- The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures since 1915
Martin Pernick has produced an impressive case study with broad implications for both historical and contemporary controversies. In rediscovering the long-forgotten story of The Black Stork, he offers a highly original analysis of the complex relationship between the early public health movement and the development of American mass media.
The book traces the controversy instigated in 1915 by surgeon Harry J. Haiselden of Chicago’s German-American Hospital. Called to treat the Bollinger baby, a newborn he diagnosed as suffering from severe physical anomalies, Haiselden urged the parents to withhold treatment and let the baby die. Most controversial of all, Haiselden publicized his decisions in such cases—both in sensational newspaper interviews and in a fictionalized 1916 silent film called The Black Stork, in which he himself appeared. Haiselden, Pernick argues, was a practitioner of what was then called the “propaganda of the deed”—an action that forces contemporaries to confront issues. In this case, the issues confronted were infanticide, euthanasia, and the larger question of what made life worth living.
Especially intriguing is what this study suggests about the scope and reception of the early American eugenics movement. Whereas most analysts still link eugenics to conservative politics, Pernick’s research confirms more recent scholarship that emphasizes this movement’s appeal to the left as well as the right. Haiselden’s ideas won support from both William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper, the Chicago American, and the New York Socialist newspaper, the Call, as well as from influential Americans ranging from Clarence Darrow to Helen Keller.
Pernick’s treatment of precisely what “eugenics” meant in this era is especially valuable. This term, he convincingly shows, had already acquired multiple meanings. While biologists spoke of separating heredity from environment, both professionals and the public often conflated the two by blending genetic, bacteriological, and parental influences in complex ways. Thus, physicians frequently discussed “germs” and “germ plasm” in strikingly similar terms, while “bad blood” could mean either syphilis or birth defects. In ordinary language, Pernick shows, heredity could refer to almost any condition passed on by one’s family, while eugenics might mean the science of good parenting. He proves this in a surprising chapter analyzing dozens of pro- and anti-eugenic films made in the silent era. To many filmmakers, eugenics often meant scientific rather than romantic mate selection, a concept easily mocked in such 1914 productions as Wood B. Wedd and the Microbes or Eugenics Versus Love (love wins).
Pernick is at his best in carefully drawing out all the underlying implications—ethical, social, aesthetic, political, and professional—embedded in his data. The result is a study rich in historical irony and nuance. For instance, responses to Haiselden’s actions suggest that the public wanted physicians (and not families) to make such life-and-death decisions; most medical organizations, however, [End Page 728] disagreed—not because they opposed Haiselden’s decisions, but because they feared the broader implications for their profession if such procedures were adopted officially. The reactions to Haiselden’s film are revealing as well, for they illuminate early efforts to regulate mass media and to distinguish “entertainment” from “propaganda.” Ironically, both eugenic and anti-eugenic films often suffered a similar fate—relegated to traveling road shows and “foreign” theaters due to their sexual content, disturbing portrayals of human anomalies, or use of nudity.
In situating the Black Stork controversy, Pernick examines a number of similar historical episodes, ranging from ancient ideas about infanticide to the Nazi euthanasia campaign. Of equal value, his study provides a framework for considering both the recent “Baby Doe” cases and the “assisted suicide” controversies spurred in part by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, another practitioner of the “propaganda of the deed.” By paying close attention to the wide range of factors that shape both medical decision-making and popular moviemaking, Pernick’s rich analysis of The Black Stork breaks new ground...