Archival Resources for the History of Genetics & Allied Sciences



No. 16 (September 1978)

The Rockefeller Archive Center, located at the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills, North Tarrytown, New York, contains five major collections of interest to, eugenics researchers - the Bureau of Social Hygiene Papers, 1911-40 (78 boxes), the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund Papers, 1918-41 (138 boxes), the Rockefeller Foundation Archives, 1913-41 (over 500 boxes), the Frederick Gates Papers, 1877-1939 (5 boxes), and the recently acquired Population Council Papers. These collections contain a good deal of material related to the development of the eugenics movement in the United States, including correspondence with such well known figures as Charles B. Davenport, C. C. Little, Henry Fairfield Osborn, Raymond Pearl and Irving Fisher.

The Bureau of Social Hygiene was a social science research institute concerned primarily with studies on the causes and control of crime. The range of topics covered by the Bureau in its thirty-year history includes prostitution, penal institutions, juvenile delinquency, criminal law, police systems and police training, ballistics and identification research, narcotics control, sex education, maternal health, birth control, venereal disease and population control. Many of these topics are distinctly eugenical in conception or impact. Among the Bureau Papers of interest to the historian of eugenics are files on eugenical sterilization in the U.S., the feebleminded and insane, the Third International Congress of Eugenics (1932), as well as manuscripts of numerous studies on the nature and causes of crime, vice, and drug addiction.

The Bureau of Social Hygiene grew out of the appointment of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to a special grand jury investigation of the white slave trade in New York in 1910. Rockefeller served as foreman for this investigation, which was scheduled to last for one mouth. He kept the investigation going for six months and in the end released a detailed report calling for a permanent commission to investigate "social evil� in the leading cities of this country and Europe�."(1) When the mayor refused to set up such a commission, JDR Jr. decided to do it himself. (2) He interviewed over a hundred educators, intellectuals and businessmen about the project. On March 22, 1911, the Committee of Three (JDR Jr., Paul Warburg and Starr Murphy) met and organized the Bureau of Social Hygiene. The name was first used in October 1911, although the organization was not formally incorporated until 1913.(3) Katherine B. Davis, former commissioner of Charities and Correction of New York and superintendent of the Bedford Hills Reformatory for Women, was chosen as the first general secretary.(4) The purpose of the Bureau was "the study, amelioration, and prevention of those social conditions, crimes, and diseases which adversely affect the well being of society�."(5)

In the early years of the Bureau an effort was made to investigate the basic causes of social pathologies. A strong belief in a biological basis for crime and a Social Darwinist theoretical structure prevailed. These studies often drew upon the expertise of Charles Davenport and Henry Goddard, architects of the theory that deviancy was largely a result of hereditary factors. This orientation also reflected the interest of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and Frederick Gates in medical and biological research. Both men felt that such research was "fundamental" because it sought out "root causes" of social problems. During the '20s and '30's, however, the Bureau diversified its activities and moved away from the search for causes to a more pragmatic concern with control of crime. Having begun with studies of feeblemindedness and crime, the Bureau ended with collecting data on ballistics and fingerprint identification.

One example of the early work of the BSH can be found in the set of documents relating to the establishment of the Criminalistic Institute. On January 27, 1912, JDR Jr. wrote Davenport that Katherine B. Davis, a "woman of rare mental endowment" and "deep human sympathy," had conceived a plan to establish a Criminalistic Institute to which women convicted in the city courts would be sent for a few months before sentencing. During their residency in the Institute they would be carefully studied by a trained corps of experts to determine their mental and physical capacities as well as their social and educational background. The Institute would then return the woman to the committing judge with the report of its findings, stating whether, if mentally and physically sound, she would be fit for reformatory treatment, or if, on account of "mental and physical defects," she was a candidate for special institutionalization which would make it possible to keep a woman, "mentally deficient and incapable of reform," from "perpetuating her kind." Rockefeller noted that "this plan seems to me an immensely important one. It points out a scientific way of escape from the evils which our courts are intended to correct but in reality only increase. If applicable to women it would be applicable to men. I should very greatly like to have your opinion of the plan," he concluded, "of its importance and of the desirability of testing it."(6) In a long and enthusiastic reply Davenport outlined the basic theory he and other geneticists had developed about the causes of crime:

Any human behavior -- including any anti-social act -- is a response to a stimulus and is conditioned or determined by three factors; a. the innate tendencies and capacities of the individual; b. circumstances of environment, training and education which determine the degree of development of those tendencies and capacities; c. the nature of the stimulus (temptation) which preceded the reaction. In other words the reaction depends on an inherited basis +conditions of development + the nature of the stimulus.

