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Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State (review)

From: Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Volume 76, Number 4, Winter 2002
pp. 840-841 | 10.1353/bhm.2002.0208

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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76.4 (2002) 840-841

Nancy L. Gallagher. Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State. Revisiting New England: The New Regionalism. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1999. xiv + 237 pp. Ill. $40.00 (cloth, 0-87451-951-9), $22.00 (paperbound, 0-87451-952-7).

The University of Vermont's College of Medicine has recently established a model curriculum centered around genetics, epidemiology, and ethics. It thus seems fitting that the first comprehensive historical study of any state's eugenics activities also focuses on Vermont. Biologist and historian Nancy L. Gallagher has written a first-rate scientific biography of University of Vermont zoologist Henry F. Perkins's eleven-year coordination of the Eugenics Survey of Vermont.

Perkins, a descendant of a Burlington, Vermont, academic family of Christian Darwinists, returned to his alma mater, the University of Vermont, in 1902 after completing his doctoral studies on the reproductive adaptation of jellyfish under the supervision of Johns Hopkins embryologist William Keith Brookes. Like many biologists in this era, Perkins eventually became embroiled in studies that influenced the reproduction of another animal—humans. Prompted by his students' interests in the work of the Eugenics Record Office, he secured his university's support in 1925 to devote considerable time toward a project "merging eugenics with progressive social reform in Vermont" (p. 41). Imbued with a heroic vision that Vermont "arose from a struggle for its integrity as an independent republic and its continual production of men and women of tough moral fiber, intelligence, and leadership, who played key roles in every major event in American history, from the War of Independence to the abolition of slavery and the settlement of the American frontier" (p. 43), Perkins developed guidelines for eugenic reform that would replenish Vermont's high-caliber reproductive stock.

To achieve his vision, Perkins appealed to Vermont's Children's Aid Society, an organization devoted to preserving "wholesome family groups" (p. 59). In order to create a "Eugenic Vermont," he planned to "turn the social records of families registered [in the Children's Aid Society]. . . into pedigrees of degeneracy that would help support a campaign for legalized sterilization" (p. 71). He also hoped to document that French Canadian immigrants were chiefly responsible for his state's "subnormalcy" (p. 95).

Five annual reports of Vermont's Eugenics Survey appeared between 1927 and 1931. Beginning in the third report (1929), Perkins reframed the survey as the Committee on the Human Factor, part of his state's newly organized Commission on Country Life, and he downplayed his earlier negative eugenic tactics. Such actions, as Gallagher clearly articulates, reflected a concurrent trend across the United States to promote positive eugenics through Fitter Family contests. Perkins's eugenic efforts reached their pinnacle in 1931 with both the publication of his positive eugenics treatise, Rural Vermont: A Program for the Future, and the state's adoption of a sterilization law for its social "incompetents" (p. 123).

Gallagher has skillfully placed Perkins within both Vermont history and the eugenics movement, two contexts in which he flourished. She shows precisely the extent to which Perkins was influenced by particular eugenic ideals. His course lectures and textbooks are analyzed to illuminate how newly found genetic and eugenic knowledge of the period was practically applied among the U.S. human population. Elsewhere, Gallagher elaborates upon the Eugenics Record Office's training of Harriet E. Abbott, Perkins's first "social worker," showing how eugenic knowledge initially became integrated into the series of profiles and pedigrees of Vermont's "defective" families that Abbott created (p. 75). These pedigrees, as Gallagher shows, were subsequently used by Perkins and other eugenicists in engineering positive eugenic strategies to improve Vermont's breeding stock. Gallagher's familiarity with both science and history is clear as this work, unlike much eugenics scholarship, deftly interweaves the intellectual (i.e., scientific) backbone of eugenics into a broader social narrative.

The last of Gallagher's four chapters is devoted to "National Recognition, Crisis, and Reform" from 1931 through Perkins's death in 1956. This section is her best effort to contextualize Vermont's eugenics activism with that in other states...