July 4, 2009

In its obituary, the Washington Post described Bentley Glass (1906-2005) as a “peripatetic figure in the 1950s and 1960s,” a man who seemed to be everywhere and advising everyone. In other obituaries Glass was described as “provocative” and “outspoken.” Editors of course made note of Glass’ more controversial comments, such as his 1971 statement that, “No parents will in that future time have the right to burden society with a malformed or mentally incompetent child,” a remark that the New York Times wrote, “is still regularly deplored by opponents of abortion” (Martin, 2005). Other notices, such as the one that appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, labeled Glass more forgivingly as a “rabble-rouser,” and noted, “Of all his pronouncements, none permeated the cultural lexicon more than his 1962 prediction that cockroaches would be the sole survivors of nuclear war” (Bernstein, 2005, p. B6; Erk, 2005, pp. 164-173; Martin, 2005; Anonymous 2005, 14).

But Audra Wolfe notes that the “approximately 90 linear feet” of archive materials stored at the American Philosophical Society reveal “surprisingly little about his personality or political views” (Wolfe 2003).

Perhaps. But maybe all we need to begin to understand Glass is a more productive frame of reference.

Bentley Glass was born in China to Baptist missionaries in 1906. He left China at the age of 17, earned his bachelor’s degree at Baylor University and his doctorate at the University of Texas. Glass studied under Hermann J. Muller in the 1930s and traveled with Muller to Berlin where he witnessed the first Nazi book burning. He served on the faculty of Johns Hopkins from 1948 to 1965, and then on the faculty of the State University of New York at Stony Brook through 1976. Glass was editor of The Quarterly Review of Biology, a journal founded by Raymond Pearl, from 1944 to 1986. He served as president of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) from 1954 to 1956, and was chairman of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study from 1959 to 1965. He also held many other highly visible administrative positions. Glass’s first book, Genes and Man, was published in 1943. He also published several collections of essays, several academic articles on evolution, including two ground-breaking post-World War II studies based on blood group analysis, one on gene flow between black and white populations in North America and another on genetic drift among the Old German Baptist Brethren, the “Dunkers.” After his retirement, Glass devoted several long articles to the history of genetics.

Glass credited his Baptist missionary parents as the source of his strong liberal social values, and cited his experience in Germany in the early 1930s as a motivation for his life-long political activism. Audra Wolfe notes that during his career, “Glass became involved in a number of public controversies, including but not limited to race relations, Lysenkoism, academic freedom, and nuclear fallout” (Wolfe 2003). Allergic to the loyalty oaths common in the McCarthy era, Glass refused, “famously” to use Wolfe’s word, an appointment to the Maryland Radiation Control Advisory Board, though he did serve on the federal Atomic Energy Commission. Glass also served as the president of the Maryland Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1955 to 1965, wrote regular articles on current science topics for the Baltimore Evening Sun, and as a member of the Baltimore Board of School Commissioners, helped Baltimore become the first major U.S. city to comply with the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision.

Subsequent to Wolfe’s article, Glass’ colleague and close friend of 56 years, Frank C. Erk, published an 11-page biographical sketch in the Quarterly Review of Biology based in part on a videotape interview conducted by Erk’s daughter, who was also Glass’ goddaughter, a few years before Glass’ death (Erk 2005, 172). However, Glass remains enigmatic. Wolfe writes, “Glass held several intriguing and seemingly contradictory beliefs, and his papers unfortunately reveal little about the logic behind them.” Wolfe cannot understand, for example, “how this lifelong Sunday School teacher decided that evolution should form the central pillar of a high school biology education!” (Wolfe 2003). However, a survey of Glass’ published books, papers, and articles suggests that Glass held two related core beliefs: One, that science was the “greatest liberating, liberalizing force in human thought” (Glass 1960, 61), and two, that to maintain cultural progress into the future humans would have to consciously set the conditions whereby which natural selection would continue to “evolve” the human species, leading to a progressive increase in its average intelligence level and the improvement of its emotional character.

Though Bentley Glass was always a fierce critic of mainline eugenics, he embraced reform eugenics, and believed firmly that improvement in social and economic conditions would lead to improvement in the genetic capacity of the whole of the species.

In a 1941 review, Glass praised Frederick Osborn’s Preface to Eugenics, calling the new eugenics “less exciting than the one older advocates envisioned, but far more soundly based on present scientific knowledge of the interaction of heredity and environmental factors.” (Glass 1941, 570) Molly Ladd-Taylor writes, “Osborn proclaimed in 1940; eugenic mating should not be forced. Rather, it should be a ‘natural and largely unconscious process’ bolstered by education, counseling, and pro-family social policies” (Ladd-Taylor 2001, 302). Osborn’s book, according to Elazar Barkan, reflected a generational break between older eugenicists who clung to typological thinking and racist ideologies and younger eugenicists who had adopted a more populational perspective and who recognized “racism as abhorrent” (Barkan 1992, 275). But, Barkan adds, “While … the racial language had become more moderate, [reform] eugenicists were reluctant to give up their social prejudice,” including, “a qualified belief in the higher biological capabilities of the rich” (275-76). Glass’ views closely paralleled those of Osborn as described by Ladd-Taylor and Barkan. Glass, like most of his contemporaries, accepted that “the reproductive rate varies inversely with income.” But he was also aware that “the only extensive study on the subject … revealed no perceptible decline in those genes contributing to high intelligence. ” Nonetheless, writing in 1959, Glass stated, “there is little doubt that there is some positive correlation between intelligence and economic and cultural level” (Glass 1960, 45-46). Glass held that humans could, in fact must, consciously set the social conditions necessary to allow natural selection to continue improving the species (Glass 1971, 27). Embracing Julian Huxley’s view of Homo sapiens as a dominant species, “the most progressive line, because it is most adaptable without being overspecialized in any limiting way” (Glass 1951, 368), Glass saw evolution as a progressive creation despite his putative embrace of the modern synthesis and his own work on the topic of genetic drift.

According to Wolfe, the logic behind Glass’ seemingly “contradictory beliefs” remains unrevealed in his archive. But that is not entirely true. Though Glass was able to largely abandon race-biased and class-biased assumptions, he was never able to move beyond a biologized view of culture. His belief in the potential for evolutionary progress combined with his deep faith in science a liberating force drove him to attempt to bring into being a form of passive eugenics he was sure was necessary to keep his species evolving in the right direction.


Anonymous, 1 November 2005. “Passings: H. Bentley Glass, 98.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 61: 14.

Barkan, Elazar. 1992. The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States Between the World Wars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bernstein, Adam. 21 January 2005. “Outspoken Geneticist H. Bentley Glass Dies.” The Washington Post.

Erk, Frank C. 2005. “Remembering Bentley Glass (1906 – 2005).” The Quarterly Review of Biology 80: 165-176.

Glass, Bentley. 1971. “Science: Endless Horizons or Golden Age?” Science 171: 23-29.

–. 1960. Science and Liberal Education. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

–. 1951. “A Biologic View of Human History.” The Scientific Monthly 73: 363-368.

–. 1941. “Books on Science for the Laymen: Preface to Eugenics.” The Scientific Monthly 40: 570-71.

Ladd-Taylor, Molly. 2001. “Eugenics, Sterilization and Modern Marriage in the USA:
The Strange Career of Paul Popenoe.” Gender & History 13: 298-327.

Martin, Douglas. 20 January 2005. “H. Bentley Glass, Provocative Science Theorist, Dies at 98.” New York Times.

Wolfe, Audra. February 2003. “Bentley Glass, Century’s Son.” Mendel Newsletter n.s. 12. The American Philosophical Society Library.


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