Since the mid-nineteenth century, school boards, scientists and social reformers have used textbooks to promote a wide range of idiosyncratic ideas, all promising to maintain the social order and control that most unruly of bodies, the pubescent teenager.

Eugenics in High School and College Texts Graphed

June 26, 2014

Eugenics stopped being a topic of credible scientific inquiry in the United States around the time T. H. Morgan’s lab began publishing Drosophila-based genetic data in 1915, or at the latest, when the Carnegie Foundation began to pull funding from the Eugenic Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor in the later 1930s. But its legacy as part of the biology curriculum was much longer-lived than is commonly assumed.

The charts below track the relative priority of the topic of eugenics in the American biology curriculum based on direct examination of 83 high school biology textbooks and 43 college-level biology textbooks published in the United States between 1904 and 1973. (See database).

Tracing the history of the promotion of eugenics in American biology textbooks reveals several surprises.

First, despite the eugenic horror of World War II, the topic of eugenics remained a fixture of a majority of biology textbooks into the 1960s. Second, while the decade between 1925 and 1935 represented the peak of enthusiasm for eugenics in textbooks, this enthusiasm diminished only gradually over the following 30 years. Third, while a few high school textbook authors began to actively counter eugenic claims starting around 1938, college textbook authors continued to present eugenics without disclaimer. Lastly, no college textbook failed to mention eugenics from the mid-1940s on. Forgive the double negative, but what this means is that after World War II, college-level textbooks featured eugenics more routinely than they had in years prior.

Eugenics in High School Graph

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Where’d Hugo Go?

December 14, 2013

[NOTE: This post has been significantly revised – and improved – based on input from Jim Endersby, author of the Isis article referenced herein. The original post, along with Endersby’s comments and my reply, are attached as an addendum.]

Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries gained global fame in the first decades of the twentieth century for being the guy who finally figured out how evolution worked.

Darwin and De Vries

Opposing portraits of Charles Darwin and Hugo de Vries from the 1954 edition of Ella Thea Smith’s popular high school textbook, Exploring Biology.

Of course today we credit Darwin for this discovery, and backdate it to the publication of Origin of Species in 1859. But for many decades, into the 1930s in fact, Darwin’s theory of natural selection was considered insufficient (see Bowler, 1992). In the minds of many, De Vries’ idea completed the story of evolution.


Rather than suggesting that speciation resulted from an accumulation of small variations over long periods of time, like Darwin’s theory implied, De Vries posited that new species could actually pop into existence in a single generation. In fact, according to De Vries, multiple representatives of the same new species could pop simultaneously, creating a pool that would breed true.

Many biologists felt De Vries had solved the most vexing problem in evolution – how variations could avoid being swamped or blended back to average through interbreeding.

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Venus, Mars and Marston Bates

Dec 16, 2012

Most of us think of conservation and ecology as more or less the same thing, with conservation the first step toward the restoration of an ecologically balanced state of nature. But through the first half of the twentieth century, the two words signified quite different things.

In the teens, 20s and 30s, biology textbook authors positioned ecology as a minor sub-discipline of their field, and characterized it unflatteringly as a descriptive, womanly endeavor. As Edward Loranus Rice states in An Introduction to Biology (1935), “it would not be wide of the mark to define ecology as the domestic science, or home economics, of animals and plants” (p. 4).

Conservation on the other hand was progressive, manly.

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Samuel J. Holmes’ Library

August 27, 2012

Samuel J. Holmes was a respected professor of zoology at Berkeley from 1912 until his death in 1964. He was also, and remained throughout his life, an unapologetic eugenicist.

In fairness, life scientists who came of age in the zeros and teens were all steeped in eugenics, and many became fans and promoters. But Holmes, the compiler of A Bibliography of Eugenics (1924), was particularly enthusiastic.

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I Speak to You Through Electrical Language: Traveling Into the Nineteenth Century with the “Nervous Icon”

June 3, 2012

The image on page 401 of George W. Hunter’s 1907 Elements of Biology is strikingly out of place. It is a Greek bronze flattened to a black silhouette. A woodblock engraving in a textbook otherwise illustrated with halftone photographs. A relic of Renaissance anatomy covered by the soot of the Age of Steam. Yet there it stands, owning the page.

