The Eugenics of John M. MacEachran Warrants Revocation of Honours

Douglas Wahlsten, University of Alberta

John Malcolm MacEachran was the first professor to teach philosophy and psychology at the University of Alberta and was later a founder of the Canadian Psychological Association (Nelson, 1982). After MacEachran's death in 1971, the Department of Psychology initiated a series of lectures by distinguished scholars in 1975 and arranged for them to be published by Lawrence Erlbaum. A university news release announced that the lectures were "designed to be held annually to honor the late John M. MacEachran" (Thomas, 1975). The Department also named a small conference room where important oral examinations are held the MacEachran Room, and a large oil portrait of the elderly MacEachran in academic robe presided over these solemn occasions for many years.

MacEachran was not celebrated for his scholarship; he never published an original contribution to the discipline during a career extending from 1909 until retirement in 1945. While others were in the library or laboratory conducting research, MacEachran was busy working for the Alberta government. Most notably, he was the Chairman of the Alberta Eugenics Board from 1929 to 1964 and personally signed the orders for sterilization of over 3,000 individuals (Wahlsten, 1997a). In the 1930s he published several political articles and made speeches enthusiastically endorsing eugenic sterilization, and he never retreated from this position. Like many eugenicists, he refrained from public boasting on the topic after World War II, but I could find no evidence that his sentiments changed. After stepping down from the Eugenics Board in 1964, he burned his personal papers (Christian, 1974; personal communication), thereby denying posterity knowledge of his private opinions in his later years, presumably because he had much to hide.

Older colleagues, many now deceased or retired, must have known about the Eugenics Board because they held the "John M. MacEachran Conference" in 1972, the same year when the Sexual Sterilization Act was debated in the legislature and press and finally repealed. Many in the department must have read a full-page feature article in the Edmonton Journal that exposed MacEachran's role and noted similarities with sterilization in Nazi Gemany (Powers, 1979).

Nevertheless, many of us in the current Department of Psychology were genuinely surprised by revelations during the suit by Leilani Muir against the Alberta government for wrongfully confining her to a mental institution and sterilizing her (see Veit, 1996). The trial revealed many sordid details of the operation of the Eugenics Board under MacEachran's leadership, and the judgment of Madame Justice Joanne B. Veit was strong and clear:

The circumstances of Ms. Muir's sterilization were so high-handed and so contemptuous of the statutory authority to effect sterilization, and were undertaken in an atmosphere that so little respected Ms. Muir's human dignity that the community's, and the court's, sense of decency is offended (Veit, 1996, p. 696).

Leilani Muir addressed a Department of Psychology colloquium on September 15, 1995, and in 1996 I circulated my paper on the Alberta experience with eugenics (Wahlsten, 1997a) to several colleagues in the department and beyond. Combined with extensive coverage of the Muir trial in the media and a feature article in the national magazine Saturday Night (Pringle, 1997), this information opened the eyes of everyone in the Department.

Gilbert Gottlieb, a foremost developmental psychologist, delivered the MacEachran lecture in 1996 and published the resulting monograph as part of the Erlbaum series (Gottlieb, 1997a). When he learned about MacEachran's past, Gottlieb wrote to the Chairman of Psychology, Eugene Lechelt:

I am glad and honored to have given the invited lectures at Alberta last Fall, but, to be quite honest, I would not have been able to accept the invitation if I had known about Professor MacEachran's involvement in the eugenic sterilization policy. While I am sure MacEachran did a lot of good things for the department and the University, the sterilization business is sufficiently reprehensible so that I would not personally want to honor his memory. When I came to work for the North Carolina Department of Mental Health in 1959, such a law was on the books here. I, among others, prevailed upon Dr. Eugene Hargrove, the Head of the NCDMH, not to countenance such a wrong-headed approach to 'mental deficiency' (measured IQ less than 70 in NC), and the law was eventually repealed (Gottlieb, 1997b).

