that those most often involved in eugenics were intellectuals with power. Liberals and conservatives alike found a sense of purpose through this so-called betterment of society.

“They were generally well intentioned and sought to do good and serve their community and nation,” Soderstrom said in the talk. “They were all extremely successful in their fields. They were educators and administrators who sought to do the best they could, no different in intent from such individuals today.”

A handful of those educators and administrators were prominent members in the University—so prominent, many of them have buildings in their honor.

As the agricultural based society gave way to the standardization of industry, society clung to these notions of breeding.

Enthusiasm for eugenics began early on with the University’s first president, William Watts Folwell. A key advocate for the eugenics movement, Folwell was a founding member of the Minnesota Eugenics Society, formed in 1923.

Also included in the University’s tainted-building line up is dormitory Comstock Hall and the administrative building Johnston Hall.

Photographer: Carson Kaskel, Illustrator: Max Smith

Photographer: Carson Kaskel, Illustrator: Max Smith

Ada Comstock, who served as the University’s first Dean of Women, was a strong eugenics supporter. In his talk, Soderstrom addressed Comstock’s enthusiasm, referencing her quote that “Eugenics is the greatest concern of the human race.”

More involved than Comstock, Johnston’s eugenics support likely came from his background in comparative neurology.

“Johnston created a discourse that emphasized the natural, national qualities of old stock Americans, beset by an invasion of immigrants and racial others,” Soderstrom said. “He enacted policy measures to try to ‘rebuild the University dikes against that flood.’”

The University named the building in his honor in 1951.

In many of these academic circles, the issues of human society began to be approached through the lens of agriculture.

“It certainly permeates the writings of all the [University] eugenicists, who variously write of weeding the human garden, breeding human thoroughbreds, or raising the ‘man crop.’”

Photographer: Carson Kaskel, Illustrator: Max Smith

Photographer: Carson Kaskel, Illustrator: Max Smith

The agricultural parallels that justified human eugenics, Soderstrom observed, weren’t surprising, mostly because the first strong eugenics support came from the American Breeder’s Association.

Though the University had a strong agricultural foundation that was matched with support from the University higher-ups, a eugenics curriculum wasn’t always assured.

Photographer: Carson Kaskel, Illustrator: Max Smith

Photographer: Carson Kaskel, Illustrator: Max Smith

Lotus Coffman, a supporter himself, drew the line against certain eugenics aspects within the University, during his time as president. When the dean of the medical school, Elias Lyon, suggested the University include eugenics sterilization in its coursework, Coffman rejected the idea.

“[Coffman] didn’t think the University should be wielding police powers in that way,” explained Kirk Allison, a current professor of public health and human rights at the University. Despite Coffman’s support for eugenics as a whole, he didn’t want the school to be directly involved in that way.

“He had a certain sensibility of what was proper domain for this kind of authority and where it should be and shouldn’t be,” Allison said.

Coffman Memorial Union, ironically, now houses various forms of University government and symbols of diversity, including Student Unions and Activities and the Minnesota Student Association.

 

Dight’s Eugenics Crusade

While Coffman, Comstock, and Johnston all supported the eugenics movement, it was University professor Charles Fremont Dight who spearheaded the crusade for eugenics sterilization in Minnesota.

Dight taught pharmacology at the University from 1913 to 1933 and published such works as the pamphlet “Human Thoroughbreds—Why Not?” In 1923, he organized the Minnesota Eugenics Society in order to lay the groundwork for the 1925 Eugenics Sterilization Law. The law, which was ultimately passed, made it legal for “feebleminded” people, among others, to be sterilized without their consent.

At the peak of his crusade, Dight famously wrote a letter to Hitler, praising him for his good work within the eugenics community. “I trust you will accept my sincere wish that your efforts along that line will be a great success and will advance the eugenics movement in other nations as well as in Germany,” the letter read.

At the peak of his crusade, Dight famously wrote a letter to Hitler, praising him for his good work within the eugenics community

In his will, Dight left the University approximately $100,000 to use for “the study and promulgation of human genetics, provide instruction in human genetics, and establish a resource center.” This lead to the creation of The Dight Institute, which opened its doors in 1941, three years after his passing.

For many years, The Dight Institute held the records that were previously at the eugenics records office in Cold Springs Harbor, New York. Among the records collected were forms entitled “record of family traits” that detailed the genetic histories of students studying at the time.

With more than a few skeletons in the closet, the University has attempted to reframe the institute in a more positive light.

Among the records collected were forms entitled ‘record of family traits’ that detailed the genetic histories of students studying at the time.

“The University has been rather uncomfortable at times with [Dight’s] will,” Allison said. “They used it and re-tooled it for general genetics research. They moved away from the old, sterilization eugenics context and, as they say, interpreted the will broadly.”

In 1984, it was renamed The Institute for Human Genetics and contributed to research in areas of mental disability, cancer and epilepsy. And in 1996, it was demolished to make way for the building that is now Nils Hasselmo Hall.

 

A Legacy Renamed

Though Dight’s donation to the University is kept mum, and his building has been long demolished, a whisper of his legacy still stands in southeast Minneapolis. Running parallel to Minnehaha Avenue is Dight Avenue, a street just south of the Longfellow neighborhood, leading to the Minnesota icon General Mills.

In the summer of 2015, Rep. Phyllis Kahn led a crusade of her own, pushing to find a new name for the street. Similarly, Minneapolitans led discussions to rename the iconic Lake Calhoun, citing its namesake’s advocacy of slavery in the 19th century. Now more than ever, people are digging into landmark histories and questioning their integrity.

These days, the honor that is associated with an everlasting legacy is matched with the weight of an ethical track record. Perhaps there is more vetting to be done, or perhaps we must embrace these ugly pasts.

At this, Allison smirked. “Pretty soon we’re not going to have anything named after anybody, right?”