The Nervous Icon (as I’ve come to call the image) was a popular feature in biology textbooks into the 1950s. Picked up, rephotographed and copied with apparently little concern for image quality, artistry, copyright or context. It was treated poorly, just plopped in and barely referenced in the later texts in which it appeared.

But something told me there was a story here. I felt as if the Nervous Icon was a courier carrying a secret message from the past.

It turns out that tracing the history of this image – exploring when it was first cut, how it was reproduced, where it appeared, and why it remained popular even as similar classically styled illustrations were retired – reveals surprising connections between the seemingly disparate topics of printing technology, print piracy, electricity, telegraphy, spirituality, abolition, and that most central of nineteenth century anxieties, masturbation. The Nervous Icon’s secret is that, in its hyper-nakedness, it warned of the dangerous interconnectedness of the body, where stimulation, or over-stimulation, of any one part would cause damage to the entire system.

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Database Update: Eugenics in College Textbooks

November 24, 2011

Well, I just spent a fair portion of Thanksgiving morning updating the Textbook History database of Eugenics in College Biology Textbooks. In addition to correcting more than a few embarrassing misspellings and broken links, I’ve added commentary on two later editions of Biology by Claude A. Villee (1967 and 1972), the second edition of General Biology by Gairdner B. Moment (1950), and the first edition of Biology: A Full Spectrum (1973) by Gairdner B. Moment and Helen M. Habermann.

It remains striking how unwilling Harvard professor Villee was to give up on eugenics. Moment too, but Villee far more so. In the 1972 edition of Biology the author comes off as downright cranky about having to abandon the term. But though Villee finally dropped eugenics from the index and text, he didn’t abandon the idea entirely. Where the discussion of eugenics had been in his 1967 text, at the close of the chapter titled “Inheritance in Man,” the author simply substituted two modern sounding but not really so modern sub-sections – “Factors Changing Gene Frequencies: Differential Reproduction” and “Evolution: The Failure to Maintain Genetic Equilibrium” (718). Forget isolation or drift, for Villee, evolution, for better or for worse, was driven by that boogeyman of eugenics, “differential reproduction.” His citing of Earnest. A. Hooton, Carleton. S. Coon (786) and Franz Weidenreich (789) betrayed a continued affection for the concept of “racial development.”

For additional discussion on Villee, see The Eugenic Zombie in a Graveyard of Textbooks, specifically the article’s last section.

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A Degenerate in the Classroom: Alfred E. Neuman and the Textbooks He Hid Behind

October 23, 2011

MAD magazine was a rare treat when I was a young teenager, a little expensive and difficult to acquire on a regular basis, but a standard newsstand pickup ahead of road trips and summer weeks away. At the time, the late 1960s and early 1970s, MAD was hitting its highest circulation numbers. Yet its humor always felt weirdly out of step, recycled, even a bit reactionary. Of course that’s partially why I liked it. It was creepy anthropology, a moist record of the guilty id of my older siblings and younger aunts and uncles, subversive if a little toothless.

The magazine had its culturally relevant bits, like Don Martin’s ononmonpidic explosions and Sergio Aragones’ slapstick marginals, but on balance MAD was weighed down by filler of a sensibility that went out with Eisenhower.

Then there was Alfred E. Neuman.

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The Eugenic Zombie in a Graveyard of Textbooks

August 7, 2011

During the first decades of the twentieth century, WASP elites in the U.S. got themselves into quite a tizzy about sex and race. Metaphysical threats, like the death of “virgin forests,” the “darkening tide” of immigration and the dreaded “white plague” of Tuberculosis, combined with economic threats, like the new permanent income tax, to create a culture open to and fully capable of funding the promotion of public policies and “scientific” solutions that promised to freeze the status quo. Chief among these solutions was the “science” of eugenics.

Eugenics, with some forced sterilization laws here, a few anti-miscegenation laws there, was pitched as a kind of a cure-all for society’s ills, a permanent solution to the problems of alcoholism, pauperism, venereal disease, sexual licentiousness and the general problem of numbers.

March 30, 1913 announcement of the establishment of a Board of Scientific Directors for the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor. ©The New York Times.

March 30, 1913 announcement of the establishment of a Board of Scientific Directors for the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor. ©The New York Times.

Several well-publicized studies of female college graduates indicated that fertility among upper class whites had fallen below replacement levels. Democracy can be a drag when one is in the minority.

