Guest Post: Eugenics and “Social Hygiene” in Hartford, CT

Guest Post: Eugenics and “Social Hygiene” in Hartford, CT

Jennifer D. Miglus, Librarian, Hartford Medical Society Historical Library
On the Records of the CT Society of Social Hygiene, housed in the Hartford Medical Society Historical Library, Farmington, CT

*All images are reproduced with permission from the Records of the CT Society of Social Hygiene. 


“Society of Social Hygiene Organized – Aim is to limit spread of social disease.”
-Headline, The Hartford Courant, May 14, 1910

“Conn. Hygiene Assn. Finishes its Work – Members to vote on discontinuance at tonight’s meeting.”
-Headline, The Hartford Courant, November 10, 1921

Pamphlet describing the functions of the CT Society of Social Hygiene, circa 1916.

 

These headlines bracket the eleven year existence of a group of industrious and socially-minded citizens in Hartford, CT.  Initially, the Connecticut Society of Social Hygiene rose in prominence as it worked to ‘limit the spread of social disease.’  This was accomplished specifically through sexual education and promotion of the sanctity of the home, and through public health education on the spread of venereal disease.  These efforts were supported by private donations.

This was the benign face of the Society.  The other face was more troubling.  The minutes of the executive committee meeting of January 18, 1913 read as follows:

“Meeting was called to order by the Chairman, Dr. Carmalt, and the bills concerning rape and the sterilization of degenerates prepared by the Legislative Committee were presented by Dean Rogers.  The first bill was the one concerning the sterilization of defectives. . . A Board of Examiners of feeble-minded, criminals and other defectives is hereby created . . . It shall be the duty of the said Board to examine into the mental and physical condition and the record and family history so far as available, of the feeble-minded, epileptic, criminal and other defective inmates confined in the several State hospitals for the insane, the State Prison, and the reformatory, and in any charitable or penal institution maintained by the State, and if in the judgment of the majority of said Board, procreation by any such person would produce children with an inherited tendency to crime, insanity, feeble-mindedness, idiocy or imbecility, and there is no probability that the condition of any such person so examined will improve . . . then said Board shall report in writing their finding to any judge of the Superior Court with their recommendation that an operation for the prevention of procreation be performed upon such person . . .”

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Promotional postcard for the play “Damaged Goods” performed under the auspices of the CT Society of Social Hygiene, circa 1916.

For several years the Society published pamphlets, hosted topical plays and gave lectures throughout the state, but they lost traction during the First World War and the influenza epidemic of 1918.  In 1920 they reincorporated as the Connecticut Social Hygiene Association, Inc., a branch of the American Social Hygiene Association.  The CT Association closed its doors in November of 1921 due to a lack of funds.

A crucial question is how a group of people, assembled to do good, can find themselves involved in what most of us would call evil. How was it that upright citizens who wanted to give women power over childbearing decisions and protect both men and women from venereal disease could also espouse involuntary sterilization of people deemed ‘unfit’ by a Board of Examiners?  Partly it was the relatively new discovery of genetics and the dawning, but still relatively simplistic, awareness of how traits are inherited.  Partly, it was a lingering 19th century sensibility that people deemed deficient or undesirable should be hidden away.  The proposition that a given “race” be purified and raised to dominance while others were suppressed was a leap further still.

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Poster issued by the American Social Hygiene Association and used by the CT Society of Social Hygiene, circa 1914.

Eugenics was popular in many countries at the beginning of the 20th century.  It was only when Nazi Germany practiced it in its most extreme form that eugenics fell out of favor.  Laws allowing involuntary sterilization remained on the books in some states as late as 1974.

The values of health and reproductive choice segued very easily into control over those considered undesirable and their involuntary sterilization.  Could such a perversion of values happen again?  It seems unlikely, but this historical precedent would have us keep our eyes, and hearts, open.

-Jennifer Miglus