The courts, Davenport explained, only react to the crime. But the crime can have a number of different causes. For example, in cases where the innate tendencies and capacities are strong, the training good but the "stimulus exceptionally violent, the crime is a social accident, not apt to occur again." On the other hand, where "the innate social tendencies are altogether absent" the training and stimulus are irrelevant and "the suitable treatment is clearly permanent segregation with useful employment and as much happiness as possible; but interdiction of reproduction." Davenport explained that unfortunately the courts treat these cases alike: "Nothing could be more stupid, cruel, and unjust. . . . The nature of the person should be given no less consideration in determining treatment than the nature of the deed done." (Davenport's emphasis)

Davenport recommended that the proposed institute "study not only the nature of the stimulus . . . but also the present moral and physical status of the person, her development or cultural history -- i.e. moral training and education, and her hereditary traits -- as determined by a study of her close blood relatives." In all our work, "in which you have shown such an appreciative interest," we lay stress on the hereditary capacities. In his letter to Rockefeller, Davenport used the term "innate soul tendency" and "innate social tendency" interchangeably. It thus appears that Davenport was postulating that "soul" was inherited by some genetic mechanism and that some people were born lacking "soul." (7)

Rockefeller read Davenport's letter "with the utmost interest" and wrote, "[I] am greatly obliged to you for having written so fully . . . .Your letter is a strong endorsement of the plan."(8) Based on this and other enthusiastic recommendations of "scientists and social experts" Rockefeller contributed $200,000 to set up the Criminalistic Institute in New York. Actually two projects were started. One operated out of the women's facility at Bedford Hills, and the Criminalistic Institute (also called the Institute of Criminology) operated in conjunction with the lower courts in New York. The latter study included men. The Bureau stated that the Criminalistic Institute was "an experiment of vital importance, the results of which promise to be most far reaching and revolutionary as regards the treatment of criminals, not only women but also men and children, in this country and in all the countries of the world."(9)

Katherine B. Davis administered the program while Charles Davenport supplied eugenics field workers trained at the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor. The Institute operated from 1912 to 1917. During that time it assembled a large body of raw data which it interpreted as demonstrating the genetic basis of criminal behavior.(10) The eugenics field workers were assigned the task of interviewing each criminal (moral background study), testing his or her I.Q. and investigating the criminal's family. The raw data was held for research purposes and used for several publications.(11) These were also sent along to the magistrate for consideration before sentencing. In each case a synopsis of the findings was included. Here are some samples:

The prisoner is an inferior looking Irishman; his father was an alcoholic . . . examination in the Laboratory disclosed that this prisoner is mentally defective having a mental age of ten years . . . a letter was sent to the magistrate acquainting him with the Laboratory's findings and suggesting institutional care. (12) He has a brother in Sing Sing. � A sister is a prostitute. The whole family have an unsavory reputation. The prisoner is inferior in appearance . ... Examination in the Laboratory shows that this prisoner is mentally defective, having a mental age of eleven years. (13) The prisoner is an ignorant looking negress . . .Examination in the Laboratory shows that this prisoner is feebleminded . . . The attention of the Magistrate was called to the prisoner's mental deficiency. (14)

This prisoner is a rather inferior looking Jewish boy . . . The examination shows that he is feebleminded . . . (15)

This prisoner is a mulatto. His father was a negro; his mother a white woman. A diagnosis of imbecility with heroinism (sic!) was made . . . (16)

These quotations are examples of the "scientific data" gathered by the 90 eugenics field workers trained by the ERO between 1911 and 1936. The field workers were usually sent to Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys, where they studied "all grades of defective" under the guidance of Henry Goddard. After that they went to Cold Spring Harbor to listen to a few weeks of lectures on eugenics and genetics by Davenport. "They were, in the main, young ladies of good families� (17) Dr. Samuel Kohs, staff psychologist of the Chicago House of Correction, after observing ERO field workers in action, "warned those doing research in the heredity of human Psychical traits" that the data collected by ERO field workers was "in many cases wholly superficial."(18) Yet their very data and techniques formed not only the basis for eugenic conclusions at the time, but have been cited in recent times, with apparently little critical examination. Availability of the first-hand records in the BSH Papers should help scholars understand in more detail, and with more cautious eyes, the exact nature of the investigations eugenicists were carrying out: their aims, techniques, and use of evidence.

After examining these files it is my impression that ERO field workers simply translated vulgar racism into respectable "scientific" conclusions. Thus, "inferior looking" people were shown upon "laboratory examination" to be feebleminded. As Davenport put it to Rockefeller, "I am convinced it [the BSH] is the thing required to reform our legal procedure. Would that its [our country's] motto were: All men are born unequal. Equality before the law is cruelty and injustice."(20) Rockefeller enthusiastically agreed that a eugenically oriented criminal justice system was "immensely important." The Bureau of Social Hygiene, with immense resources and a simple eugenic creed, set out to correct this "cruelty and injustice."(21)

There are five major series in the BSH collection: series 1, Administration; series 2, Finances; series 3, Project Information; series 4, the Leonard V. Harrison files (Harrison was the Bureau's resident expert on criminology and traveled extensively throughout Europe collecting information on European police systems) and series 5, the remnant files of the New York Police Psychopathic Laboratory, which were used in conjunction with a study the Bureau did on mental disease and crime, most of the material which will interest eugenics researchers will be found in series 3. There is correspondence in this series with Harry Laughlin, Charles Davenport and E. S. Gosney, director of The Human Betterment Foundation in California. There is an interesting file of correspondence with Harry Laughlin regarding the publication of his book Eugenical Sterilization in the United States. The manuscript was read "with great interest" by Davis, but it ,was felt that "none of us care to be responsible for that part of the book which had to do with direct propaganda favoring sterilization legislation." Since Laughlin refusal to revise the manuscript the Bureau decided not to sponsor its publication.(22)