In the teens, eugenics proved a smart path to patronage. According to Daniel J. Kevles, author of In the In the Name of Eugenics, “the science of human biological improvement provided an avenue to public standing and usefulness.” Charles Davenport’s success in securing a major donation from Mary Harriman, widow of railroad baron E. H. Harriman, to fund the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor demonstrated to other researchers and academics how they too might cash in.

Given the hot enthusiasm for the topic, particularly in the years leading up to World War I, it is no real surprise that biology textbook authors got in on the action. But the fact that they stayed on board for the next six decades, is, well, kind of scary!

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Eugenics in 20th Century College Biology Textbooks

I’d been trying for a couple of months to kick out an article on a curious college biology textbook, The World of Life by Wolfgang F. Pauli (who should not be confused with the more famous physicist, Wolfgang E. Pauli). Published in 1949, The World of Life had long fascinated me, particularly its final unapologetic climax chapter, “Human Genetics and Eugenics” (click image to view). The whole thing just seemed so remarkably wrong; a tortured post-World War II effort to “save” eugenics, as if it were an adorable baby being thrown out with that nasty Nazi bathwater.

But I worried that The World of Life was an exception, a weird one-off a decade or more out of step, not really worth deep examination. Before I could write confidently, I realized I had to know how Pauli’s text fit into the history of college biology education in the twentieth century.

So it was off to AbeBooks (again!), credit card in hand. Before you could say “security code,” I was anticipating the arrival of nearly a dozen book-filled “bubble-lopes.” Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long to find out I was on to something.

The very first of my new acquisitions, Biology: And Its Relation to Mankind (1949) by A. W. Winchester, told me Pauli’s text was no exception. The subsequent arrival of Biology: The Human Approach (1950 – later titled Biology) by Harvard professor Claude A. Villee, a text which identified feeble-mindedness as “the biggest single eugenic problem” (461), suggested a trend: Contrary to received wisdom, biologists did not drop eugenics like a hot stone after World War II. Instead, as I wrote in a previous article, a few college textbook authors “doubled down and began to defend the ideology with more aggressive rhetoric and moments of near-pornographic spectacle.”

Counter-intuitive. Interesting. Compulsion-triggering.

Now, in addition to 82 American high school biology textbooks, I own or have sourced 38 college-level biology textbooks. Though the college collection is considerably smaller and perhaps not quite as complete and coherent as the high school collection, I am fairly confident it is representative.


The orange trendline traces the relative priority of the topic of eugenics in American college-level biology textbooks published between 1904 and 1964 (based on the table below).* The yellow trendline traces the relative priority of the topic in high school textbooks published during the same era (see related article). Consistently throughout the twentieth century, college texts were as eugenic as their high school counterparts, with a notable increase in the boldness of their presentation of the topic, both in relative and absolute terms, in the years immediately following World War II.

I hope to add a couple context bullet points and write a few longer articles referencing this collection soon (perhaps on topics other than eugenics, which I admit has sort of taken over Textbook History lately). But I thought I’d get this draft database out there, including my somewhat subjective “Eugenics 0-5” rating. I’ve included links to public domain texts, related articles and available biographical information on authors.

See: Database: Eugenics in College Biology Textbooks

Also see: Eugenics in 20th Century High School Biology Textbooks.

* The chart above reflects a eugenics score of “1” for the popular Foundations of Biology by Lorande Loss Woodruff (see page 297), published in 7 editions through 1946 (though only the 1922 and 1937 editions have been directly reviewed). A score of “2” would not substantially alter the shape of the college trendline, but would amplify it through 1946, thereby decreasing the relative drama of the post-war bump.

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The Aggressive Mutation of Post-War Eugenics

June 25, 2011

A weird thing happened in the years right after World War II: new college-level biology textbooks, rather than dropping the subject of eugenics, doubled down and began to defend the ideology with more aggressive rhetoric and moments of near-pornographic spectacle.

Biology: And Its Relation to Mankind by Baylor graduate and Stetson University (later Colorado State College/UNC) professor Albert M. Winchester, was published in 1949 – four years after the discovery of Nazi death camps supposedly marked the end of eugenics.

Yet Winchester’s textbook presented one the harshest defenses of eugenics published in the United States during the twentieth century.

And it was no outlier (WARNING: Disturbing photo below the fold).

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