The International Climate for Eugenics after 1945: Decline? Transformation? Redux?

National politics, Regional History, Social History, Society & Culture

As bad as the atrocities committed by the German National Socialists under the guise of “eugenics science” were, it would surprise some to learn that it did not put a death knoll on the practice and advocacy of eugenics in western countries. After the war governments and some eugenicists tended to be a bit more circumspect in talking about the subject but in countries like Great Britain and the United States, rather than disappearing, eugenic ideas and (especially in the US) programs continued to flourish.

The British Welfare State and National “Social Efficiency”
Comparatively, Britain never remotely matched that the eugenics legislative zeal of the US, after WWII however UK policy-makers’ enthusiasm for and belief in eugenics remained high. In 1946 influential English macroeconomics guru John Maynard Keynes was still proclaiming that eugenics was “the most important and significant branch of sociology”[1].

The British Eugenics Society (BES) adopted a manoeuvrable position in the wake of the widespread discrediting of eugenics after the war. BES directed its efforts towards the “rebrand(ing) of race … by arguing that it remained a valuable concept for study” and dismissing the Nazi experience as an aberration which distorted and abused the concept of eugenics. The restrained, liberal stance taken by BES in the United Kingdom ensured the continued support for the Society of progressive and respected scientists like Julian Huxley and J B S Haldane[2].

imageClare Hanson characterises eugenics as less a science than a social and cultural movement, drawing its power from its “dissemination across a range of discursive fields”[3]. Hanson notes that eugenics played a key role in post-war British reconstruction, its ideas sustained and incorporated into the development of the country after 1945. The national efficacy goals of eugenics were visible in the Attlee Labour government’s endorsement of the ‘meritocratic’ ideal. Postwar education reform in the UK illustrates this: the division of secondary education into three strands – grammar, technical and modern – was a philosophical approach geared to the needs of social efficiency, not social justice. A further connexion with pre-WWII’s eugenics was the seminal roles in public policy in the postwar reconstruction and foundation of the welfare state played by eugenics advocates William Beveridge and Richard Titmuss[4].

America: controlling the reproduction of minorities
Across the Atlantic in the US there seems to have been broad support for sterilisation prior to WWII. This was inferred by two polls taken in 1937 … one by Fortune magazine found that 66% supported the existing sterilisation laws, the second, a Gallup poll found 84% in favour of sterilising the chronically mentally ill[5]. Eugenics programs continued to have a vitality after the war. Moreover in a number of states of the US there was a continuance (albeit a reduction in numbers) of forced sterilisations (over 64,000 American people were sterilised under eugenics legislation between 1907 and 1963[6]. The word ‘eugenics’ was removed or downplayed but eugenics ideas still circulated in public discourse (as in Britain) – in the 1950s it manifested in the emphasis placed on family values and child rearing (ie, concerns about the quality of the population). US eugenicists who had flourished in the 1930s reinvented themselves postwar as “genetic scientists” and “marriage counsellors”, some using the term “genetic counselling” to explain what they did[7].

Nth Carolina's sterilisation record
Nth Carolina’s sterilisation record
One of the leading American eugenics propagandists was Dr Clarence Gamble (heir to the Procter and Gamble “Ivory Soap’ fortune). Gamble funded ‘Birthright’, a birth control organisation, and embarked on a sterilisation drive through the South and Midwest in the 1940s, having most success in North Carolina where he established a ‘showcase’ sterilisation program. Gamble had an intense personal involvement (and financial investment) in the compulsory sterilisation cause, spearheading a saturation campaign of national television ads. Significantly, eugenics activities in postwar America, in a shift from prewar, targeted minorities for remedial action (ie, sterilisations). Enforced sterilisation programs in California were directed primarily at Asians and Mexicans whilst the southern states’ preoccupation was with controlling the African-American population[8].

The end of eugenics? … or a new, ‘better’ form of eugenics by a different name?
As indicated above, revelations of the horrors of Nazi eugenics during the Third Reich and the news of the worse excesses of sterilisation in the US and elsewhere did not put an end to belief in the supposed efficacy of eugenics or to the practice itself. The term was in the main quietly sidelined but the thing itself is like Ulysses’ “bag of winds” or Pandora’s Box – once opened, it is virtually impossible to stop. The desirability of breeding better humans has continued to exercise the minds of the scientifically curious. Eugenics may have passed out of the lexicon (in any positive sense at least)❈ but interest in genetic arguments and ideas remain✥. Many in the scientific community agree with evolutionary theorist R A Fisher that “technically advanced civilisation is unsustainable without eugenics” (The genetical theory of natural selection. A complete variorum edition, 1930)[9].

Public opinion in Britain and America after the war, influenced by a growing recognition of civil and human rights of citizens, became increasingly disaffected with the illiberal idea of coerced sterilisation. Consequently the practice largely came to a halt in the US around the early to mid 1960s[10]. However isolated calls for ad hoc voluntary sterilisation continue to be voiced (often under the guise of “social protection”) regarding people labelled as “low IQ”, “mentally defective” or with large welfare-dependent families[11].

