Eugenics, Race, & Immigration Restriction

June 17, 2015

This resource consists of primary documents about the international eugenics movements in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Its goal is to show how eugenics influenced immigration laws and how eugenics theories and policies circulated across national boundaries as tools of the state in controlling population and immigration.

This lesson addresses state teaching standards:
I. US HISTORY J. Reshaping the Nation and the Emergence of Modern America, 1877-1916: Students will demonstrate knowledge of the imposition of racial segregation, African American disfranchisement, and growth of racial violence in the post-reconstruction South, the rise of "scientific racism," and the debates among African-Americans about how best to work for racial equality. 


In 1883, English scientist Francis Galton first introduced the term "eugenics" in his study of the biological inheritance of leadership qualities of Britain's ruling class. Galton later defined eugenics as "the study of the agencies under social control that improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally." Drawing from the new science of genetics, eugenicists understood various human and social problems as rooted in the defective germ-plasm of individuals or certain racial/ethnic groups. Claiming to base their theories on scientific evidence and methods, eugenics supporters rationalized "scientific racism" in the late-19th and early-20th centuries and helped shape state policies of sterilization, miscegenation prohibition, and immigration restriction. For example, in the United States, eugenicists were influential in passing the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 to halt the influx of Southeast European immigrants, who eugenicists viewed as immigrants "of the lower grades of intelligence" and immigrants "who are making excessive contribution to our feeble-minded, insane, criminal and other socially inadequate classes."

Eugenicists exchanged their findings in international professional meetings, including three major International Eugenics Congresses. Eugenic models and policies were also closely observed and followed among nations. United States sterilization legislation (first enacted in Indiana in 1907 and then upheld in 1926 by the United States Supreme Court) served as the model for similar laws in Alberta, Canada (1928), Sweden and Norway (1934), and Germany (1934). Harry Laughlin, the superintendent of a major United States eugenics organization (the Eugenics Records Office in New York City, later ERO) and a prominent advocate of immigration restriction, was even awarded an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg in Germany in recognition of his work on "the science of racial cleansing."


The following sources show how eugenics influenced immigration laws and how eugenics theories and policies circulated across national boundaries as national tools for controlling population and immigration.

  1. Proposal for immigration control from C.B. Davenport, leader of the ERO.
    CB Davenport Immigration Proposal
    Citation: Committee on Immigration of the Eugenics Research Association. "Minutes of Meeting." February 25, 1920. Eugenics Archive.
    Typed Minutes of 1920 Meeting
  2. Letter from another influential eugenicist in California that commented on German and French eugenics policies and reflected on the United States alternatives.
    Citation: Goethe, C.M. "Letter about French and German Eugenics Laws." January 12, 1935. Eugenics Archive. 
    Typed CM Goethe Letter
  3. New York Times report on German sterilization laws and Germany's acclaim of the United States model.
    New York Times. "Sterilization Law is Termed Humane." January 22, 1934, sec.6. 

Discussion Questions 

  1. What are the main points Davenport put forward for the state control of immigrants' quality? What was the impact of eugenics on United States immigration laws in the 1920s?
  2. According to the New York Times report, how did German legislators refer to American immigration and sterilization laws? How did Goethe discuss French and German eugenics laws? How were the eugenics ideology and policies were imitated and reinforced across national boundaries?

Suggested Readings

Adams, Mark. The Wellborn Science: Eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil and Russia. New York: Oxford, 1993.

Dowbiggin, Ian. Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States and Canada 1880-1940. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Kuhl, Stefan. The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Stephan, Nancy Leys. The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender and Nation in Latin America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.