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Harry H. Laughlin
Laughlin, circa 1929
BornMarch 11, 1880 (1880-03-11)
DiedJanuary 26, 1943 (1943-01-27) (aged 62)
EducationDistrict Normal School
Princeton University
OccupationEducator, sociologist, eugenicist
Spouse(s)Pansy Laughlin

Harry Hamilton Laughlin (March 11, 1880 – January 26, 1943) was an American educator, eugenicist, and sociologist. He served as the Superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office from its inception in 1910 to its closing in 1939, and was among the most active individuals in influencing American eugenics policy, especially compulsory sterilization legislation.


Early life

Harry Hamilton Laughlin was born March 11, 1880 in Oskaloosa, Iowa. He graduated from the First District Normal School (now Truman State University) in Kirksville, Missouri. In 1917, he earned a Doctor of Science from Princeton University in the field of cytology.


Eugenics Record Office

He worked as a high school teacher and principal before his interest turned to eugenics. This led to his correspondence with Charles Davenport, an early researcher into Mendelian inheritance in the United States. In 1910, Davenport asked Laughlin to move to Long Island, New York, to serve as the superintendent of his new research office.

The Eugenics Record Office (ERO) was founded at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, by Davenport with initial support from Mary Williamson Averell (Mrs. E. H. Harriman) and John Harvey Kellogg, and later by the Carnegie Institution of Washington.[1] Laughlin was made the managing director and was zealous in pursuing the goals of the institution, even co-writing a eugenical comedy in four acts for performance at the ERO for the amusement of the field workers being trained. He regularly lectured to various groups around the country.

Laughlin provided extensive statistical testimony to the United States Congress in support of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924. Part of his testimony dealt with "excessive" insanity among immigrants from southern Europe and eastern Europe. He was eventually appointed as an expert eugenics agent to the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization (the 1924 law applied national-origin quotas on immigrants, which stopped the large Italian and Russian influx of the early 1900s). At least one contemporary scientist, bacterial geneticist Herbert Spencer Jennings, condemned Laughlin's statistics as invalid because they compared recent immigrants to more settled immigrants.

In 1927, the Eugenics Research Association, of which Laughlin was an officer, began a study of the heritage of U.S. Senators. Some senators were enthusiastic, others reluctantly complied, while Senator William Cabell Bruce questioned whether eugenics was even a science and refused to participate. Laughlin wrote to Bruce's hometown newspaper in an attempt to get the information.

Sterilization laws

One of Laughlin's key interests was to aid in the proliferation of compulsory sterilization legislation in the United States, which would presumably sterilize the "unfit" members of the population. By 1914, twelve states had already passed sterilization laws, beginning with Indiana in 1907 and Connecticut in 1909. However, the laws were not employed with significant vigor, with the exception of California. In his study of this "problem," Laughlin deduced that much of the state sterilization legislation was poorly worded and left it open to questions of constitutionality and confusion over bureaucratic responsibility. As a result, Laughlin drafted the Model Eugenical Sterilization Law, a model act for compulsory sterilization, intended to satisfy these difficulties. He published the proposal in his 1922 study of American sterilization policy, Eugenical Sterilization in the United States. It included as subjects for eugenic sterilization: the feeble-minded, the insane, criminals, epileptics, alcoholics, blind persons, deaf persons, deformed persons, and indigent persons. An additional eighteen states passed laws based on Laughlin's model, including Virginia in 1924.

The first person ordered sterilized in Virginia under the new law was Carrie Buck, on the grounds that she was the "probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring." A lawsuit ensued and Laughlin, who had never met Buck, gave a deposition endorsing her suitability for sterilization, calling the family members of "the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South". Other scientists from the ERO testified in person. The state won the case, which was appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 1927. The resulting case, Buck v. Bell, upheld the constitutionality of the laws that Laughlin helped write. Five months after the court confirmed the law, Carrie Buck was sterilized. A law allowing for the sterilization of repeat criminals was overturned in 1942, in Skinner v. Oklahoma, but sterilizations of mental patients continued into the 1970s. Altogether more than 60,000 Americans were sterilized. Virginia repealed its sterilization law in 1974. Laughlin also supported the passage of Virginia's Racial Integrity Act, which outlawed miscegenation. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that law in Loving v. Virginia.

