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The Hive Recap: To Hound Nature In Her Wanderings

Eugenics and Women’s Work
By Science Consultant Cosima Herter

Eugenics is one of the themes we often explore throughout Orphan Black.  Most of us are familiar with the eugenics initiatives in Nazi Germany during the Second World War, but in the early part of the twentieth century eugenics was also enthusiastically embraced by social and political movements in North America. Now, the history of North American eugenics is a fairly well-worked subject, and there is more than enough literature available to keep interested readers occupied for nearly a lifetime. 

One aspect, however, that is less well-known has to do with the professional employment opportunities that emerged for women, newly educated in the sciences, specifically through the eugenics movement. It wasn’t until near the end of the nineteenth century that universities in the United States had opened their doors to women, and at that time higher education for women was valued primarily insofar as it would “enhance their personal lives and roles as mothers;”[1] it was not necessarily meant to prepare them for positions in a professional workforce, especially not in the sciences.Those that were able to find employment generally did so in low-paid assistant and clerical positions. But through the Eugenics Records Office, at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, many women found work doing eugenical research and field studies collecting data on family histories under the direction of Charles B. Davenport. Over 35,000 case studies were produced between 1911 and 1924, many of which included incredibly intimate particulars such as sexual proclivities, mental and emotional instabilities, disease, rape, and incest—subjects not typically broached over afternoon tea with a visitor one hardly knows!


When geneticist Charles B. Davenport, then the director of the Station for the Experimental Study of Evolution at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, established the Eugenics Records Office (ERO) in 1910, he was eager to investigate how the newly re-discovered Mendelian principles of inheritance played a role in the intergenerational transmission of human traits. Inspired by the biometric research spearheaded in England by Francis Galton and Karl Pearson, Davenport sought to apply their statistical approach to investigating hereditary factors in humans. Keen to ratify eugenics, which Davenport defined as the “science of the improvement of the human race by better breeding,”[2] with statistical work of his own, he pioneered a study which involved compiling and cataloguing the biographical histories of thousands of families across the United States. The ERO was intended to be a center for scientific research on the inheritance of human traits, and also function as a national repository for the massive amounts of data on human heredity that Davenport anticipated collecting.

It was widely held that heredity not only determined physical traits, but mental and behavioral ones as well (indeed, this view is still prevalent). So, with a particular interest in rooting out what were believed to be defective hereditary strains—such as criminality, alcoholism, sexual deviancy, and insanity—Davenport began collecting as much data as he could by sending out hundreds of ‘Family Records’ forms he’d designed to inmates housed in prisons and various mental, medical, and educational institutions across the United States. After studying the responses of prisoners and patients, he concluded that this data alone was too limited. “Such family histories [were] far from satisfactory,” he argued, but “a better way to get at the method of inheritance of […] the various forms of insanity and criminality” was to go straight to the familial sources themselves. He decided that the most fruitful way to do this was to make house-to-house surveys of the inmates’ relatives. Davenport was convinced this could be achieved with “a high degree of precision by tactful field workers” trained to go into “homes and [interview] persons that can and will give the desired information.”[3] The field worker, “who for the purposes of many studies [would preferably be] a woman.”

Because fieldwork of this sort was such a new practice, Davenport could create the field worker educational program in any way he desired. The novelty of his program also had the strategic advantage of positioning the ERO as the central source of professional eugenical research training that would establish Davenport’s methods as the standard for eugenics field study.[4] Medical and mental institutions had long been requesting help in finding educated personnel to carry out eugenic research, and this inspired Davenport to recruit students already trained in the sciences. Davenport and the director the ERO, Harry H. Laughlin, believed that women were particularly well suited to this undertaking because they are “naturally” more capable of developing “sympathetic relationships,” and were “thought to possess exactly the right mix of social and analytic skills for family-study research.”[5]  Presumably, their femininity incurred trust and offset the “officialdom” of doctors and prison wardens that kept sordid family secrets deeply buried.  There was also a newly minted pool of freshly educated women who were eager to work and inexpensive to employ, if not fully prepared to volunteer their unpaid labour.

It’s worthwhile to point out, however, that while there weren’t many other employment opportunities in the sciences open to women at the time, there was another important reason why they gravitated to eugenics research. Insofar as eugenics was part of larger social reforms, with a keen eye on the family and on reproduction in general, middle class women especially saw eugenics as a form of social and political activism. Gathering information pertaining to ancestral lineages was considered a social and a moral duty that would help to understand and devise  to all manner of social ills—it was an altruistic goal that many women felt both compelled toward and capable of contributing to.And it was not uncommon that women themselves were also convinced that they had an innate capacity for recognizing nuances of human behavior not readily apparent to men (again, this is a stereotype that stubbornly persists to this day), and they accepted field work as perfectly within the province of their feminine proficiencies.

