The period in the first part of the 20th century when advocates of eugenics solutions ran rampant, “playing God” with the lives of society’s powerless unfortunates, was an abomination on many levels. Deeply flawed by racial and class biases, self-righteous eugenicists categorised a typology of ‘lesser’ humans. They then arbitrarily assigned certain of their country’s citizens to this ‘underclass’ of ‘unworthies’, trampling all over their human rights and liberties in the name of an allegedly ‘scientifically’ determined inferiority. The inequity of individuals being singled out for ‘special’ treatment based on perceived racial stereotypes, mental or physical capacity or because of ‘inherited'(sic) criminality, and the denial of their basic human rights, cannot be overstated, nor can the devastating consequences for its victims (segregation, removal from birth family, sterilisation, even liquidation in extreme cases).
The harm and wrong-headedness of eugenics ideology with its ‘scattergun’ approach lies fully exposed to scrutiny today, and is viewed with the opprobrium it deserves. The eugenicists in all countries practicing eugenics were offering nothing less than a recipe for racial cleansing. Notwithstanding the ‘bad'(sic) eugenic applications of that era, it is important to note that the phenomenon paradoxically did lead to changes in Australian and New Zealand health practices that were significant, progressive and far-reaching to society. As cogently argued by Diana Wyndham, putting aside eugenics’ alarming consequences for a moment, the movement in Australia also involved a genuine attempt to “increase national efficiency and vitality through enlightened state intervention programs” in areas such as “sanitation (eg, cleaning up or eradicating slums) town planning and quarantine” … and of course in health. The Queenslander in 1914 praised its state health authorities for pursuing what it called “practical eugenics”, vital pre-natal and after-birth care for the infant, a pre-condition for a “strong and healthy race”.
Eugenics as preventative care
Those who enthusiastically took up the banner of eugenics in the early 20th century were in the main well-meaning if ill-conceived in their reasoning. The scientist-eugenicists genuinely saw themselves as engaging in science for the benefit of “social efficiency”, and what they were doing, targeting the “unfit and feeble-minded”, was in accordance with Benthamite principles of the greater good of society. They believed that breeding a higher calibre of person was ‘proof’ of rational, social progress and civilisation … eugenics was just such a simplistically enticing blueprint for society’s ills and problems, eliciting the support of social reformers as well as leading international intellectuals including J Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell☼, T S Eliot, W B Yeats, Virginia Woolf, D H Lawrence and the Fabian socialists H G Wells, G B Shaw and the Webbs, as well as businessmen and politicians, eg, Alexander Graham Bell, the Rockefellers, Teddy Roosevelt (see PostScript) and Winston Churchill.
The medical practitioners who sought to introduce eugenic programs (such as Dr. John Cumpston, first director-general of the Australian Commonwealth Department of Health) believed that by stopping the ‘unfit’ from breeding they were in fact practicing preventative medicine (or that’s at least how they rationalised it). Eugenics in Australasia was the domain of scientific experimenters and social reformers as well as the governors, and touched areas which include child welfare, birth control, sex education, moral purity, temperance advocacy and urban planning.
National fitness and advances in health care
Emphasising one of the eugenics movement’s objectives as national fitness, Wyndham identifies a number of positive spin-offs of in Australia – it put the focus on maternal care and on the care of the child❈; it played a part in the fight against both VD and TB; in the provision of sex education and birth control; it stimulated the study of genetics (before 1938 not part of the university training of Australian doctors). Eugenics influenced the advancement of Australian health services, especially in family planning and public health (introduction of baby health centres, child endowment schemes, a national health bureaucracy, etc.). New Zealand eugenicist and health reformer Dr Truby King established the Plunket Society (pioneering early childhood health and development service) as well as introducing innovative child-rearing techniques.
