God and white men at Yale

American Philosophical Society

American Philosophical Society

During the early decades of the twentieth century, eugenics was both mainstream and widespread—as this photo from a state fair in the early-to-mid-1920s demonstrates. View full image

For readers today, it is almost impossible to browse through the eugenics literature from before World War II without hearing intimations of Auschwitz in every line. It takes a continual effort to keep in mind that they did not know about the Holocaust then. When one early enthusiast declared that eugenics “is going to be a purifying conflagration some day,” no one understood how horrifically prophetic those words would later sound.

Reading about Fisher, Huntington, and the rest, I felt a predictable sense of loathing: these were despicable men. But in other parts of their lives, even the worst of them was at times admirable, and I felt a queasy sense of liking. This was illogical on a personal level. Their writing was laced with animosity toward the wave of immigrants into the United States after 1890—southern and eastern Europeans (mainly Italians and Jews, respectively), yellow-peril Asians, and the drunken, misbegotten Irish. It was an era when a Harvard anthropologist could lament “the flooding of this country with alien scum.” Fisher spoke of “defectives, delinquents, and dependents.”

Under the pretext of science, the eugenicists were proposing to preserve “Nordic” hegemony by breeding out my own Irish and Italian stock, among others. So why liking? Partly, it’s because the idea of the white Anglo-Saxon gentry prattling about their own superiority has become a stock joke (“Too damned funny, old bean”). Ellsworth Huntington sounds about as dangerous as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady when he declares: “An Englishman likes to work things out for himself, and is glad when an emergency throws him on his own resources. The Mediterranean and Alpine people, on the contrary, are much more docile, more willing to be led.”

And partly it’s because, having grown up Irish and Italian, I am aware that my people also entertain notions of our magnificence. Other ethnic groups do the same, though they are generally not so foolish, or so accustomed to power, as to issue scientific pronouncements on the topic to the less fortunate. The truth is that all humans favor in-groups, starting with the family, and we disparage those we perceive as outsiders. Treating this as only the outlaw impulse of eugenicists and Nazis is a convenient way of overlooking a hateful tendency in us all.

These eugenicists also felt disturbingly familiar in other ways. They weren’t sinister characters out of some darkly lighted noir film about Nazi sympathizers, but environmentalists, peace activists, fitness buffs, healthy-living enthusiasts, inventors, and family men. If Madison Grant had not been such an ardent racist and so closely tied to Nazi genocide, he might be remembered today as one of America’s greatest conservationists. “Among his many accomplishments,” writes Jonathan P. Spiro in his recent biography, Defending the Master Race, “Grant preserved the California redwoods, saved the American bison from extinction, founded the Bronx Zoo, fought for strict gun-control laws, built the Bronx River Parkway,” and helped create Glacier, Denali, and Everglades National Parks.

Entirely apart from his reputation as an economist, Fisher enjoyed an idyllic American existence. He lived with his wife Margaret and their three children in a big house on the crest of Prospect Street, with a music room, a library, and “a 40-foot living room with a large, sunny bay window,” as their son Irving recalled in his memoir, My Father Irving Fisher. A health enthusiast at home as well as in public, Fisher disdained cane sugar, tea, coffee, alcohol, tobacco, and bleached white flour. He often jogged in shorts around the neighborhood and liked to ride a bicycle to his classes on the Yale campus. One of his books was titled How to Live.

His various crusades required a platoon of busy assistants. So Fisher built out from the basement of the family home onto the sloping ground in back, eventually creating ten work rooms and, young Irving recalled, a “hidden beehive of activity below decks.” The office equipment included one of Fisher’s own inventions, an index card filing system that made the first line of each card visible at a glance. With his wife’s money, he turned it into a thriving business. When the company was bought out—it would become part of the Sperry Rand corporation—Fisher capitalized on his new wealth by buying stock on margin. By the late 1920s, he and Margaret had a fortune of $10 million.

Fisher was the son of a Congregational minister, and his driving impulse was to proselytize. Thus eugenics seemed a natural outgrowth not just of his work as an economist, but of his family heritage. It needed “to be a popular movement with a certain amount of religious flavor in it,” he thought. His role as a leading apostle also seemed like a way for him to make a real mark on the world—as if his economics alone were not enough: “I do want before I die,” he wrote to his wife, “to leave behind me something more than a book on Index Numbers.”

But his eugenic enthusiasms drew him away from the arc of his true genius. His book The Theory of Interest was “an almost complete theory of the capitalist process as a whole,” according to Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter. But Fisher never found time to pull his ideas together into one grand synthesis, nor did he develop a school of disciples to carry on his work. His books are thus “pillars and arches of a temple that was never built,” Schumpeter wrote. “They belong to an imposing structure that the architect never presented as a tectonic unit.”

“Unfortunately,” Yale economist Ray B. Westerfield agreed, “his eagerness to promote his cause sometimes had a bad influence on his scientific attitude. It distorted his judgment.” This was never more nakedly obvious than in October 1929, when Fisher’s enthusiasm for stocks as a long-term investment led him to pronounce that the market had arrived at “a permanently high plateau.” The great Wall Street crash hit shortly after, and it turned America’s greatest economist into a national laughingstock, incidentally leaving the family fortune in ruins.

But the far grosser distortion of judgment, and of his better self, was in Fisher’s campaigning as a eugenicist. His interest in health had arisen largely from his own encounter in 1898 with tuberculosis, the disease that killed his father. It took Fisher three years of fresh air, proper diet, and close medical attention in sanatoriums around the country to regain his health. Having managed to get his own head out of the lion’s mouth, he said in 1903, he wanted to prevent “other people from getting their heads into the same predicament.” His initial approach was to lobby the government to reduce urban pollution, protect the health of mothers and children, and establish school health programs, “so that American vitality may reach its maximum development.”

But his almost religious conversion to eugenics, not long after, turned all that upside down. Two decades after his own recovery, Fisher was denouncing “hygiene to help the less fit” as “misapplied hygiene” and “distinctly dysgenic. . . . Schools for tubercular children give them better air and care than normal school children receive.” He seemed to have forgotten that he was once among those who, by his own harsh standard, deserved to have their heads held fast in the lion’s mouth.