Before they could become “satisfactory” eugenic researchers, Davenport offered more training in medical and hereditary principles, and in research methodologies. He and Laughlin also taught basic genetics courses, and between 1910 and 1924 more than 250 students moved through their classes, and over 90 percent of those were women.[6]  They were also schooled in laboratory work, conducting investigations, preparing pedigree charts, and the specific ways that Davenport required the data to be interpreted. In this way he could ensure that the information they collected would to meet his own scientific needs and standards. There was emphasis placed on “statistical modes” of investigation, particularly “for illustrating the principles of heredity; […and] analyzing statistics given in institutional and federal reports.”[7]  Training courses were held during the summers at the ERO and were typically six weeks long.

Davenport also arranged for the joint employment of his field workers with hospitals and asylums. While the ERO covered supplies and salaries, the other participating organization would cover travel and living costs, and have “immediate supervision over [the] work […] selecting cases for pedigree study and directing […] investigation.” [8]  This allowed workers to gain experience and hone their scientific training some more. Working closely with professionals in various institutions also allowed field workers to familiarize themselves with institutional environments, and officials, doctors and inmates. Davenport encouraged field workers to be constantly on the lookout for new research projects, and emphasized that through conversations with their subjects field workers could “collect facts concerning other family traits than that which [they were] at the time studying.”[9]  The joint hiring of field workers allowed Davenport to maintain “sympathetic relations with persons whose assistance means success of [his] work [… with the hopes] of [securing] funds for Eugenics study from the state or the backers of the private institutions.”[10]

This cooperative hiring of fieldworkers continued throughout the first five years of the ERO (at least 44 students found full-time employment after they left, yet almost all of those who did were men). Women were not offered employment at the ERO beyond three years. In keeping with eugenic principles, female workers who were highly educated and ‘respectably’ intelligent were valued most for what was deemed their social responsibility to procreate more of their kind. After their term at the ERO it was expected that these women would marry and have children.

For Davenport, it was the field work that took place outside of institutions that was the most important part of the eugenical research. Family history was not “mere frill” to adequate methods of investigation into heredity factors. An understanding of an inmate’s true nature was impossible within the artificial confines of hospitals, prisons and other institutions. “In the presence of officialdom, in the hurry of brief, sharp, usually mechanical questioning, essential facts are not readily recalled, and the first impulse is […] to permit […] family skeletons to remain decently hidden.”[11] 

It was precisely those “family skeletons” that Davenport’s field workers were trained to shake loose. By going to individual’s homes, their “natural environment,” Davenport was convinced that field workers’ efforts could “[yield] results that closely approximate the truth” regarding the subjects under investigation. Field workers, he argued, were really more “field psychiatrist[s] […] opening up a new field of applied science.”[12]  Fieldworkers considered themselves as scientific professionals and the ERO as a base from which they could continue their commitment to scientific research.[13] Laughlin described the field workers as “a new sort of specialist,” whose contributions were in increasing demand. [14]  

Laughlin describes their work as going “into the home neighbourhoods of certain persons for the purpose of studying and charting their family connections and describing each individual of the network with care and accuracy with special reference to traits characteristic of the family.” [15]  Studies began with a “propositus,” typically an inmate or patient for whom some information regarding their family history was already known. They would then begin by sifting through all the correspondence, applications, and medical and psychological examinations regarding the propositus that the host institution kept in their records; this also included any information kept on friends and relatives that would help the field worker to locate them. 

The field worker would first pay a “friendly visit” to the patient in his ward and learn as much about friends and relatives as she could. Davenport claimed that “patients enjoy these visits,” and, according to Davenport, inmates were often willing to give enough information for field workers to locate their families and friends. From there, the field worker would proceed to the neighborhoods and homes of relatives “armed with recent personal knowledge of the patient” and an introduction from the institution, both of which, Davenport contended, “assure[d] her cordial welcome.”[16] She endeavoured to see as many relatives as possible, to visit old family doctors and neighbors, and to “engage in conversations at random houses in a […] rural community.”[17] 

Ultimately the purpose was to create detailed pedigree charts with standardized “symbology” to display fraternities, lines of descent, mating relationships and the frequency in which particular traits—“alcoholism, criminality, deafness, epilepsy, feeble-mindedness, insanity, etc.—which the field worker is chiefly studying” occurred.  Depending on the nature of the primary trait being studied, it was desirable to learn as much about direct ancestors “as far back as possible.” The parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and children of the patients themselves demanded scrutiny of the “greatest care possible,” particularly if the trait under study did not display itself in the immediate family. The absence of such a trait in the family of the propositus indicated the most insidious of problems: the so-called “recessive trait”: [18]

The field worker […] seeking to unravel the laws of inheritance, must work out the gametic nature of each individual studied, hence the necessity of extending the pedigree to all ancestors with collaterals, descendants and consorts […].  For example, by hypothesis, feeble-mindedness is for the most part a recessive trait and the hypothesis must be tested as follows: The field worker finds a person suffering from feeble-mindedness, a descendant of two normal parents – […] each parent will probably have somewhere in his or her ancestry a feeble-minded person and it is the business of the field worker to make a special search for such person or persons in the pedigree.[19]

