The idea of eugenics, the study and practice of improving mankind through selective reproduction, was widespread in the scientific community decades before the Nazis took power.
Many credit 19th-century British anthropologist Francis Galton as the father of eugenics, which was popular before much was known about hereditary traits.
“He had a very positive vision focusing on people considered more desirable to have more babies,” said Susan Bachrach, curator of special exhibitions at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “and more desirable meant people like him, more educated types.”
The early history of eugenics and its role during the Nazi reign and Holocaust is chronicled in “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race,” which is exhibited at the Health Sciences and Human Services Library at the University of Maryland, Baltimore through April 30.
Not only did eugenics inspire racist marriage laws and permit sterilization in the U.S., but some scholars say it laid the groundwork for the Nazis to carry out genocide of the Jewish people.
“They were concerned about the health of the German nation, and the way they defined nation was a very ethnically exclusive idea,” said Bachrach, curator of the exhibit.
“I think few people walk through here and leave with the same sense of mind they came in with,” said Aphrodite Bodycomb, associate director for administration and operations at the library.
The exhibit captures the sobering truths about the spread of eugenics, which got support from the German government and medical community in the 1920s, as well as the doctors and nurses who killed disabled adults, children and, later, Jewish people under what was once a widespread scientific idea.
“We show [the doctors] as respectable, sometimes even prominent, figures in their profession to show people, to try to dispel the myth that Nazi doctors were fringe quacks, these ideas that distance us conveniently from this history because we don’t want to think these were normal people engaging in their work,” said Bachrach.
In the U.S., eugenics spread, especially among Americans paranoid about immigrants adding to their gene pools. In 1924, Virginia enacted a law prohibiting Caucasians from marrying those of “other blood.” A book titled “Mongrel Virginians” was printed in 1926 by the Williams & Wilkens Company, based in Baltimore. By 1933, 26 states had laws permitting sterilization. About 16,000 Americans were sterilized between 1909 and 1933, half of them in California.
“We printed this stuff,” said Bodycomb. “We were talking about this stuff in the U.S.”
In 1927, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics opened in Berlin, raising German health officials’ confidence in eugenics.
“Many physicians and scientists who embraced eugenics legitimized and helped implement Nazi policies,” an exhibit display said. “Many also collaborated in purging Jews and political ‘unreliables’ from universities, research institutes, hospitals and public health care.”
The Nazis sponsored eugenic research, public education campaigns — some of which included information about the dangers of alcohol and nicotine — and implemented sterilization of adults and children with disabilities. Around 400,000 Germans were sterilized between 1934 and 1945. Propaganda included items such as the “Ten Commandments of Choosing A Mate” and charts defining Jews and “hybrids,” people with Jewish blood.
Under Nazi rule, Germans began a program they called “euthanasia.” Between 1939 and 1945, 5,000 Germans boys and girls born with physical and mental disabilities were killed through starvation, medical overdoses and other means. Some doctors, many of whom were never brought to justice, saw this as a research opportunity.
“[One doctor] commented on what a wonderful opportunity this was to get a hold of hundreds of brains of children with different kinds of conditions you would never have access to,” Bachrach said. “So, it was an opportunity for his career and science.”
An estimated 200,000 adults were killed in similar ways. Between 1940 and 1941, 70,000 institutionalized German adults, most of whom were not Jewish, were killed in gas chambers disguised as showers in Germany and Austria. The idea of using chambers to gas people and crematories to dispose of corpses would extend to concentration camps, with many medical staffers from “euthanasia” facilities manning the installations of gas chambers.
The exhibit features films of women who were sterilized recounting their experiences, photos of disabled children who were killed in the name of eugenics, photos that were used to point out facial features and information on the doctors who took part in eugenics.
Bodycomb said the exhibit serves as a great education piece for students at the university, who are from all over the world and have varying degrees of knowledge about this piece of history.
“There’s no built-in moral compass in these fields, so we need people thinking about ethical issues related to use of medicine in science,” said Bachrach.
The message resonated with visitors. Some wrote that they cried over the lives lost, while others wrote that it was difficult but important to see.
“We cannot forget,” one post wrote. “We must educate and stop these practices.”