|Mentally handicapped children at Schönbrunn Sanatorium near Dachau. German Federal Archives via Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 3.0 DE.|
In the first decades of the twentieth century, the idea of eugenics took root in Northern Europe, Scandinavia, Great Britain, and the US. Anthropologists, geneticists, physicians, and politicians informed the public about eugenics and influenced policy and law. Eugenics, from the Greek eu-, good, and genos, birth, is an attempt to “improve” a nation, a people, or “race” by permitting, or mandating, selective reproduction. It rests upon two pillars aimed at improving society. Individuals with desirable traits or abilities are encouraged to have children, and may even be rewarded for each child they produce. Individuals with undesirable traits, or conditions thought to be hereditary—mental illness, “feeble-mindedness,” epilepsy, even deafness or blindness—are discouraged from producing offspring. This can be achieved by hospitalizing them (that is, confining them), or by forced sterilization. In Nazi Germany, handicapped children were hospitalized and secretly killed. Parents were informed that their child had died from pneumonia or appendicitis.
The ideas of eugenics were often mixed with notions of “race biology,” or “racial science,” a hodge-podge of racism, class bias, and pseudoscience. Eugenics attracted the favorable attention of George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Margaret Sanger, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and H.G. Wells. Wells’ novel The Time Machine (1895) has been interpreted as a warning against letting “primitive” or “inferior” races flourish.1
“Feeble-mindedness” (mental retardation) greatly concerned eugenicists. Persons with this heterogenous condition were divided into “idiots,” having a mental age (MA) of two years; “imbeciles,” MA three to seven years, ineducable and unemployable; and “morons,” MA of seven to twelve years. Morons made up eighty-five percent of the feeble-minded group, and they were the most worrisome, as they could sometimes pass as “normals” and contribute their inferior heritage to the gene pool.2
Harry Haiselden, M.D. (1870–1919), earned his medical degree in 1893 from the University of Illinois College of Medicine. He then had several years of surgical training. He had also worked at the Illinois State Institution for the Feebleminded, where he saw severely mentally handicapped patients living desolate, hopeless lives. He was also the adoptive father of two abandoned children, and was a vocal proponent of eugenic approaches to handicapped persons. In 1915, he was surgeon-in-chief at the German-American Hospital of Chicago,3 where he refused to operate on a newborn with multiple congenital anomalies. The baby had paralysis of one side of his body, blindness, a missing ear, scoliosis, gastroschisis (a defect in the abdominal wall that lets the intestines protrude), rectal abnormalities, and was missing part of the occipital bone of the skull.4,5,6 Haiselden told the parents that if the infant lived “it would be an imbecile and that its parents and humanity would be better served by its death than by prolonging its life.”7 He convinced the parents, and the infant died at three days of age.
Allowing—or even “helping”—handicapped newborns to die was sometimes done by some physicians (or midwives), but they kept it secret. Haiselden, however, “flaunted his act to the media”8 in order to create further public awareness of his eugenic approach. He told the press that he had “allowed at least six defective infants to die.”9
From the public, he was both “revered and reviled.”10 He received support from Clarence Darrow and Helen Keller, an advocate for persons with certain disabilities, but who thought that prolonging the lives of those with severe cognitive disabilities was not acceptable.11,12 Haiselden was acquitted in a jury trial and also appeared before a coroner’s jury “composed of six leading physicians and surgeons.” The foreman of the jury was Dr. Ludwig Hektoen, professor of pathology at Rush Medical College of the University of Chicago. This jury found Haiselden “morally and ethically within his rights in refusing to perform surgery” that would have saved the infant’s life. Yet they also stated that Haiselden should have consulted another surgeon in this “doubtful case.” The jury concluded that the autopsy showed no evidence that the baby would have become “mentally defective,” either.13
In 1917, Haiselden produced, and starred in, a eugenics propaganda film, The Black Stork. Black storks were said to kill their less vigorous hatchlings in order to have more food for the “better” ones. The film starts with a discussion of how humans breed livestock selectively, but unfortunately do not pay attention to human breeding. The viewer is told that the inheritance of inferior qualities is to blame for crime, misery, and poverty. The care of “defectives” costs millions, and that diverts money that could otherwise be spent on normal children. Ill-advised marriages, where a partner conceals a history of a genetic flaw, must be outlawed. This would be the “salvation of our race.” We are shown a boy with trisomy 21 and a sixteen-year-old girl with mental retardation.
The silent film14 then tells the story of “Dr. Dickey,” a melodramatic version of Haiselden’s 1915 refusal-to-operate on a newborn boy. He tells the baby’s mother that “God does not want this child to live. Medical science should save children from deformity, but not prolong useless, subnormal lives.” The medical establishment is outraged by Dr. Dickey’s conduct and calls him “unethical.”
The baby’s mother, while considering the doctor’s words, has a sort of “vision,” or dream, about her newborn’s future. As a school-aged child he will be deformed and asocial. As an adult he will be progressively more deformed, unhappy, shunned, or laughed at. He will become a derelict and try to kill the doctor who saved his life, saying that he should not have been saved. He goes to prison and is eventually released. In the final reel he meets a feeble-minded woman, and they produce five deformed children.
The newborn’s mother agrees to let the infant die, who ends up in the arms of Jesus. The film was criticized both as cinema (“amateurishly acted…the photography is bad.”), and for its content (“A sickening excuse to drag before the camera the deteriorated humanity…[from] the defective hospitals”).15
The film was shown in US theaters until 1942,16 when eugenics and its consequences finally became understood in the minds of Americans as resembling Nazi “race biology.”
- Ola Larsmo. Lektion 11: En bok om rasbiologi. Stockholm: Kaunitz-Olsson, 2022.
- Abigail Bragg. “The eugenic origins of Indiana’s Muscatatuck Colony: 1920-2005.” Thesis. University of Indiana, 2020.
- “Harry J. Haiselden.” Wikipedia.
- John DeSesso. “The arrogance of teratology: A brief chronology of attitudes throughout history.” Birth Defects Research 111(3), 2009.
- Edwin Black. War Against the Weak. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004.
- Emma Sconyers. “I carry you in my heart: Facing an incurable prenatal diagnosis.” Thesis. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2014.
- Special to the New York Times. “Let baby born to idiocy, die,” New York Times, July 25, 1917.
- Luke Camery. “The Black Stork: Eugenics and infanticide in twentieth century America.” The Trinity School, 2012. From the author’s LinkedIn.
- Matthew McLaughlin and Christian Verder. “COVID-19 and the need for disability conscious medical education, training, and practice.” Journal of Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine, 13(3), 2020.
- Sconyers, “I carry you.”
- John Gerdtz. “Disability and euthanasia: The case of Hellen Keller and the Bollinger Baby.” Life and Learning, XVI, University Faculty for Life. https://uffl.org/vol16/gerdtz06.pdf.
- Camery, “The Black Stork.”
- “The jury clears, yet condemns Dr. Haiselden,” Chicago Daily Tribune, November 20, 1915. Accessed via Disability History Museum. https://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/lib/detail.html?id=1236&page=all.
- Harry Haiselden. The Black Stork. Film, 1917.
- Natalie Ovyessi. “Forgotten stories of the eugenic age #4, part 2: The Black Stork rises: Dr. Haiselden’s celebrity and public controversy.” Biopolitical Times, October 14, 2015. Accessed via https://www.geneticsandsociety.org/biopolitical-times/forgotten-stories-eugenic-age-4-part-2-black-stork-rises-dr-haiseldens-celebrity.
- “The Black Stork.” Wikipedia.
HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.