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Each week at In The Past Lane, the American history podcast, host and Historian-at-Large, Edward T. O’Donnell, brings you news, stories, interviews, and special features on all things U.S. history. His aim is to be both engaging and thought-provoking, inspired by the notion that history explains the world we live in and provides insights into how to achieve a more prosperous, peaceful, and just future. So come along with us as we journey In The Past Lane.  

Oct 17, 2018

This week at In The Past Lane, the American history podcast, I speak with documentary filmmaker, Michelle Ferrari, writer and producer of “The Eugenics Crusade,” which airs on PBS’s American Experience series on October 16, 2018.

These days, eugenics is a discredited pseudoscience, one associated with deeply racist ideas and social policies, and the genocidal, master race ideology of Nazi Germany. But back in the early 20th century, eugenics was viewed by many Americans as a respectable, legitimate branch a biological science – one that had great potential for human betterment.

In its most basic definition, eugenics was a program that aimed to improve the overall physical and mental health of society by controlling human reproduction. In a word, its proponents sought to limit or stop altogether people they deemed “unfit” from having children. Part of what made eugenics so alluring was its aura of science and rationality. No one at the time knew that eugenics would one day become a key plank in the diabolical creed of Nazism. In the early 20th century, the Progressive Era, Americans placed great faith and science, data, and experts to solve social problems. So when proponents of eugenics claimed it could help eliminate poverty, disease, alcoholism, mental illness, imbecility, and feeblemindedness, they garnered legions of followers.

These included some very famous and influential people, including Andrew Carnegie and Margaret Sanger. Sanger, of course, was the reformer who fought for women’s rights and the legalization of birth control. But because she was a reformer, she was drawn to eugenics. Now, it’s important to point out that if you Google “Margaret Sanger and eugenics,” your search will turn up a lot of fake quotes attributed to her, or quotes by other people misattributed to her, most of them propagate by modern day opponents of abortion. They see Margaret Sanger as the patron saint of abortion.

But those false claims cannot hide the fact that the historical record include statements by Margaret Sanger such as these: In a 1921 article, Sanger wrote that, “the most urgent problem of today is how to limit and discourage the over fertility of the mentally and physically defective.” In a later publication, she wrote: “Eugenics aims to arouse the enthusiasm or the interest of the people in the welfare of the world fifteen or twenty generations in the future. On its negative side it shows us that we are paying for and even submitting to the dictates of an ever increasing, unceasingly spawning class of human beings who never should have been born at all –– that the wealth of individuals and of states is being diverted from the development and the progress of human expression and civilization.”

As you’ll hear Michelle Ferrari say in our upcoming conversation, the story of the eugenics crusade is a cautionary tale if there ever was one.

In the course of our discussion, Michelle Ferrari explains:

The British origins of eugenics and how the ideas caught on in the United States.

How the late 19th century rediscovery of research into heredity by an Augustinian friar named Gregor Mendel inspired eugenicists.

How eugenics was seized upon by nativists who ultimately succeeded in achieving a sharp reduction in immigration in the 1920s.

How proponents of eugenics popularized its ideas through publications, conferences, college courses, and “fitter families“ contests at county fairs.

How the popularity of eugenics led 32 states to adopt policies that resulted the sterilizing of tens of thousands of Americans for being poor, sick, mentally ill, cognitively impaired, sexually deviant, or imprisoned.

And how the work of American eugenicists caught the attention of the architects of the Nazi regime in the 1930s. 

Recommended reading

Michelle Ferrari, “The Eugenics Crusade: What’s Wrong with Perfect?” PBS American Experience DVD. 

Alison Bashford  and Philippa Levine eds., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics

Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race

Adam Cohen, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

Thomas C. Leonard, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era

Philippa Levine, Eugenics: A Very Short Introduction 

More info about Michelle Ferrari - website 

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Music for This Episode

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

Ketsa, “Follow the Course” (Free Music Archive)

Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

Production Credits

Executive Producer: Lulu Spencer

Technical Advisors: Holly Hunt and Jesse Anderson

Podcasting Consultant: Dave Jackson of the School of Podcasting

Podcast Editing: Wildstyle Media

Photographer: John Buckingham

Graphic Designer: Maggie Cellucci

Website by: ERI Design

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Risk Assessment: Little Big Horn Associates

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© In The Past Lane, 2018

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