After a thorough discussion of several aspects of the question of honours and naming, on September 3, 1997, my colleagues and I voted 24 in favour, with one abstention, to rename the conference room and unanimously to rename the lecture series (Agenda and minutes, 1997). It was the sense of this meeting that the deeds of the Eugenics Board were shameful and illegal, and that MacEachran achieved nothing of sufficient importance to outweigh the bad. The composition and attitude of the department had changed significantly since the 1970s. For the first time since 1975 the distinguished lectures (this time delivered by Charles R. Gallistel) were not held under the name MacEachran. When my student Katherine Bishop had her Ph.D. oral examination in the conference room on September 5, 1997, we took down the old portrait.

The renaming of a lecture series and a small conference room is a small matter compared with the sterilization of thousands of innocent children. The details of this dishonouring of the long-serving Chairman of the Alberta Eugenics Board would be of little interest were it not for the howls of protest provoked by a report of the decision in the University newspaper (Robb, 1997).

First, a chemistry professor accused the Department of trying "to bury an unpleasant piece of history" and urged us to keep the portrait up and retain the name but affix a plaque telling about MacEachran's role with the Eugenics Board (Graham, 1997). This letter alerted the Globe and Mail to a controversy and a front page story soon appeared (Laghi, 1997), followed closely by front page coverage in the Edmonton Journal (Dolphin, 1997) and attention from CBC radio, the Canadian University Press, and Alberta Report (Torrance, 1997). The Edmonton Journal attacked our Department in an editorial that asserted "the department cannot be allowed to hide its own complicity in the eugenics movement" (Editorial, 1997). Letters of support and condemnation ensued, including a diatribe from the Chair of Sociology who branded the Department of Psychology "contemptible" and "diseased" (Sayer, 1997).

The core accusation in this media barrage was that renaming and revoking honours amount to suppression of history, but this was utterly false. Those who named the conference room and the lecture series had indeed suppressed history by presenting to a generation of students and younger colleagues only the palatable story of MacEachran's role as university administrator in a fledgling province. The Muir trial and its aftermath had exposed a more complete history. We defended ourselves in the press (Heth and Wahlsten, 1997; Wahlsten, 1997b), and our colleagues in the department, while suffering discomfort from the media exposure, held firmly to their decisions.

Following this episode, the Department of Philosophy established a committee to review its annual award of a MacEachran Medal and Scholarship. The recent committee report strongly recommends termination of these awards in MacEachran's name (Kahane, et al., 1998).

How is the MacEachran issue relevant to the discussion of honours for Raymond Bernard Cattell? MacEachran was an obscure academic acting locally and, in later years, secretly in a remote jurisdiction, whereas Cattell was a prolific author read by thousands internationally. I have found no direct evidence that MacEachran was influenced by Cattell's writings, although two controversial books by Cattell were in the University of Alberta library during the reign of MacEachran on the Eugenics Board.

Nevertheless, I believe that the chief ideologues of the eugenics movement, including Cattell, deserve a large measure of blame for what happened in Alberta as well as in those states in the U.S.A. that implemented compulsory sterilization. State-mandated sterilization had proximal agents who passed the legislation, signed the orders, and severed the flesh, but these actors did not arrive on the political stage from another solar system. They were inspired and imbued with a sense of righteousness by spiritual and political leaders as well as theoreticians with academic credentials. Leading ideologues cannot evade blame when their schemes are implemented by others, even if the local actions are too crude and perhaps not exactly as recommended by the masterminds.

Cattell was a prominent theoretician and an earnest spiritual leader who advocated large-scale eugenic measures. He later complained that eugenics had been "smeared in different ways in Germany and Russia, and (through the misunderstandings of a generation ago) in a few communities in America." (Cattell, 1972, p. 347) This does not impress me as a forthright condemnation of eugenic sterilization. It minimizes the damage done to many thousands of Americans while lamenting the harm done to his own reputation. Despite its more moderate tone, Cattell's 1972 book appears to continue the major themes from his writings in the 1930s. Beyondism is clearly a racist doctrine. It urges that several entire groups of humans should become extinct. It inspires hatred against identifiable groups of people and undermines sympathy for the less fortunate members of our society who suffer mental deficiency. To honour Cattell with a major academic award would confer credibility and respectability on Beyondism, just as the naming of a lecture series and conference room served notice to students and the public in the 1970s that the leaders of the Department of Psychology still thought MacEachran was a fine man who had done nothing seriously wrong as Chair of the Eugenics Board.