Embracing physical culture in Australia
Stephen Garton has noted other positive developments that grew out of the eugenics movement, most prominently a push for citizens to engage in more outdoors, healthy activities. As an antidote to the confining and often unhealthy milieú of urban life, eugenics encouraged people to take to the outdoors and to partake in physical exercise. Bush-walking and hiking clubs were formed, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides associations were encouraged and Police Citizens Boys Clubs sprang up. The establishment of gymnasiums and fitness centres (especially in NSW and Tasmania by the Bjelke-Petersen brothers) extended the emphasis on physical culture, allegedly important to maintain eugenic health. An emphasis on physical culture as the method of attaining good genes also flourished in New Zealand, largely inspired by one German eugenicist.
Environmental eugenics and physical culture in New Zealand
Eugenics is commonly described as “the belief in the power of nature over that of nurture”, reducing it to a question of a person’s character being shaped by heredity, this is the eugenics orthodoxy. But environmental eugenicists like Eugen Sandow sought to improve the human condition by improving the external factors of one’s environment✤. Sandow, a Prussian-born strongman based in London from the turn of the 20th century, was a eugenicist who believed that the flagging racial stock of the white race could be improved by nurture, which would overcome any natural flaws in a person. He pioneered the art of body-building, developing his own training regime involving repetition and barbells (which he called the “Sandow System”) which he sold to the public by mail order. Sandow toured the world giving “artistic performances” in music halls, including an extended stint in Australasia in 1902-1903. Sandow was principally responsible for popularising the physical culture movement and giving it a kick-start in New Zealand. After his successful tour of NZ Sandow-inspired gymnasiums and physical culture institutes sprang up all over the country.
As elsewhere in the advanced western nations, New Zealanders were plagued by the notion of their supposed physical inadequacies (especially after the Anglo-Boer War in 1899-1902). The disclosure that half of the young NZ men seeking to serve in the British navy were rejected as medically unfit reinforced the view that New Zealanders had poor physiques. Physical culture was presented as a panacea, a remedy to ward off the possibility of physical and mental infirmity. As Caroline Daley has shown, the potentiality of Sandow’s exercise program led to shifts in the way New Zealanders viewed their bodies. Men, with the correct dedicated training, could achieve the “He-man” physique of Sandow. The Sandow technique also pitched its message to middle class NZ women, in line with the eugenic goal of increased procreation by the elite, mothers-to-be could be trained to develop the right muscles for childbirth. After the passage of the Physical Welfare and Recreation Act in 1937 physical culture became “a state sanctioned leisure activity” in New Zealand. The Act was a boost to sport for adults, and with the outbreak of WWII the government promoted the idea that New Zealanders had “a duty to be fit”, it was now patriotic. From its initial eugenic wellspring physical fitness and culture had become firmly entrenched in the mainstream of NZ life.
The physical underdevelopment of the nation’s young was much in the mind of New Zealand eugenicists in the early 20th century. In this milieú school physician Elizabeth Gunn pioneered the health camp movement for school age children. An avowed eugenicist, Gunn was instrumental in getting schoolchildren out of indoors, either into active camp life or into classes conducted in the open air .
PostScript: Racial fitness in America
Again, like the British eugenicists’ pronouncements, new ideas from America fell on receptive ears in Australasia. The centre of the American eugenics movement revolved around biologist Charles Davenport and his Eugenics Records Office whose activities reached eugenicists worldwide. Davenport and his ERO eugenicist associate Harry Laughlin were both chicken breeders illustrate the link of agriculture to eugenics. Race reinvigoration in the US was championed from the very highest quarters. At the turn of the century soon-to-be president, Teddy Roosevelt, appealed to his country’s citizens to take up “the strenuous life” (his message was aimed primarily at native-born Americans of good Anglo-Saxon stock). And Americans did heed his words: many took up sports for the first time, American (college) football became popular as the ultimate physical test of manhood, competitive athletics and cycling were taken up in the quest to demonstrate masculine physical strength and endurance. Roosevelt’s urgings led to the popularity of hiking, hunting and mountain climbing among Americans. Behind all of these feats of physical exertion lurked the same self-doubts of the dominant white race as elsewhere. The depression of the 1890s and the enervating affects of industrial society accentuated these anxieties. The US was experiencing a shift in immigration patterns at this time which had started to favour especially Southern and Central Europe over immigrants from Britain and Northern Europe⚀. The more affluent, native-born Americans predictably called for a halt to immigration with the purpose of stopping the ‘poorer’ stock of immigrants coming into America (Italians, Jews, Slavs, etc). The pattern of restricting particular ethnic groupings was duplicated concurrently in other western countries (eg, the WAP in Australia).
