Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Last Time Biological Psychiatry Over-Reached

There once was another time in recent history when purely genetic explanations for complex human behavior were in vogue just as they are today. You’ve no doubt heard about how two identical twins raised apart were both alcoholics, preferred the color red, and were married to women named Flo.

In reality, most human behavior is learned. For God’s sake, we don’t even instinctually know how to have sex - unless someone tells us or we figure it out by trial and error. (Just the urge is instinctual). Luckily, most of us eventually figure it out.

The following is an excerpt from a chapter called The Brainlessness-Mindlessness Pedulum from my book, How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders:


The biological underpinnings of many mental phenomena clearly have their origin in genetics.  Although they are hardly the only determinants of brain functioning, our genes set the parameters by which the structure and abilities of the human brain develop and change over the lifespan.  The subtleties of how the brain functions and what behavioral attributes have genetic components are only now beginning to become clear, but despite the lack of knowledge in earlier times, an interest in the inheritance of mental characteristics was certainly understandable.  

In the 1880’s, a cousin of Charles Darwin named Francis Galton began to think about the relationship between Mendelian genetics and the theory of natural selection in evolution.  The idea that the forces of nature seem to favor the strongest and most adaptive creatures led him to formulate a social philosophy that he called eugenics.  He believed that the human race could be improved through the selection by society of which individuals would be allowed or not be allowed to have children, based on what he believed to be their biologically inherited characteristics. 

The list of presumed inherited characteristics was, even by the loose standards of some of today’s “biological” psychiatrists, absurdly broad. Characteristics thought by many of the followers of eugenics to be genetically transmitted included such traits as sexual promiscuity and even poverty.

Eugenics quickly found many prominent believers, particularly in Germany and in the United States.  Among them were Luther Burbank, Alexander Graham Bell, feminist icon Margaret Sanger, the Carnegie Institute, and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations.  The philosophy gradually expanded from an emphasis on selective breeding or positive eugenics to the idea that “inferior” members of our species should be forcibly sterilized so that they would never be able to pass down their supposedly bad characteristics.  This was termed negative eugenics.  Some people who believed in the idea that forced sterilization was a moral endeavor eventually jumped to the idea that inferior peoples should be exterminated.

In the United States, the influx of large numbers of European immigrants led to fears that such people might be of inferior stock, and might therefore “pollute” or “contaminate” the gene pool.  Eugenics gave voice and legitimacy to these fears, so it was appealing to a large segment of the American population. In 1910, a man named Harry H. Laughlin established an organization called the Eugenics Record Office (ERO), through which he lobbied politicians to help protect the purity of the human race through restrictions on immigration of peoples from Southern and Eastern Europe.  The peoples from these regions were thought to have “excessive insanity.”   The efforts of the organization led to the passage of the 1924 Johnson-Reed immigration bill which successfully limited the immigration of people from these areas, and completely excluded Asians from entering the States.

Harry Laughlin

The ERO also advocated forced sterilizations of certain segments of society.  It was supported financially by the Carnegie Institute, among others. The idea of forced sterilization of the mentally retarded had already gained acceptance by the time of the founding of the ERO, with the first state law requiring it having been passed in Indiana in 1907.   Eventually, thirty states passed similar laws, resulting in the forced sterilization of over 60,000 Americans.  The practice did not completely stop until approximately 1963.

Laughton was unhappy with the earliest versions of state laws mandating this practice and with their lax enforcement.  He also felt that forced sterilizations should be expanded from just for the “feebleminded” to include the insane, criminals, epileptics, alcoholics, and even the deaf and blind.  He apparently believed all of these characteristics were inherited through genetic mechanisms and that any chance of their being passed on to children had to be eliminated.  He drafted a model law in 1922 that became a template for some later state laws.

He was also influential in a case that came to the United States Supreme Court in which the constitutionality of the forced sterilization of the mentally retarded was upheld: the case of Buck versus Buck in 1927.  Carrie Buck was a woman who was branded as being mentally retarded after she became pregnant following a rape by the nephew of her foster parents.  She was very likely of normal intelligence, as was her daughter Vivian.  Nonetheless, no less a figure than Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes led the way in ruling in favor of the State of Virginia in the case, writing, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Carrie and Emma Buck
Adolph Hitler and his henchman found this ruling by an American court inspiring.  They loosely used Laughlin’s model law in drafting Germany’s own “Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring,” which went into effect in 1934.  In 1936, Laughlin was granted an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg in Germany for his work on behalf of “racial cleansing.” 

In a sublime irony, Laughlin himself developed epilepsy in his later years.  Sufferers of this disorder were one of the groups of people he thought should be eliminated from the planet.

The mentally retarded, followed in quick succession by the mentally ill, were among the first victims of the Nazi death machine.  Forced sterilizations began in 1935, followed by the T-4 program for “euthanasia” of the mentally ill in 1939.  One of the architects of this death program was a psychiatrist, Ernst Rudin, as were several of the doctors directly involved in it.  The methods he helped devise for killing individuals with mental problems were later adapted for use in the large scale attempted extermination of those ethnic groups that the Nazis considered genetically inferior, such as the Jews and the Gypsies, as well as of certain individuals within their own ethnic group such as homosexuals.

Ernst Rudin
In the early days of the T-4 program, even small children were not spared.  At one point some families of children with mental problems, who were being told that their offspring had died peacefully of natural causes, became suspicious because they learned that so many of their children seemed to have all died on the same days.  In order to keep the program secret, the Nazis stopped killing the children directly in favor of just letting them starve to death so they would all die on different days.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, support for eugenics waned by the end of the 1930’s because of its association with the Nazis and also because the so-called science behind it was proving to be quite poor.  The Carnegie Institute withdrew its funding of the ERO in 1935 and it soon folded.  Some psychiatrists in the United States, however, apparently did not get the message. 

A psychiatrist named Foster Kennedy gave an address to the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting in 1941.  In it, he strongly advocated not only for the forcible sterilization of the mentally retarded, but for killing them, especially if they fell below a certain functional level.  Because he assumed that such individuals were in constant suffering and would be better off dead, he referred to this killing as euthanasia or mercy killing.  His address was published in the Journal of the American Psychiatric Association in July of 1942.  In the same issue an opposing viewpoint by another psychiatrist, Leo Kanner, was also published, along with an editorial.

Leo Kanner
While Kanner had no objection to sterilization, he did object to euthanasia.  He also questioned the validity of assuming that people of low IQ would necessarily beget children who were also mentally deficient, but did not spend any time exploring the ramifications that would ensue for his philosophy if this were indeed the case.  He believed that sterilization should be reserved only for those who could not perform useful work.  He feared that stopping more functional people of low intelligence from reproducing might lead to a labor shortage in unskilled occupations which would adversely affect the functioning of society. 

Of note is the fact that by July of 1942, psychiatrists were already aware of what was going on in Germany.  Kanner noted, “If [journalist and historian] William Shirer’s report is true – and there are reasons to believe that it is true – in Nazi Germany the Gestapo is now systematically bumping off the mentally deficient people of the Reich…” (p.21).


  1. Very Very interesting read! Thanks so much!

  2. Very interesting, indeed. There is an interesting Harvard study, which started as a eugenics research project (with JFK as one of the participants), and evolved into something quite different. Still ongoing after 70+ years. A psychiatrist has devoted his entire career to it. From Atlantic Monthly...lengthy but worth the read: