Dean’s Lecture Series: On 19th Century Eugenics
Most cultures across the globe and across history have a distinct hierarchy, with the poor and indigent at the bottom, and a layer of social and economic elites at the top. And at some point in the history of most nations, there comes a push by the elite to eliminate the contamination to the local gene pool, by various methods of ethnic or racial cleansing. Hayley Froysland, professor of history, focused on the movement from morality based cleansing to medical based eugenics in her Dean’s Lecture presentation, “Racial Regeneration and the Quest to Progress: Public Health, Physicians, and Eugenics in Colombia, 1880-1936.”
“In the late 19th century there was great concern among the ‘white’ population of Bogota about the disintegration of morality and the degeneration of society,” said Froysland. “They thought that moral ills caused physical disease.” However, many intellectual changes were occurring in Europe around the same time, including the first stirrings of germ theory. As medicine began to advance, prevailing theory adapted to acknowledge cleanliness and overall health as contributing factors to society’s problems.
It is important to note that Froysland’s use of the term ‘white’ did not necessarily mean Anglo-Saxon or Aryan. In fact, the elite of Bogota were nearly all mixed race themselves, something which leading scientists and doctors of the day thought contributed to the degeneration of society. Soft eugenic measures were advocated to restore a sense of moral and physical superiority to the elite, including trying to attract higher class European people as ‘breeding stock.’
However, the late 19th century was the time of social movements such as social Darwinism, and scientific racism. These movements advocated harder eugenics, including the forced sterilization of those found to be mentally or physically inferior and active culling of races considered inferior.
Froysland’s work concentrates on how the birth of the science of hygiene and the creation of the National Academy of Medicine in Colombia brought about a change in focus. Once people knew that germs brought about disease, and that poverty and ignorance birthed opportunities for disease to fester, then many doctors pushed for social and medical reform reversing the tide of prevailing opinion. No longer did low morality cause society’s disintegration, now they knew that society’s ills could be cured if the population became healthier.
According to Froysland, two events precipitated this change, the influenza pandemic of 1918 and an article by Miguel Jimenez Lopez written in 1920.
The 1918 pandemic killed off millions of people worldwide, and newspaper photos of the time show bodies stacked in Bogota’s streets like cordwood. Because of the non-secular nature of Bogota’s population, the poor, inferior people’s lack of ability to care for themselves led to an integration of the elite into poorer neighborhoods as pious charity. This led to a push for social reforms in the government, including a reevaluation of the role of the Central Board of Hygiene.
On the other hand, Lopez’ article stated that he had “proved” the fact of collective degeneration. Reaction to his article, which cited intellectual degeneration in university students, was so strong that a panel of experts in the field of medicine was convened to discuss if there was a problem and what could be done about the problem.
While all the experts agreed there was a problem, there was extreme disagreement on what should be done. However, most of the experts did agree that a larger government focus on charities, especially charities which helped mothers and children, and an infusion of ‘white blood’ from European immigrants would fix the cracks beginning to appear in Colombian society.