Author’s Note: All unpublished documents cited in this article will be made available in the University of Alberta archives under the subject name of John M. MacEachran.


Agenda and minutes for the 69th Council Meeting. (1997, September 3). University of Alberta, Department of Psychology.

Cattell, R. B. (1972). A new morality from science: Beyondism. NY: Pergamon.

Christian, T. (1974). The Mentally Ill and Human Rights in Alberta. Edmonton: University of Alberta, Faculty of Law.

Dolphin, R. (1997, October 17). Honours shelved for professor linked to eugenics. Edmonton Journal, p. A1.

Editorial. (1997, October 18). Eugenics past cannot be erased. Edmonton Journal, p. A18.

Gottlieb, G. (1997a). Synthesizing nature-nurture: Prenatal roots of instinctive behavior. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gottlieb, G. (1997b, April 15). Letter to Professor Eugene Lechelt.

Graham, W. A. (1997, October 10). Valuable lesson lost with decision on MacEachran legacy. Folio (University of Alberta), p. 4.

Heth, D., & Wahlsten, D. (1997, November 6). Eugenics prof. should have known better [Letter to the editor]. Edmonton Journal, p. A15.

Kahane, D., Sharp, W.D., & Tweedale, M. (1998, April). Report of the MacEachran subcommittee. Edmonton: University of Alberta, Department of Philosophy.

Laghi, B. (1997, October 16). Late professor's eugenics role costs him honours. Globe and Mail, p. A1.

Nelson, T. (1982). Psychology at Alberta. In M. J. Wright & C. R. Myers (Eds.), History of academic psychology in Canada. (pp. 192-219). Toronto: C.J. Hogrefe.

Powers, D. (1979, February 17). Law 'reminiscent' of Nazi Germany. Edmonton Journal, p. B2.

Pringle, H. (1997). Alberta barren. Saturday Night, 112 (5), 30-74.

Robb, M. (1997, September 26). What's in a name? Psychology department cuts ties with eugenics proponent. Folio (University of Alberta), p. 7.

Sayer, D. (1997, October 24). Airbrushing the picture of the past. Folio (University of Alberta), p. 4.

Thomas, R. (1975, March 12). New lecture series established at University. UA News Release (University of Alberta).

Torrance, K. (1997, November 3). The sterilization of history. Alberta Report, 32-33.

Veit, J. (1996). Muir v. The Queen in Right of Alberta. Dominion Law Reports, 132 (4th series), 695-762.

Wahlsten, D. (1997a). Leilani Muir versus the philosopher king: eugenics on trial in Alberta. Genetica, 99, 185-198.

Wahlsten, D. (1997b, November 7). Letter writer missed the facts. Folio (University of Alberta), p. 4.

DOUGLAS WAHLSTEN is professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Alberta. He is author of the chapter on behavioural genetics for the 1999 Annual Review of Psychology as well as book chapters on heredity and behaviour. His laboratory research on the genetics of mouse brain defects, sponsored by NSERC, has appeared recently in Brain Research, the Journal of Comparative Neurology, and Experimental Neurology. He is a founding member of the International Behavioural and Neural Genetics Society.

Recent publications include:

Gottlieb, G., Wahlsten, D., & Lickliter, R. (1997). The significance of biology for human development: A developmental psychobiological systems view. In W. Damon (Series Ed.) & R. M. Lerner (Vol. Ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology: Vol. 1: Theoretical models of human development (5th ed.) (pp. 233-273). New York: Wiley.

Wahlsten, D. (1997). The malleability of intelligence is not constrained by heritability. In B. Devlin, S. E. Fienberg, D. P. Resnick, & K. Roeder (Eds.), Intelligence, genes, and success: Scientists respond to the Bell Curve (pp. 71-87). New York: Copernicus.

Wahlsten, D. (1999). Single-gene influences on brain and behavior. Annual Review of Psychology, 50, 599-624.