PostScript: A comparative look at the exceptionalism of Scandinavian eugenics
The pattern of legislation on eugenics in the Nordic countries was quite different to the experience of politicians in other western countries. At the height of the eugenics phenomena in the twenties and thirties, sterilisation and marriage bills had an easy passage into law in Scandinavia, with surprisingly little opposition. In the case of Sweden especially, the 1934 Act was not repealed until 1975, by which time there had been upward of 63,000 sterilisations performed on citizens deemed ‘unfit’ by the state to procreate (the great majority on women)回. Scandinavian historians have tended to attribute this to a combination of factors many of which were peculiar to the pheripheral region of North-eastern Europe. These include the rapid industrialisation and modernisation of towns from the late 19th century … the emerging secular and scientific nature of life in Scandinavia contributed to this easy acceptance. Other factors in the explanation for why there was general consensus with the eugenic objectives was the commonality of the Lutheran faith and culture and the relatively egalitarian character of the Scandinavian social structure[12].

Sweden’s eugenic practices stretched from the mid 1930s to the 1970s, with the targeted groups of people coming from the poor, of mixed racial quality or of non-Nordic stock. Often the victims were labelled as educationally ‘inferior’, their sin being that they had learning difficulties such as poor eyesight preventing them from reading the class blackboard[13].

Nils Roll-Hansen has pointed out that Scandinavian society was quick to reject the excesses and unscientific attitudes of eugenics (eg, in Nazi Germany), whilst not rejecting the basic ideas and beliefs of eugenics. The political structure inherent in the Nordic countries was considered conducive to the success achieved by proponents of eugenics. The dominant labour parties (especially the Swedish Social Democratic Party) elicited effectively co-operation from the labour organisations in implementing social policy (as part of the country’s “social contract”). Roll-Hansen has contended that the region’s liberal-democratic tradition with its stress on the rights of the individual ensured that the eugenic practices that were put in place were moderate only[14]. The unearthing of Roll-Hansen and Broberg’s ‘bombshell’ had a big effect on Scandinavians, especially the Swedes … in 1999 Sweden agreed to compensate victims of forced sterilisations, offering each individual affected up to 175,000 kronors[15].

❈ to be replaced with terms like “human genetic science” or “human genetic engineering”
✥ eradicating disease, lengthening the human lifespan, the human genome project, genetic enhancement, environmental and food applications, etc.
回 Sweden was the only one of the Nordic states with a national eugenics society

[1] V Brignall, ‘The eugenics movement Britain wants to forget’, New Statesman, 9-Dec-2010,
[2] G Schaffer, Racial Science and British Society, 1930-1962. With the name ‘eugenics’ becoming a taboo word post-WWII the BES eventually changed its name to the Galton Institute … likewise in the US, the American Eugenics Society finally changed its name in 1973, becoming the more neutral-sounding Society for the Study of Social Biology
[3] C Hanson, Eugenics, Literature and Culture in Post-war Britain; 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. Eugenics has also been described as a straight out political movement, a form of ruling class consolidation, M Quigley, ‘The Roots of the I.Q. Debate. Eugenics and Social Control’, PRA (Professional Research Associates),
[4] ibid.
[5] Also, the New York Times in 1933 opined that the US policy on sterilisations was “harmless and very humane”, P Levine, Eugenics: a Very Short Introduction
[6] states leading the way were California, Virginia and North Carolina, ‘Eugenics in the United States’, op.cit.
[7] L Ko, ‘Unwanted Sterilizations and Eugenics programs in the United States’, PBS, 29-Jan-2016; P Lombardo, ‘Eugenic Sterilization Laws’, in the Eugenics Archive,; Encyclopedia of American Social Movements, Ed. by I Ness (D Hoff, ‘Survival of Euugenics’). Genetic counselling had the same euphemistic usage in Britain after the war with the first genetic counselling clinic in the UK opening in 1946
[8] K Begos, ‘The American eugenics movement after World War II’ (3 parts), Indy Week, Paul Ehrlich’s highly influential Population Bomb (1968) in advocating world population control derives its premise from eugenics thought and rhetoric
[9] F K Salter, ‘Eugenics Ready or Not’, Quadrant, 11-May-2015,
[10] although it has been revealed that as recently as the mid 1970s over 3,000 native American women were involuntarily sterilised by the IHO (the US Indian Health Service), G W Rutecki,’Forced Sterilization of Native Americans: Late Twentieth Century Physician Cooperation with National Eugenic Policies’, Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, 8-Oct-2010,
[11] ‘Compulsory Sterilization’, Wikipedia,
[12] N Rolls-Hansen, ‘Conclusion: Scandinavian Eugenics in the International Context’, in G Broberg & N Rolls-Hansen [Eds], Eugenics and the Welfare State: Sterilization Policies in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland
[13] ‘Sweden admits to racial purification’, The Independent,, 25-Aug-1997,
[14] Rolls-Hansen, op.cit.
[15] ‘Sweden to reflect on eugenics past’, The Local (Sweden), 21-Dec-2005,