The Bureau of Social Hygiene Papers are especially valuable for showing the influence of eugenic ideas on the Social Hygiene, Mental Hygiene, Birth Control and Population Control movements. Katherine B. Davis, general secretary of the Bureau until 1928 was an active eugenicist. In 1924, she accepted a nomination to serve on the Advisory Council of the Committee on Eugenics of the United States. The purpose of the Committee was to "stem the tide of threatened racial degeneracy" and to protect America against "indiscriminate immigration, criminal degenerates, and race suicide . . ." Davis "recognized, the importance of the matters with which [the] . . . committee is dealing" and was "glad to accept the appointment." (23)

The BSH Papers also contain much detailed material on eugenics research being carried out in Europe. For example, there is a long report by W. I. Thomas, a noted criminologist, on "Crime Causation and Prevention" written sometime after 1932. One long section of the report is entitled "Reports on Certain European Research Projects and Practical Programs Relating to Psychiatry and Criminology."(24) In addition there is a series of memos regarding Cora B. Hodson's plan to form an international clearing house for data on human heredity. Hodson, an English eugenicist, was honorary administrative secretary to the International Federation of Eugenics Organizations.(25) And there is correspondence between the Bureau and Dr. Ernst Rudin, vice president of the Gesellschaft für Rassenhygiene in Munich and president of the International Federation of Eugenics Organizations.

What comes out most clearly from an examination of the BSH files is that there are many interconnections between the Social Hygiene, Mental Hygiene, Birth Control, Population Control and Eugenics Movements between 1920 and 1940, and that to understand these movements they must be seen in the context of the broad movement to rationalize and control social development - a plan to which the Rockefeller interest had been won by the first decade of the twentieth century. The BSH Papers will be enlightening to researchers in the history of any one of these fields.

Barry Mehler
St. Louis, Missouri

1. Peter Collier and David Horowitz, The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty (New York, New American Library, 1976), p. 104.

2. Ibid.

3. Inventory, Bureau of Social Hygiene Papers, p. 1, BSH Papers, Rockefeller Archive Center.

4. Ibid., p. 2.

5. Ibid. p. 1.

6. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to Charles B. Davenport, 1/27/12, Charles B. Davenport Papers, American Philosophical Society Library, Philadelphia, Pa.

7. Davenport to JDR, Jr., 2/1/12, Davenport Papers, APS Library.

8. JDR, Jr. to Davenport, 2/5/12, Davenport Papers, APS Library.

9. Minutes, 4/3/12, BSH Papers, Rockefeller Archive Center.

10. The BSH Papers contain a vast array of raw data. There are several folders containing hundreds of case studies from the Institute of Criminology as well as a folder of material relating to the Laboratory of Social Hygiene at Bedford Hills. Most of the material from Bedford Hills, however, was not kept by the Bureau. See series 3, box 25 and all of series 5.

11. See for example, Mabel Ruth Fenold, et al, A Study of Women Delinquents in New York State (New York, 1920), and Edith Spaulding, An Experimental Study of Psychopathic Delinquent Women (New York, 1925), both published by the Bureau of Social Hygiene.

12. Criminalistic Institute Case Studies, Case #755, series 3, box 25, BSH Papers, Rockefeller Archive Center.

13. Ibid., Case #629.

14. Ibid., Case #830.

15. Ibid., Case #1198

16. Ibid., Case #1323


17. Allan Chase, The Legacy of Malthus: The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism (New York, Knopf, 1973), p. 121.

18. Samuel C. Kohs, "Annual Meeting of the American Genetic Association," Science (Sept. 17, 1915), P. 394, quoted from Chase, The Legacy of Malthus, p. 121.

19. For example, Sheldon Reed, a mouse and Drosophila_geneticist and director of the Dight Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Minnesota (which currently holds the bulk of the ERO records) used material gathered by ERO field workers for his book, Mental Retardation: A Family study (1965). In the preface to his study, Reed wrote that ERO field workers "were well trained in the techniques of family history taking, interviewing and pedigree construction."

20. Davenport to JDR, Jr., 2/l/12, Davenport Papers, APS Library.

21. JDR, Jr. to Davenport, 1/2T/12, Davenport Papers, APS Library.

22. Katherine B. Davis to Raymond Fosdick, 2/2/21, BSH Papers, series 3, box 8, Rockefeller Archive Center.

23. Irving Fisher to Katherine B. Davis; 11/24/24 and Davis to Fisher, 11/26/24, BSH Papers, series' 3, box 34, Rockefeller Archive Center.

24. W. I. Thomas, "Report on Crime Causation and Prevention," BSH Papers, series 3, box 34, Rockefeller Archive Center.

25. See memos relating to Hodson in BSH Papers, series 3, box 8

26. Ernst Rudin to Lawrence Dunham, 11/22/32 and Dunham to Rudin, 1/6/32, BSH Papers, series 3, box 8, Rockefeller Archive Center.