Association with German eugenics

The Reichstag of Nazi Germany passed the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring in 1933, closely based on Laughlin's model.[2] Between 35,000 and 80,000 persons were sterilized in the first full year alone (it is now known that over 350,000 persons were sterilized). Laughlin was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Heidelberg in 1936 for his work behalf of the "science of racial cleansing."[3] However, reports about the extensive use of compulsory sterilization in Germany began to appear in US newspapers. By the end of the decade, eugenics had become associated with Nazism and poor science. Support for groups like the American Eugenics Society began to fade. In 1935, a review panel convened by the Carnegie Institute concluded that the ERO's research did not have scientific merit. By 1939, the Institute withdrew funding for the ERO, and the office was forced to close.

Laughlin was a founding member of the Pioneer Fund, and was its first president, serving from 1937 to 1941. The Pioneer Fund was created by Wickliffe Draper in order to promote the "betterment of the race" through eugenics. Draper had been supporting the Eugenics Research Association and its Eugenical News since 1932. One of the first projects that Laughlin pursued for the Fund was the distribution of two films from Germany depicting the success of eugenics programs in that country. A biographer has described Laughlin as "among the most racist and anti-Semitic of early twentieth-century eugenicists."[4]

World government

As well as his interest in eugenics, Laughlin was fascinated by the idea of establishing a world government. He worked on his plans for this institution throughout his adult life. The world government model that he devised was loosely based on the U.S. Constitution and the League of Nations. The allotment of representation in the body was heavily biased in favor of Europe and North America, particularly Great Britain and the United States. Laughlin believed that his world government model would promote the eugenicist aim of preventing the intermixing of different races. Many leading internationalists expressed interest in Laughlin's world government plan, including Edward M. House, Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy adviser.[5]

Retirement and death

He was married to Pansy Laughlin in 1902, and they did not have children. Laughlin was pressured into retirement by Vannevar Bush in 1939, after a series of severe seizures.[6] These seizures may have been due to hereditary epilepsy.[7] After his retirement from the Eugenics Record Office, the couple returned to Kirksville in December 1939. Laughlin died January 26, 1943, and was buried near his father and mother in Highland Park Cemetery in Kirksville.[8][9]

See also


  1. ^ Laughlin, Harry. "Eugenical Sterilization in the United States". PSYCHOPATHIC LABORATORY OF THE MUNICIPAL COURT OF CHICAGO. Retrieved 9 February 2014.
  2. ^ Bruinius, Harry (2007). Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 978-0-375-71305-7.
  3. ^ "Nazi Connection – Harry Laughlin and Eugenics". Retrieved 2021-06-01.
  4. ^ Lombardo, Paul A. "The American Breed": Nazi Eugenics and the Origins of the Pioneer Fund. Albany Law Review, Vol. 65, No. 3, P. 822.
  5. ^ McDonald, Jason (July 2013). "Making the World Safe for Eugenics: The Eugenicist Harry H. Laughlin's Encounters with American Internationalism1". The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. 12 (3): 379–411. doi:10.1017/S1537781413000212 – via Cambridge Core.
  6. ^ Kevles, Daniel J. (1995). In the name of eugenics : genetics and the uses of human heredity (1st Harvard University Press pbk. ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. p. 355. ISBN 0-520-05763-5.
  7. ^ Black, Edwin (2012). War against the weak eugenics and America's campaign to create a master race (2. paperback, expanded ed.). Washington, DC: Dialog Press. ISBN 978-0-914153-30-6.
  8. ^ "Dr. Harry H. Laughlin Geneticist and Author, 62, Once With Carnegie Institute, Dies". The New York Times. January 28, 1943. Retrieved 2010-07-04. Dr. Harry Hamilton Laughlin, geneticist and immigration authority, died here yesterday at the age of 62. Dr. Laughlin urged for years restriction of ...
  9. ^ "Kirksville Devil's Chair". Atlas Obscura.

Further reading