☼ Nietzsche was another leading philosopher who earlier embraced the theory of eugenics as a panacea
❈ in New Zealand as well, “national efficiency” was high on the agenda … degeneracy anxieties (c.1920 NZ had the world’s 2nd highest mortality rate for mothers, much worse than its (Pākehā) infant mortality rate) prompted a safe maternity campaign in NZ. Eugenic concerns led the state to intervene in maternity services (P Mein Smith, A Concise History of New Zealand)
⚀ immigration from the British Isles, Ireland, Scandinavia and Germany fell dramatically from 1900, replaced by immigration surges from Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia and the Baltics
✤ Known as the science of euthenics (AKA “the science of controllable environment” (Ellen H Richards) – cf. eugenics “the science of controllable heredity”)
 D H Wyndham, ‘Striving for National Fitness: Eugenics in Australia 1910s to 1930s’ (Unpub. PhD, Dept of History, University of Sydney, July 1996), www.kooriweb.org
 The Queenslander (Bris,), 11-Apr-1914, quoted in E Wilson, ‘Eugenic ideology and racial fitness in Queensland, 1900-1950’, (Unpub. PhD, Dept. of History, University of Queensland) www.espace.library.uq.edu.au
 in a memo to the prime minister in 1910 Churchill said: “The multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger to the race”, V Brignell, ‘The eugenic movement Britain wants to forget’, New Statesmen, 9-Dec-2010, www.newsratesmen.com
 Wyndham, op.cit
 as well as that of socialists, feminists and other radicals, S Garton, ‘Eugenics in Australia and New Zealand: laboratories of racial science’, in A Bashford & P Levine [Eds.], The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics
 Wyndham, op.cit
 Garton op.cit.; the physical culture school founder, Lt-Col. H C Bjelke-Petersen, exploited the anxieties around eugenics at the time to promote the B-J brothers’ physical fitness schools, E J Wilson, ‘Eugenic ideology and racial fitness in Queensland, 1900-1950’, (Unpub. PhD, Department of History, University of Queensland, May 2003), www.espace.library.uq.edu.au
 C Daley, Leisure and Pleasure: Reshaping and Revealing the New Zealand Body, 1900-1960
 the emerging physical culture movement dovetailed neatly into eugenics thinking at the time. Latching on to the prevailing perception that the “racial stock” of white settler societies such as Australia and New Zealand had become “soft and weak”, the tangible positive benefits of an active exercise plan (as illustrated by Sandow) presented itself as the obvious counter to this growing ‘feebleness’ on a national level. The popularisation of the Japanese self-defence skills, judo and ju-jutsu, for women in Australasia early in the 20th century also grew out of the ‘race’ anxieties (athlete and entertainer Florence LeMar toured Australasia with a ju-jutsu vaudeville act in the 1910s), C Macdonald, Strong, Beautiful and Modern: National Fitness in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, 1935-1960
 Sandow inspired a generation of home-grown NZ bodybuilders who opened gyms, such as Fred Hornibrook and Dick Jarrett, Daley, op.cit.
 M Tennant, ‘Gunn, Elizabeth Catherine’, TEARA – The Encylopedia of New Zealand, (Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Volume 3 1996), www.teara.govt.nz
 S A Farber, ‘U.S. Scientists’ Role in the Eugenics Movement (1907-39): A Contemporary Biologist’s Perspective’, Zebrafish, 2008: December; 5(4), www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
 J Murrin, P Johnson, J McPherson, A Fahs, G Gerstle, Liberty, Equality, Power: Volume II: Since 1863 (Enhanced Concise Edition)