Rooting out these pernicious traits was the field worker’s most faithful objective. Equipped with a “Trait Book” and individual and family “Trait Forms,” designed by Davenport, allowed field workers to index traits, elaborate on and standardize their vocabulary, and succinctly record environmental information such as the nature of the neighborhood, home (including everything from the number of rooms to the quality of housecleaning), financial condition, and education of the subjects’ families. The Trait Book offered a lengthy list of “unit characters” organized according to the same logic as the Dewey Decimal System, and defined along the lines of divisions such as “General Traits” (e.g. physical height, eye color, etc), “General Diseases,” “Occupations,” “Skeletal System,” “Criminality,” and “Mental Traits.”  These were then broken down into increasingly specific characteristics. For example, under “Criminality” one would find: “crime against chastity;” which would further be broken down to “adultery,” “fornication,” “seduction,” “prostitution,” and the the ambiguous “crime against nature.” Under “Mental Traits” one could find a number of dualisms to choose from: “poise vs irritability;” “eagerness vs coolness;” “pluckiness vs disheartedness;” and (my favourite), “stereotypy vs variableness.”

Obtaining information on the hair color and stature of ancestors long dead could be tricky enough, but how did field workers induce people to openly discuss such things as “rape,” “sexual indulgence,” “incest,” “fraud,” or even murder, let alone have intimate knowledge of characteristics such as, “amorousness vs frigidness,” “forgiveness vs resentfulness,” or “prudishness vs rakishness?” Surely women’s supposed capacity for creating a trusting and comfortable atmosphere wouldn’t be enough to extracting these kinds of intimate details about peoples’ lives. Without doubt, the field worker likely did her best to insure “sympathetic and confidential relations” and endeavored “to establish a feeling between the family and Institution that [would] assure her of a welcome.” 

However, one must stop and wonder how many times these women, under the aegis of some kind of higher social good, found themselves in compromising and perhaps even physically dangerous situations with people hostile to the notion of having their family histories unearthed and exploited. Moreover, it is fascinating to consider how intense these sit-downs must have been for all involved. Much of the historical record on the activities of these field workers come the ERO’s own publicity literature, however, and the bulk of files that remain record the interview subjects rather than the interviewers. As a result, unfortunately, there is very little testimony from the field workers themselves describing the conditions under which they worked. 

There is a wealth of information out there on the world of eugenics research that flourished in the early twentieth century, To find out more, continue on to the Hive Wet Lab & Library.

[1]Diane B. Paul. Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present. Humanity Books: New York, 1995. p.55.

[2] Charles B. Davenport. Heredity in Relation to Eugenics. New York: Henry Holt, 1911. p.1.

[3] Davenport to Starr J. Murphy, Jan. 20, 1911, Charles B. Davenport Papers, Cold Spring Harbor, Series #2.; Davenport, Charles B., Laughlin, H.H., Weeks, David F., et al. The Study of Human Heredity: Methods of Collecting, Charting and Analyzing Data. Cold Spring Harbor, NY: ERO Bulletin No. 2. 1911. p.1.

[4] Laughlin, H.H., “First Annual Conference of the Eugenics Field Workers.” Journal of Heredity.  Vol.3, No.12. 1912, pp. 265-269. p.266.

[5]Paul, p.55

[6]Paul, p.54.

[7] Eugenical News, Vol. 4, No. 5 (May, 1919), p.40.

[8] Eugenical News, Vol. 4, No. 9 (September, 1919), p.72.

[9] Davenport, Charles B. ‘Directions for the Guidance of Field-workers.’ No date. (file “ERO Field-Workers”)

[10] Davenport to Harriman, 10 July 1910 (file, “Harriman, Mrs. E.H.)

[11] Davenport, Charles B., preface to The Dack Family: A Study in Heredity Lack of Emotional Control.  Cold Spring Harbor, NY: ERO Bulletin No. 15, 1916, iii-vi, and 3-46; Davenport, Charles B., “The Importance of Field-Work for the State of Rhode Island,” lecture notes, no date, approx. 1912.

[12] Davenport, Charles B., “The Importance of Field-Work for the State of Rhode Island,” lecture notes, no date, approx. 1912 (file “The Importance of Field-Work for the State of Rhode Island”), note 29, iv-v; 30.

[13] For a more detailed discussion regarding percentages of fieldworkers with advanced degrees in the sciences and their view of themselves as science professionals, especially as related to gender distribution, see: Bix, Amy Sue. “Experiences and Voices of Eugenics Field-Workers: ‘Women’s Work’ in Biology.” Social Studies of Science. Vol. 27 (1997), 625-668.  – especially pages 632-7.

[14] Laughlin, H.H., “First Annual Conference of the Eugenics Field Workers.” Journal of Heredity.  Vol.3, No.12. 1912, pp. 265-269. p.265.

[15] Laughlin,“First Annual Conference of the Eugenics Field Workers,” p.265.

[16] Davenport, et al., Human Heredity, p.2.

[17] Davenport, “Directions” note 63.  The field worker was not just collecting ancestral data, but also the names and whereabouts of other “defectives” that could be admitted to institutions at later dates; see Davenport, et al., Human Heredity, p.2.

[18] Davenport, et al., Human Heredity. p.4; pp.8-9.

[19] Davenport, et al., Human Heredity, p.9.

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